Trivializing Honor

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

With the recent death of Joe Paterno comes a great deal of speculation in the sports media about whether his legacy as a collegiate football coach is tarnished by a great failure on his part: He did not adequately follow up on an eyewitness report by an assistant of his of a child rape at a facility under his control, and allegedly committed by someone he worked with closely for years and who was still permitted regular use of those facilities. Regardless of whether Paterno was guilty of poor judgement, cowardice, or, morally, of knowingly harboring a child molester, something has become clear to me this morning: Despite his reputation for honor and his success as a collegiate coach, Joe Paterno either did not really understand (or care that much about) either. He couldn't have.

I base this on his motto: "Success without honor is an unseasoned dish."

Really? Honor is a mere seasoning, and not part of what makes success possible at all? And success is possible without virtue? While it is true that most people utter things they do not fully understand, we're talking about someone who held himself out as a mentor, as someone who accepted the charge of instilling virtue in the next generation. Apparently, he said this all the time. Most people in his audience surely lapped it up: To someone who hasn't thought much about virtue or success, this might sound good. Most people do confuse the trappings of success with the real thing. Most people do regard virtue as morally good, but unconnected to success. Most people will be guiltily relieved on some level to hear that honor is a nice, optional extra, and that they can go on pursuing their goals without worrying too much, so long as what they're doing is "working".

Most people who fall for this also won't bother themselves to ask questions like the following:

  • If you get by in your job by taking credit for other people's work, how will that "success" translate if you lose that job tomorrow or the people you are taking advantage of leave? 
  • If you achieve some personal health goal by adopting a regimen you hear great things about, but don't really understand, how do you know you aren't in the process of causing yourself a health problem?
  • If you haven't done an honest day's work in your life, and somehow get away with robbing a bank, what will you do when the money runs out?
In every one of the above cases, someone has achieved what most people would regard as success, but without honor. Some form of deception, if even only of oneself, has been involved at minimum, and the "success" isn't real, in the sense of having been earned by understanding and applying knowledge of reality. Conversely, the person who does his own work, who makes sure he knows what he's doing, and who develops the skills he needs to survive -- as opposed to hoping to win one of life's lotteries, or sponging off or stealing from others -- can, and eventually will really succeed.

After considering Joe Paterno's motto, it hardly surprises me that, on some level, he regarded it as unnecessary to pursue the new information he obtained all those years ago about (in his context at that time) either Jerry Sandusky or Mike McQueary much more aggressively than he did.

-- CAV

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