“Rather than love, than money, than fame, give me truth.”
Henry David Thoreau, Walden, 1854
Not so Fred Goodwin, or too many others that bring our honours system into disrepute and the machinations of each new list.
But why are honour so pursued? A core message of Thoreau’s Walden is that egotistical recognition from peers is a core hidden motive behind many activities. Success in life, rarely recognised by the individual to be down to luck, then fuels hubris and delusion. With the debate on the recent awards and the Truss list still to come, how can we improve things ?
More broadly, many aspects of modern life leverage our deep seated need for approval. This manifests in very different ways as we pass through life. ‘Me, me…I know the answer’. The child desperate to receive external recognition for their knowledge reflects a core psychological need in all of us for social approval.
The delight evident on the face of the infant who has performed some simple task rewarded by a smile from mum or dad, or the hidden social signalling conveyed through our relative pay packet as adults, job title or place of abode.
The psychological price of the status chase can be high – a key driver of negative emotions and precipitant of depression. Nevertheless, social reward systems can be very useful, if flawed. Which is why when opposition parties gain power, reform of the honours system can slip.\
Who has not exclaimed – ‘it’s an absolute outrage! Sir X bringing disrepute to our field!’ as they see one of their peers, whose flaws they know well, then act with familiar impropriety. The public mainly see the high profile cases such as Fred Goodwin, but those less well known are also afflicted.
Before thinking what reform might look like, we need to consider what are we trying to achieve. Increasingly honours are given for spontaneous good deeds undertaken by the general public, and rightly so. Others chase honours, with occasional high profile outbursts when they feel overlooked and unappreciated. Others do not chase, but welcome the trade.
The political fix used by Charles II to cover his sexual incontinence, or the much expanded use by recent governments, perhaps necessary to sort an issue, or repay. Needs must. Then there are those who have done little, other than being briefly in the public eye. Or were just doing their job.
What we want is to promote social good. What is going to be best for the country. Perhaps we will accept the short term trade for the politician to be promoted at some future date to a peerage if it means politics can move on. More broadly, if we want the best from our publicly honoured, the system should be more forward looking, more motivating for future good behaviour, rather than an official clap for a transient moment capturing the public eye, or a conduit to navigate a political bind.
How might a system work? One option would be to make honours time limited. Let all existing ones wash away and new ones expire after a defined number of years. People who are continuing to be outstanding citizens could get re-honoured.
Another option would be to have an annual reappraisal of whether continuing good service to the public is occurring. This should be proportional to level of honour. A self-declaration carried out digitally taking only a few seconds would be all that would be needed for ‘lower level’ honours, with the question being, ‘Are you continuing to act in a manner befitting of your honour, promoting social good?’
Higher levels of honour would trigger more questions. Concerns could be raised by the public that trigger a more formal process. The balance to be achieved would be accommodating those honours’ holders whose work and life has moved on, but hopefully still acting with the same degree of positive attitude towards the UK.
The personal reflection might be: do you feel over the last year you have acted in accordance with the principles that you acknowledged when accepting the honour?
One challenge is that most people exhibit the Better Than Average Effect, rating themselves above peers for desirable characteristics. Including prisoners who self-assess as more moral, kinder to others, more self-controlled, more law-abiding, more compassionate, more generous, more dependable, more trustworthy, and more honest. All except more law abiding!
Within society more broadly, some people are sufficiently lacking in insight that they will construct stories in their mind as to how worthy they are, no matter what the transgression. People display a spectrum of hero delusion, with those displaying excessively high self-esteem and feeling of moral superiority being particularly dangerous. And more likely to end up in positions of power.
Nevertheless, the priming for self-reflection is useful for the majority.
Whilst some may take these suggestions as strange, none are new as they are what many other professionals have to go through every year. For example, as a doctor I have to reflect and self declare on my continuing probity. Is there anything which I have done over the last year which brings this into doubt, or any other action that otherwise impairs my performance and, which also critically, might bring the broader medical profession into disrepute?
Thus it is also a consideration as to whether my behaviour impacts on the perception of the broader medical profession, as this impacts patients’ confidence in received quality of care. Such a process with the honours system would therefore benefit all honours holders. It would also prime honours holders to think about why they had received their honours in the first place. And be much more likely to continue to act in a way which was socially positive.
If they did not like such scrutiny or pressure, they could opt to release their honour, or not accept it in the first place.
Such time limited honours may not be a bad idea either. We would then encourage being honourable, not just being honoured.