Typical classroom in Br. Andrew Gonzales Hall

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It is interesting to ask a college or university class what they believe about cheating on tests or papers. When I have asked this question in my undergraduate general ethics classes, there are few students who say that one should be honest, but most students admit that if they could get away with it they would cheat.

Another instance in which I have encountered cheating directly is online chess. Some chess servers have been hacked by “chess players” (and I use the term loosely) who manipulate the program so that their opponents cannot move their pieces where they would like. This usually happens when a player is about to make a winning move. The piece moves to the wrong place, the cheating player takes the piece and “wins” the game, and sometimes makes offensive comments such as “I won, [a string of expletives follows]. There is no sense of personal integrity in a cheater, but rather a childish believe that “I’m going to get what I want no matter what it takes.”

Some sports figures use illegal performance enhancing drugs. Such cheating has a cost in early onset heart disease and other complications of using steroids. “Whatever it takes to succeed” becomes the motto of professional (and often college and university) athletes, even if that ephemeral success comes at the cost of their health, life, and worst of all, their integrity.

More and more individuals are claiming fake credentials in their job applications, and the market for fake online degrees is growing. Sadly, this problem is a significant one for Christian ministers, especially in Fundamentalist groups, who somehow justify their fake degrees at degree mills as “deserved due to my life experience,” or “deserved because I did have to turn in a dissertation”–but a “dissertation” that will automatically be accepted if the price is right. “Whatever it takes…..”

However, “Whatever it takes….”, when it includes cheating, destroys what is most important in a person–character, integrity, honesty, trustworthiness. If a person is willing to lie on a job application, that person is more likely to lie on the job and hurt the business for which he works. Such an individual cannot be trusted in personal relationships since he sees life in strictly egoistic terms of self-absorption, “what is good for me.” Multiple generations of spoiled children, beginning with some of the baby boom generation, children left to fend for themselves, severely dysfunctional families, societal values that promote material success and “celebrities” over real achievement–all these have helped to spread “the cheating culture.”

I wish there was a magic bullet, something I could tell my students to encourage them to think through their values so that those who think cheating is morally acceptable can reconsider their position. If the attitude has been internalized at the level of a person’s character, that is difficult to change, although it is theoretically possible for all but sociopaths and psychopaths. The Founding Fathers of the United States feared that rabid individualism would ruin the character of the nation’s citizens–and to a large extent this has happened. Can this society survive when the dominant culture is a “cheating culture”?