Students Cheating and American Subjectivism

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Ethics class

Ethics class (Photo credit: aditza121)

Students cheating in school is not a new thing, but it has become an epidemic in recent years. The Internet has made cheating easier, with thousands of term papers students buy and pass off as their own work. Cell phones are now used by students to get answers from their classmates or to look them up on a website. What is most surprising is how many students see no moral problem with cheating. Sometimes irate parents will visit a high school principle or college dean and complain that their child did not cheat, even when the evidence is overwhelmingly against the student. Is it any surprise that there are so many scandals in business and in government? Children are emulating the values of their parents, who reflect the terrible trend in American culture to want something for nothing.

The rampant relativism to which students are exposed on television, by celebrities, by the media, in the K-12 school system, and in colleges and universities makes it easy for students to become subjectivists on ethics. “Whatever floats your boat” or “Whatever I think is right is right for me and whatever you think is right for you” becomes the mantra of many students today. The most dogmatic relativists are as closed-minded as any religious fundamentalist. The fact that they become angry and try to cut a professor off when he argues against subjectivism reveals that they only want their views to be heard. Apparently the position held by the professor and by other students that everyone, including the professor, has the right to speak his mind has not sunk into these students.

I am at a loss to determine how to get beyond the impasse of relativistic propaganda in society. When the United States accepted a traditional Judeo-Christian ethic, as it did from the Second Great Awakening in the late eighteenth century through around 1963, one could argue from a common morality held by the vast majority of Americans. With the decline of Christianity and the proliferation of different religions and cultures, one could try to find common values between them–and between deeply devout people of all major religions much commonality in moral beliefs is present. Radical secularism, agnosticism, and atheism can try to develop a non-relativistic deontological or utilitarian system, but other secularists who desire to do what they want without restraint could say, “Okay, there’s a common morality needed for the good of society, but I don’t care about the good of society. There’s no God to stop me from being a self-centered ass. So that’s what I’ll be.” Without transcendent meaning, how strong is the force of the “ought” in ethics (I am borrowing this point from George Mavrodes). Students may intellectually believe in some kind of deity, but the secular relativism they have been taught from kindergarten onward has already sunk into their psyche. This fact, along with the inherent immaturity and selfishness of youth, make for a combination that will inevitably result in rampant cheating. I have had students of all grades brag to me about how they successfully cheated in school. It is a matter of pride to them. It is a matter of shame to American society that its cultural rot since 1964 has destroyed any notion of transcendent meaning (beyond trying to find it through pleasure), has promoted self-centeredness, has promoted “success” by any means necessary, and has lied to people by telling them they should be proud of their accomplishments even if they did not earn them. With churches catering to the relativist, postmodern young person without trying to correct their relativism, all that results is high recidivism and young people who leave church with the same twisted values they previously had accepted. Without a large-scale religious revival, which I do not see coming in the United States, growing irreligiosity will cause societal destruction in the U.S.–Europe had enough residual tradition to withstand falling into chaos when Europeans gave up on Christianity, but how long will that last? I expect more cheating in the future by students. Some will get caught, most will not care unless they are caught (and even then for selfish reasons), and the shred of integrity left in the American educational system will be threatened.

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A Culture of Cheating

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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”?