Recently I presented a short reflection on academic integrity to some faculty members at Saint Louis University. One of the reasons I was asked to do this may have been my efforts to encourage all teachers of core curriculum courses to spend some time, possibly even a whole class session, on the problem of cheatingwhether by plagiarism, fudging scientific findings or just copying on exams.
A report released in 2002 by the Josephson Institute of Ethics reported data from a survey of 12,000 high school students that indicated 74 percent of them had cheated on an exam at least once during the previous year. This was a jump of 13 percent over 10 years, 3 percent over just the previous two. There were similar troubling figures about stealing and lying, which led Michael Josephson, the president of the institute, to suggest that cheating had become something of a national norm.
Students, in fact all of us, realize that cheating, if found out, usually guarantees some punishment. What is often not realized is why dishonesty is ethically wrong. Why not lie?
A case can be made that the moral atmosphere in which we all live and breathe is, in stark and maybe extreme terms, a culture of cheaters. Although most professions and trades, we may hope, are made up of honest people, think of the cast of characters that often dominates our news. Politicians, C.E.O.’s, accountants, lawyers, priests, students and, yes, presidents, too.
The last president was impeached for lying under oath. The present president is accused by some of having lied us into a war. The partisans of the previous president, those who for the most part now condemn the present president, then said, What’s the big deal? Those who detested Clinton’s deception now see not a whit of it in Bush. The few who do, say: What’s the big deal? Even if the evidence wasn’t there, the results were good. Ah, the joys of selective moral outrage.
And that is the second part of our problem. The human tendency to exempt one’s own party, one’s nation and oneself from moral standards accompanies every ethical infidelity. In the United States, however, supported as we are by an ethos whose moral mottos are my liberty, my choice, my happiness, my way works, moral exceptionalism is commonplace. Weapons of mass destruction, for example, are decried by our president as the bane of the worldexcept for us. It is hard for us to understand why other nations might think we are lying, or at least posturing. But from their point of view, we not only possess more W.M.D. than all the other nations of the world combined; we have actually used them to kill tens of thousands of civilians.
In a classroom, one cheats, of course, for a good reason. If I get away with it, I might feel like a success. But all I’ve got away with is learning nothing while paying tuition for it. I have succeeded only in being a fraud.
Even by the utilitarian calculation so prevalent in the United States, while the short-range results of deception may, if undetected, seem appealing, the long-range negative consequences are devastating. Lies inevitably erode one’s own self-respect as well as trust in relationships. They also eat at the trust required for any profession and for society itself. What have Enron and Arthur Andersen done for investment and accounting? What has the Jayson Blair episode done for journalism and The New York Times? What have the deceptions of famous historians done for historians and the academy? As for deceptive politics, that only generates a society made up largely of uninvolved cynics on the one hand and conspiracy theorists on the other.
So far, these are arguments from bad consequences. But possibly the best case for honesty, even academic honesty, may rest on a form of virtue ethics. This is related to two questions: Whom do you admire? What kind of person do you want to be? Put negatively, the question is, what kind of behavior makes you feel small and ashamed? Usually it is some form of inauthenticity. It is when you feel like a fake, a fraud.
That is what a cheater is. And even small deceptions unfold into a way of life, of pretending, of looking good, of dreading the truth. In every consequent deception, I become the kind of person I am now choosing. Possibly all of us confront fraudulence in our lives. I know I do, and I know when I have succumbed.
But I have also seen, at least in others, how an integrated authenticity ennobles a person. It is a sense of wholeness where we do not repress the moral impulse, where ethical passion inhabits every arena of our lives: the classroom, the boardroom, the bedroom, the War Room.
A commitment to honesty, even in small things, yields a growing knowledge of one’s true self. Only on the basis of that truth can one be lovednot only by oneself, but by anyone else. The reason so many people complain of not feeling loved is that they let so few others, or even themselves, know their truth.
When those of us who are teachers show our students that we genuinely care about such things, perhaps that care itself helps them, encourages them to become the kind of persons they most deeply want to be. If this were the way we lived our personal and political lives, it might also make our families and our nation into something they often can only pretend to be.