Monthly Archives: May 2008

The One Minute Case Against Cheating

Recent studies have shown that in the U.S., 56% of middle school students and 70% of high school students have cheated.[1] Why is cheating on the rise?  The best place to start analyzing this question is to look at the issue from the perspective of the individual student.  What reasons does he consider for and against cheating?

For most people, the decision to cheat or not is guided primarily by emotion.  Does the feeling of guilt exceed the feeling of satisfaction he will receive from getting an A?  But emotions are ultimately based on one’s values and ideas.  The predominant idea behind cheating is that morality is a conflict of self-interest versus self-sacrifice.  Cheating is the “selfish” thing to do, and confers an advantage in class and in life.  The “right” thing to, whether justified by promises of divine reward, utilitarian considerations, or a vague appeal to social harmony, requires an immediate personal sacrifice.  In such a conflict, the “moral” choice is understandably difficult for students to justify.  Without rational ideas to justify honesty and integrity, hard-working and “practical” students believe that morality only holds them back from success in life, and that they can “play by the rules” once they are out of school, and give lip-service to morality when it comes to more abstract and non-practical matters.

This is a grievous error is created by bad philosophy.  The lesson that students need to learn is that the choice between the practical and the moral is a false dichotomy.  Morality is the means to a successful life, not an impediment.  Teaching the practical, selfish value of honesty is the best way to discourage cheating.

The primary purpose of an education is to provide the practical knowledge and thinking skills that allow success in life and career. Cheating erodes both those goals. In a career, success of failure has material consequences on one’s work and the people it affects.  A grade on a biology exam is just a number, but a doctor who takes shortcuts with patients, or a construction engineer who takes shortcuts with buildings endangers both his career and other people’s lives.  The ultimate goal of education is not a piece of paper, but practical skills and knowledge, and cheating deprives oneself of that knowledge.  Whatever immediate benefit cheating provides is outweighed by the long-term harm.  Educators need to stress the practical value of their lessons, and the harm students do to themselves when they forfeit their education.

Even though it is an attempt to deceive others, cheating is a form of self-deception as well.  Cheating to get ahead will cause oneself to lose a grasp of what his skills actually are.  Someone who cheats on a quiz will find out that he is unprepared for the final.  Students who cheat in an entry-level class will find themselves helpless in higher-level classes. The more a student cheats, the more ignorant he becomes of his actual knowledge.  The more he gets ahead by his falsehoods, the harder he has to work to keep up his un-earned position.  Even if his dishonestly-obtained diploma gets his dream job, he will still be unqualified for it, and forced to continue his deception at work.  He will attempt to hide his inadequacy from co-workers and bosses just as he hid it from classmates and professors.  Cheating is an addictive habit that will surely destroy a career even if it does not (publicly) destroy an education.

Honest peers compete on the basis of their skill and hard work.  Their mutual excellence inspires and motivates each other to success.  Classmates and coworkers who cheat on the other hand, compete by the standard of who is the better liar.  They lose focus of the purpose of their education or career, and try to outdo the audacity of each other’s frauds.  Their peers do not inspire and motivate them, but present the constant threat of having their lies unmasked.  As they lose sight of their real goals, they will find themselves slipping behind.

The solution to the rise of cheating is not to attempt to instill a vague sense of moral guilt, but to explain and demonstrate that cheating is counter-productive and self-destructive.  Honesty does not require guilt or the threat of worldly or divine punishment.  Instead, ambition, integrity, and pride should guide one to success.


  1. Wilfried Decoo, Crisis on Campus: Confronting Academic Misconduct (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2002), 23.


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