Markkula Center of Applied Ethics

A Nation of Cheaters

By Kirk O. Hanson

January 19, 2003

Cheating. What could be more American? From the snake oil salesmen of the late 19th century to the stock manipulators of the 1920s to the spitballers of modern baseball. But today it seems absolutely everybody is doing it. We cheat—or at least try to cheat—in every aspect of our lives. One out of four Americans surveyed say it's acceptable to cheat on their taxes. Former Tyco CEO Dennis Kozlowski sends paintings he bought to a New Hampshire address to cheat New York State out of the sales tax. College bound students cheat on the SAT tests. Teachers cheat by giving their students the answers to standardized tests so the teachers qualify for bonuses. Athletes cheat by using performance-enhancing drugs. Successful authors cheat by appropriating others' writing as their own. Even colleges steeped in honor codes—the University of Virginia and the US Naval Academy—have been rocked by massive cheating scandals in recent years.

After a depressing 2002 in which corporate executives too numerous to count cheated shareholders by fudging their accounts or manipulating markets, we have to ask whether cheating has become the new national norm. We have always had a few cheaters among us, but has the typical American now lost his or her moral compass? Have we lost our fundamental commitment to integrity and fair play? First of all, why do people cheat? There are two simple answers, neither very noble. People cheat to get ahead, even if they don't qualify for the advancement and even if they can't win a fair competition. Such people don't care about anyone else but themselves. This adult lies about the toaster he broke so he can get a full refund. The teenager lies about her age to save money on a movie ticket. The other reason is simple laziness.

But there are new reasons why people cheat—and these may give us a clue about how to stop the rising tide of cheating. Some people cheat today because they simply cannot get everything done which needs to be done. American life has become so intense, so rushed, so fully packed. Many shortcuts we seek involve cheating—copying school papers from the Internet or cheating our companies by telling our bosses we are sick so we can catch up on housework or errands.

Some people cheat today not just because they want to get ahead, but more because they fear the embarrassment of failure. Parents put huge expectations on children—you are a failure if you don't go to an Ivy League school. You have to win; we've sacrificed so much to make you a competitive swimmer. Companies put huge pressures on employees—you now have to do the job of two, or you will be laid off too. And American culture says again and again that you have to be successful and wealthy to be happy. Faced with this fear of being a failure, too many people seek a shortcut and falsify their resume, cheat on their SATs, or fudge numbers at work to look better.

Most threatening, at least to me, is the notion that more people are cheating today because they think everyone else cheats. I had to cheat on the test, some students argue, because everyone else cheats and we are graded on a curve. Some business students I have taught and some business people believe that "everyone cheats" and that you have to do so to be competitive. The widespread corporate scandals of the past year, touching so many of our blue-chip companies, have reinforced this cynical belief that good guys will finish last.

Finally, an increasing number of cheaters are arguing that they must cheat to resist unfair new systems of accountability. Teachers in schools are resistant to performance-based testing because it may threaten their jobs. Employees cheat to resist systems that silently measure their output. Some welfare advocates resist needs-based tests because they may remove some people from the rolls. So how can we reset the nation's moral compass and stem the troubling rise of cheating? There are things you and I can do individually—and there are things that must be done by our leaders in government, business, education, and the media.

What can we individually do? The first thing is to stand up for fair play in our own lives. We must resist the temptations to take short cuts with small acts of cheating. Pay full price for your child if he or she is actually 13 and not 12. And we need to become advocates for fair play. Talk to our children about how important integrity and fair play is and how cheating hurts them—it does!

We need to support efforts to control cheating. If someone is caught cheating, support strong penalties. If our own child is caught cheating, resist the temptation to blame the school or the teacher. If an athlete is caught cheating, support the referee or the rules which throw him off the team. Become intolerant of cheating around you.

We can turn down the pressure felt by our own spouses and children. It is OK if your husband does not get the big promotion; it's OK if your son does not get into the "best" school. Life is about doing your best, not just about winning.

There are also important things our leaders in government, business, and the media can do to help fight cheating in American life.

The first is to put tougher national laws and regulations in place that deal with all forms of cheating. We also need the commitment to enforce those laws and to impose tough sanctions. This is a job of Congress, regulators, and the courts.

Second, each of our institutions—businesses, schools, athletic teams, and voluntary associations—need their own tough rules against cheating. University of Virginia officials and its student leaders have apparently pursued the dozens of cheating cases uncovered recently, strengthening their own honor code in the process. But Bausch and Lomb board members weakened the company's ethical culture, in my view, when they did not remove Ron Zarella as their CEO after it was revealed he had claimed a degree he did not have. Even sports-frenzied Notre Dame knew it had to get rid of a coach that lied on his resume.

Third, leaders in government and the private sector are going to have to invest in new systems to enforce standards against cheating, at least for a time. Government regulators and tax officials will have to do more audits. Employers will have to check the accuracy of all resumes. College teachers will have to use new on-line systems to check for plagiarism in papers.

Finally, I believe all our leaders—particularly those in the media—must contribute to building a new American culture in which wealth and celebrity are not the defining marks of success, but instead old-fashioned values such as integrity, faithfulness, and service to those in need. As long as Americans are chasing a dream defined by winning above all, they will continue to find new ways to cheat their way to the finish line.

The article appeared originally in the Boston Globe, Jan. 19, 2003.

Kirk O. Hanson is the Executive Director of the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University, and University Professor of Organizations & Society.

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