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Honestly, the only way is Ethics

2011 May 29
tags: ,
by Paul Vallely

Here’s the spin to end all spin, though I suspect it probably won’t.  An email arrived the other day telling the story of Judy Wallman, a Californian woman working on her family tree. She had discovered an ancestor in common with a leading US Senator and wrote to find out what he knew about their great-great uncle.

What she did not tell him was that she had found a photograph of the man standing on the gallows on the back of which was written: “Remus Reid, horse thief, sent to Montana Territorial Prison 1885, escaped 1887, robbed the Montana Flyer six times. Caught by Pinkerton detectives, convicted and hanged in 1889”.

The Senator’s staff replied, “believe it or not,” thus: “Remus Reid was a famous cowboy in the Montana Territory. His business empire grew to include acquisition of valuable equestrian assets and intimate dealings with the Montana railroad. Beginning in 1883, he devoted several years of his life to government service, finally taking leave to resume his dealings with the railroad. In 1887, he was a key player in a vital investigation run by the renowned Pinkerton Detective Agency. In 1889, Remus passed away during an important civic function held in his honor when the platform upon which he was standing collapsed”. Now that’s real political spin, Judy concluded.

Except it isn’t spin. It’s a lie, or an urban myth if you want to be more charitable. When I checked it out I discovered it had also been used by opponents against George Bush and Sarah Palin in the past. Even so, it tells a poetic truth: that we live, both politicians and their detractors, in a cheating culture.

There’s a lot of it about. In just the past few days we’ve had a survey of 10,000 youngsters, aged 13 to 15, which shows that a quarter believe it is fine to cheat in an exam and almost as many that it’s OK to travel on public transport without a ticket; and it’s getting worse, with to 29 per cent rise over the last decade in the numbers who think shoplifting is acceptable. Then three exam boards, including Cambridge, introduced a new anti-cheating computer programme which detects whether a lot of candidates are getting the same mark by copying. There was even a survey which showed that when man women are given a bunch of flowers by their husband they suspect he’s been up to something.

The fear is that we may, as ever, be going the way of the United States where academic surveys routinely show that 75-80 per cent of students do not think, in this internet age, that cheating in essays or exams is wrong. It’s not just cutting-and-pasting. American websites with names like offer tens of thousands of off-the-peg college essays or scholars-for-hire to write one. There’s even a plagiarism checker called Viper which claims to scan 10 billion resources to check whether the bespoke essay you pay for has itself been plagiarised.

What is most shocking is are brazen attitudes of students surveyed by researchers: “everybody does it”, “a person who lives an entirely honest life can’t succeed these days”, and “people cheat in their relationships, in their jobs, in sport, on their mortgage applications and taxes – cheating in school is a dress rehearsal for life.”

Psychologists have coined a term for this: neutralization of deviance. We admit such behaviour is, in general terms, wrong but say that special circumstances make it OK for me to ignore the rule. We self-justify, they say, by denial of injury, denial of the victim, appeals to higher loyalties, denial of responsibility, and condemnation of the condemners. I only cheat in subjects I won’t need later in life; no-one loses; I only do it to get grades that will please my parents; if I didn’t I’d be at a disadvantage because everyone else cheats; they give us far too much work so do so they can’t blame us for taking short-cuts.

Post-modernism has made this worse by insisting that there are only viewpoints and no objective moral truth. To many students all means are morally equivalent, says Gary Pavela, who wrote the Code of Academic Honesty being brought in by many US universities. This is sophisticated amorality: Grades are more important than integrity which is not  virtue in and of itself. “The ultimate question is not, Am I an honest person? but Will this behavior prevent my mastery of material I will need to become a competent professional?”

This takes us back to a Hobbsean worldview which pays no regard to the unfairness done to those who don’t cheat – or to the wider damage to society done by an erosion of trust. That way lies Enron and the world which David Callahan set out in his book The Cheating Culture: Why More Americans Are Doing Wrong to Get Ahead with its winner class, so influential they are effectively are exempt from many rules, and an anxious class for which cheating becomes a kind of entitlement in the race to keep up.

There are distinct national attitudes to cheating much as Henry Kissinger once noted that football teams reflect stereotypes about national character. The English and Germans, countries with strong traditions of political sobriety and solidarity, stress collective effort. But in Southern Europe or Latin America, where individuals have needed to survive on their own wits economically, guile and gamesmanship are emphasise. It is why Spanish footballers fall over a lot when tackled or Argentinians are so adept at dissimulation.

But can better ethics be taught? Money & Morals, the organisation which conducted the survey of 10,000 British youngsters, thinks so. It provides materials to bring the teaching of honesty, integrity and social responsibility into all subjects. Over in the States, by contrast, the director of the Ethics Institute at Dartmouth College, Dr Aine Donovan,  who is writing a book called Reconstructing Honor, thinks that teaching general ethics often leaves students with the view that “ethics is a matter of what one can (or cannot) get away with”.

Yet colleges which have Academic Honesty codes report cheating falls. One college which makes students copy out the code each term gets particularly improved results.  But morality is better caught than taught.

One college set up an experiment which gave a group maths problems to solve for cash. One student was set up to rise from his seat and say, impossibly early, that he had done them all. He was given the cash, told to throw his answers in the bin and leave. Here’s the good bit.  If that student was wearing a sweatshirt bearing the name of the college other students followed his lead in cheating. If he was wearing the shirt of a rival college far fewer of the others cheated too.

Group loyalty trumps personal gain. Perhaps there’s a lesson in that when it comes to creating an environment where dishonesty is socially unacceptable. Aristotle, always a better model than poor Hobbes or the utilitarian Mill, suggested that virtue lies not in rationality, duty or utility but in character. Moral virtue he suggested is a habit. It seems we need to make it the habit not of the individual but of society.


from the Independent on Sunday


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