Do Cheaters Ever Win? The Moral Judgement-Action Gap, Kant at the Gym, and Lear in the Rain

At the first Academic Assembly of the year, Director of Academics Mr. Harvey shared his thoughts on a topic he spent much time obsessing about last summer. He entitled his talk: Do Cheaters Ever Win?: The Moral Judgement-Action Gap, Kant at the Gym and King Lear in the Rain. The following is what he shared with our Middle and Senior School students on this topic.

All the world has been aflutter this last year with Generative AI – how its powerful large language models are transforming the world of work and, closer to home, education. Here at CDS, we are trying to stay ahead of the curve by getting our faculty together last spring and, again this fall, to explore Generative AI, to consider how best to integrate this powerful learning tool into our teaching, and to adjust our assessment practices to ensure that the integrity of student learning is not compromised. Our best guess is that within a few years, apps like ChatGPT will be standard practice in classrooms and that sufficient guardrails will be in place to discourage cheating. But at the same time, we shouldn’t misjudge the tremendous temptation that Generative AI poses for people to take shortcuts in thinking and communicating for themselves. 

Cheating, whether it’s the personal morality variety (that bag of money was just lying by the roadside with not a person in sight) or academic (okay, so I handed in my cousin’s Science project because I’m just too busy with important things) has been around for as long as there have been tests. My interest, however, is in the Why. Why, when most believe, wholeheartedly, that cheating is wrong, do so many succumb to it? I want to tackle this question from the three knowledge lenses that my long-winded title hints at and that I tend to turn to when I find myself in an intellectual quandary: the scientific, the philosophical and the literary. 

Let’s start with a curious paradox. Raise your hand if you believe that cheating is wrong. That’s about right… cognitive scientists suggest that approximately 90% of students think that cheating is wrong. But some studies suggest that upwards of about 70% of you have or will have cheated academically at least once before you graduate college. What’s worse is that the overwhelming majority of those cheaters will never be caught. Interesting data, isn’t it? How do we account for this disconnect? Given the stats, why don’t we all cheat? Well, the scientists point to something called the moral judgment – action gap. According to them, between our dearest held values and beliefs and our actions there exists a gap and sometimes, especially when the environment encourages success at cheating, that gap becomes neutralized. In simpler words, we betray ourselves with those seductive self-whispers to which most of us are accustomed: It’s just this one time. If I don’t do this, I will fail in life. I deserve this one little stroke of good luck. Nobody will be harmed by this or everybody does it, why not me? And we end up committing actions that are the antithesis of what we value. On a side note, I should tell you that when I researched arguments for why cheating may, in fact, be acceptable, for the most part, they fell into this self-rationalizing, neutralizing category. The best of the worst are these two: educators create such bad, meaningless, inauthentic tests and projects that it’s a no-brainer: you should just cheat. 

Second, that cheating prepares you for the “real” world because everyone knows that cheaters succeed quite well out there! Sadly, while there may be some truth to these claims, they hardly provide a sound justification (at CDS we are doing our best to counter the first argument, and I’m hopeful that our graduates will do their best to counter the second). Just because your world may be corrupt and meaningless doesn’t mean you have a free ride to be corrupt and meaningless. Anyway, this is the scientific explanation of cheating which is quite good at describing the what and how of cheating but it doesn’t really get at why we “neutralize” our values or, more importantly, why doing so is the wrong choice. For that, we need to turn our gaze elsewhere.

Of all the ethicists, perhaps Immanuel Kant provides the most strident argument for why cheating is wrong. For Kant, when you cheat, you are cheating others and, of equal importance, you are cheating yourself. Here’s the skinny. You are not a block of wood, and you are not an animal driven by instinct. You are a human being blessed with a very special gift: the ability to reason. And with this gift, if you submit to it, you will find a very clear answer to what is morally acceptable. If you are presented with the opportunity to lie or cheat, imagine that the maxim of that action were to become a universal law. In other words, everyone, everywhere could do it. Imagine that. If that were to occur, all meaning in our world would disappear – we could no longer discern truth from lies, fact from fiction. It makes no logical sense. Likewise, if you have a functioning mind and body, you have what Kant calls a perfect obligation to yourself to improve it. For example, if you decide to get yourself in shape by going to the gym, but only pretend to work out by sitting on the machines checking your Snapchat, you are, according to Kant, cheating yourself. Again, that makes no rational sense. It’s fascinating that moral issues become so much clearer when they reside in the physical realm.

 For example, imagine I challenged our estimable headmaster, Mr. Liggett, to an MMA cage match – the winner, let’s say, takes control of CDS…forever! For many of you, I recognize that may present a rather absurd image, but from what I understand, it’s all the rage among YouTube influencers and the world’s two richest men – go figure. Anyway, imagine that just before we are to enter the cage where, no doubt, the much more agile and fit Mr. Liggett will pummel me to oblivion, I yell, “Hey Liggett, just so you know, Jon Jones and Connor McGregor will be fighting for me today. Good luck, pal.” Does that sit well with any of you, morally? Is it fair; is it just? Of course not. But then again, perhaps, our hyper-logical friend Mr. Kant should have realized, as a rather significant contingent of historians, sociologists, psychologists, philosophers, economists, artists, scientists and everyday, regular people who inhabit this crazy planet have long recognized: we aren’t especially fond of reason and logic. Instead, it may be we are guided, or misguided, by the erratic, mostly amoral, hands of irrationalism, emotion and the enigmatic vagaries of desire. The Heart Wants What It Wants, the saying goes. So where does this leave us? Should we throw our hands up in defeat and conclude that in the end some people will cheat and others will not? End of story?

Before we acquiesce to that contention, let’s take a moment to consider stories themselves and what they can offer us by way of an answer. It is, after all, through stories of all kinds – literary, dramatic, filmic, the stories your friends tells you at lunch, the stories your inappropriate uncle tells you at the family dinner, even the stories you post and watch on TikTok – that we are given an opportunity to imagine ourselves in the shoes of another person, whether those are the heavy, black and uncomfortable boots of those who have been cheated on in their lives, or the fashionable, expensive (yet also ill-fitting) high heels that those who cheat and get away with it wear. 

Many of our oldest stories are spiritual and most of them deal, in one way or another, with difficult moral tests: Rama has to endure 14 years of banishment fighting demons; Siddhartha Buddha has a perilous journey from the luxury of his palace halls into the darkness of human suffering and desire; Muhammed (peace be upon him) has his month in the cave at Hira, and Jesus spends 40 days and nights fasting in the desert with no one to keep him company…except the devil! How do those stories compare with your unit test in Chem.? In these narratives, some of the heroes pass their tests with flying colours (A++ on their final report cards) while others fail miserably because they try to cheat. Consider one of my favourites, Jonah. An angel instructs him to go to Nineveh to spread God’s word. He says, straight-faced,  “alright”, then jumps on  the first ship going in the opposite direction. It turns out that cheating God is not a good plan, and poor Jonah finds himself in the equivalent of a Friday detention in the belly of a whale where he has a much-needed time out to reflect on his life choices and how to be his best self before he is finally forgiven.

 World literature abounds with rich narratives that meditate on the disastrous impact of cheating on the self – Dostoevsky’s, Crime and Punishment; Flaubert’s, Madame Bovary; Fitzgerald’s, The Great Gatsby to name a few. One of my favourites is Shakespeare’s King Lear which I had the opportunity to see with our grade 12 English students last week. It has a large cast, half of whom are the worst kind of cheaters: they are willing to lie, to steal and to kill to get what they want. The other half must fight with every fibre of their being to stay true to what they know is just while being lied to, stolen from and killed by the aforementioned cheaters. In the centre of it all is Lear, an aging and egotistical (borderline narcissist) king who decides to pass the reigns of his vast kingdom onto his three daughters but not before forcing each of them to tell him how much they love him first. Two of his daughters, rather nasty pieces of work, are more than willing to lie and tell him what he wants to hear, while the daughter who does truly love and honour him, refuses to play their odious, unctuous and altogether obsequious language games and is disinherited and banished from the kingdom. As the play progresses, Lear is slowly stripped of his power, his wealth, and his dignity; he finds himself alone upon a heath in a raging storm in the middle of nowhere. When all the vestiges of his former self are brutally peeled away, he is left with nothing but himself and his moral error – that he was blind to the truth of his invulnerability, that he cheated himself of something truly beautiful – the chance to love and be loved. But, alas, for Lear, it is, tragically, too late: his soul has become too brittle and it fragments under the pressure. It doesn’t end well!

Please don’t misunderstand me. I’m not trying to tell you that if you cheated on that one math quiz in grade 8, you will be swallowed by a whale or lose your mind in a tempest. For the most part, our lives don’t play out this way. But, it’s worth keeping in mind that stories like Lear enable us to feel what it’s like to be cheated and, perhaps more importantly, the heavy weight that living a lie inheres upon our being.  

Okay, I think it may be time for me to conclude this. I do hope I haven’t lured you into a catatonic slumber. What are the takeaways?

Well, when you are confronted with a judgement/action situation, BEWARE THE GAP. Don’t shift into neutral. If you are able, try to think your way through it. Ask yourself if it’s fair, if it’s just, if it’s right – access that ever-present voice deep within you that has been quietly or shrilly talking at you for most of your conscious life.  If you can’t think your way through it, try feeling your way. Try to summon the empathy and the vulnerability necessary for making a just choice. Reflect on the numerous times you have been lied to, cheated upon and summon the memory of the feeling. How does it feel?  

Do cheaters ever win? I’ll leave that for you to ponder and to decide for yourself. Nothing I have said in the last ten minutes will, according to the scientific research, sway you one way or the other (that’s a bummer for all our teachers here today!). You are going to have to work this one out for yourselves through your lived experiences, many of which you will fail at, miserably. But that’s what it means to be human, that’s what it means to be a thinking and a feeling thing as opposed to a block of wood. And that, I hope to remind you, is the all-so-heavy, heavy burden you have to carry through this life. You are, as one great thinker once said, your choices, so choose carefully and wisely – with thought, with feeling and with humanity.