Kwame Anthony Appiah teaches philosophy at N.Y.U. He is the author of “Cosmopolitanism” and “The Honor Code: How Moral Revolutions Happen.” He writes for the New York Times as “The Ethicist.” Many of the letters that come to Appiah deal with moral dilemmas where choices have to be made that cannot fully satisfy one or both of the values in conflict. The following entry came from a student’s question and the dilemma the student faced. Appiah’s answer appeared February 6, 2018.
In middle school, I witnessed three friends cheating on a test when a teacher was not in the room. I reminded them that we were not supposed to collaborate or use a computer to look up answers. They told me to “lay off.”
I was tempted to report them because I value being honest and because we were graded on a curve. But I was also hesitant because they were all admitted into prestigious high schools, and I was afraid that my middle school would have to report the cheating to those high schools. I was also afraid that they would know I was the one who reported them and that there might be consequences for our friendship.
There is no official honor code at my school, so I did not promise to report cheaters. Should I have reported them? Name Withheld
According to various experts, cheating has gotten worse in recent decades — in part because of increased pressure for good grades and scores among college-bound students — and less stigmatized than it used to be. What you’ve described fits that pattern.
If you’re out of step with your friends, it’s because you’re clear that cheating is wrong. Stick with that thought. Being honest is a good thing in itself. Your friends may think you’re a sucker. They’re wrong. And there are pragmatic considerations in favor of honesty too: Dishonesty is hard to conceal in the long run, and in nearly every sphere of life, having a reputation for dishonesty is a curse. In most circumstances, as a pragmatic matter, honesty really is the best policy. But an honest person won’t be honest for this reason. I’m sure that’s true of you. It’s an ideal you value, not simply a calculation you make.
As you also understand, people who cheat exploit the good faith of those who don’t, because cheating lets them represent themselves as better than they are, relative to noncheaters. (You mention that you’re being graded on a curve.) It’s a breach of their relationship with the teachers who trust them not to do these things, with the friends they disadvantage and with the parents they betray. And it’s bad for the offenders, because regular cheaters don’t do the work to understand the material being tested, depriving themselves of real learning and the opportunity for pedagogic correction.
People who cheat like this in middle school and who scoff at criticism of it are presumably going to go on cheating. And they may well get away with it. While certain forms of plagiarism are easier to detect than before (there are various online programs for this purpose), it appears that the rate of cheating is much higher than the rate of its detection. If your friends were exposed and learned that cheating is a serious matter, they might benefit in the long run. Certainly their peers, by learning from their example, could benefit.
Should you have blown the whistle, then? Maybe not. As you suggest, losing a place at a prestigious high school can be a big deal in our society, where educational opportunity is unfairly distributed. Adding to the current unfairness by cheating isn’t exactly helpful, of course, but that wouldn’t have occurred to your friends as they nursed their outrage at your tattling. And given how little cheating is caught, reporting them would have meant that they paid a penalty that lots of others ought to — but won’t — pay. Because many people in your generation don’t take cheating very seriously, your friends would most likely have ended up focusing on the unfairness of being singled out, not on their wrongdoing.
The intervention you were considering was likely, therefore, to be very costly to you. Whistle-blowers often suffer, sometimes more than those whose offenses they report. And the burden of dealing with cheating in your school shouldn’t fall on you. (I’m glad, as a result, that your school doesn’t expect you to report cheating. So-called honor codes mostly end up being ignored — thus increasing the general level of dishonesty rather than lowering it — while occasionally harming the honorable.) So I would not have recommended reporting these friends. Even if they did something wrong, your friendship, along with the probable costs to you, weighed against reporting them.
Some people, I realize, think that self-directed considerations don’t belong in the moral calculus. You can assess the consequence of your actions on others and on the world, in their view, but you’re not supposed to take your own concerns into account. They identify morality with the triumph over self-interest. This austerely demanding view is tempting but misguided. Morality should not be turned into something like the good china, which you take down from the high shelf only for special occasions. Ethics, in its classical sense, was about being a good person — and living a good life. (The first thing being part of the second.) It was meant for everyday use. The point is that you’re a participant in the situation you describe; your own prospects have to be considered, too.
And suppose that by turning in these cheaters, you became a pariah; would you have helped or hurt the social norm of honesty? Still, there may be things you can do. You might write to the head of your school board and say that cheating is happening and not being detected. (Consult your parents first, of course.) In an ideal world, students could be trusted to refrain from cheating because, like you, they value honesty. But we’re probably headed toward a world that’s simply less dependent on trust: no unsupervised tests, regular use of plagiarism checkers and statistical methods for detecting cheaters; stiff penalties for those who are caught. Given this reality, you might suggest some simple measures that could be taken. For starters, it’s not too much to ask that teachers stay in the room when an exam is being given.