“Everyone Cheats”?

I recently had a discussion about my last post, Student Ethics. During this conversation, Sashi Chandrasekaran had the best response to the claim that "Everyone Cheats." He asked, "What would the world look like if everyone cheated?"

We were in a restaurant at the time, seven of us, and Sashi pointed out that there was nothing to stop us from just running away without paying. If everyone cheated, then the restaurant would have two guards posted at the door to make sure people paid. If there was only one guard, people would bribe that individual (remember, everyone cheats, so we can assume the guard would willingly accept a bribe), so a second guard is needed to keep an eye on the first one. It would be cheaper to just pay the bill than bribe both guards.

Look at just about any simple transaction in society and imagine what it would look like if everyone cheated. For example, suppose you wanted to buy some apples. You go to a grocery store. Because the grocer knows that everyone cheats, he can't let people browse the aisles without supervision. And he can't trust anyone else to do the job (remember, everyone cheats, including anyone he hires), he'll have to do it himself. Which means only one person is allowed into the store at any one time. You pick out some apples, but you know that everyone cheats, which means the grocer cheats, so you can't trust him to weigh the apples correctly. You have your own scales, but the grocer can't trust you, so you can't make the transaction based on weight. So the price is per apple. You hand over money, but the grocer can't be sure it's real, so has become an expert in spotting counterfeit cash.

But that's not how grocers do business. This is pretty good evidence that "Everyone Cheats" is not true.

"What would the world look like if everyone cheated?" Imagine such a world and you will realize that the world today is very far from what you envision. That tells you that not everyone cheats. In fact, only a small fraction of people cheat.

Furthermore, I suspect that the vast majority of people who perform this exercise (imagine such a world) would come to the conclusion that a society could not form in the first place if everyone cheated. We'd still be living in caves with maybe fire as the most advanced technology available.

Game Theory has actually shown this mathematically. There's a concept of cooperate or cheat. If everyone cooperates, everyone wins. If only one person cheats, then that cheater wins bigger than everyone else, and everyone loses just a little. Seeing the cheater prosper, someone else cheats. The original cheater does not win as big (the two cheaters "share" the spoils) but still wins bigger than the cooperators. And the cooperators lose just a little more. And so on. Eventually, if too many people cheat, there are not enough cooperators to create the wealth in the first place, or the cooperators lose enough that they employ security against the cheaters. Also, too many cheaters makes cheating less profitable (the spoils are shared among too many). An individual gains more from cooperating than from cheating. So from a strictly profit/loss point of view, a society will be able to "tolerate" only a small number of cheaters.

And that's saying nothing about ethics and morals. It's just a fact that there are many people who don't cheat simply because it's wrong.

I'm reminded of an argument against time travel. How do we know that travelling back in time is impossible? Because today we don't see people from the future.

How do we know that "Everyone Cheats" is false? Because we live in a world that operates on the premise that it is false, and the world operates very well.

  • Steve

    Your “imagine a world” thought-experiment is flawed. The statement isn’t that everyone cheats all the time. The statement is that everyone cheats at some point.
    The grocer doesn’t need to monitor each individual customer because enough people don’t cheat (i.e., steal) to make it worth his while to have more people in the store, even though some of them will inevitably cheat.


  • Steve Burnett

    Thanks for the comment, Steve.
    I agree that the statement “Everyone Cheats” does not mean everyone cheats all the time. However, how does the grocer know any one individual will or will not cheat on any individual visit? Do people claim, “Of course I’ll cheat some times, but I never cheat in the grocery store,” and the grocer believs them? That’s why he has to follow everyone all the time.
    Another possibility is the grocer has some research that says, “Everyone cheats, but only 10% of people cheat in the grocery store.” Or with some security measures he can reduce the cheating to 10% of the customers. (Of course, how does he trust the research or trust the company selling or the people implementing the security measures?) At that point, he says, “I can accept losses from 10% of customers,” and does not follow everyone.
    However, I also believe that the statement “Everyone Cheats” means “Everyone cheats if they can get away with it.” In a world where “Everyone Cheats” but only some of the time, almost certainly the times they don’t cheat is NOT because of ethics, but because they can’t or don’t want to make the effort to circumvent security measures.
    Hence, every transaction is loaded with security measures.


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