Student Ethics

In the news recently was a story about a class at the University of Central Florida wherein about 200 of the 600 students got access to a test beforehand. The professor gave students the opportunity to confess to cheating and take a new test, or risk expulsion.

The story ended up being more nuanced. Many or most of the students who received the test beforehand did not know it was the test, they thought it was study material.

But I saw something interesting in one report of the incident. One student said, "This is college. Everyone cheats, everyone cheats in life in general. I think you'd be hard-pressed to find anyone in this testing lab who hasn't cheated on an exam."

It's not just this cheating scandal. Look at any story about cheating at school (at any level) and you'll find students saying something similar, "Everyone cheats".

This is the third stage of ethics (see my previous posts here and here for more about the stages of ethics). Something is OK because that's what the group says.

However, for the student who said, "Everyone cheats," and for all students, the message needs to be, "It doesn't matter what 'everyone' is doing, if something is wrong it's wrong." That's the fourth stage.

Besides, when people say, "everyone is doing it," what they really mean is "everyone I know is doing it." It was a professor of math at The Claremont Graduate School who taught me this distinction. He pointed out that when he was at Berkeley in the 60's, he knew several students who would say, "The Revolution is coming. There's going to be a revolution and we're going to overthrow this corrupt government." The professor (then a student) would reply, "I don't think there's going to be a revolution, there's just not enough support for it." The answer would be, "Look, everyone is for the revolution. Everyone I know is talking about it and gearing up for the revolution." As you can see, "everyone" was everyone the particular campus radical hung out with. And who did the campus radicals hang out with? Other campus radicals.

When it comes to cheating, I think when people say "everyone's doing it", they are in stage 3 of ethics, or else they know the activity is wrong, but they are trying to justify it. I think the statement "Everyone cheats," is incomplete. I think the real full statement is this.

"I want to cheat because that's easier than working hard. But cheating is wrong, unless
        everyone cheats
in which case it's OK, I'm just leveling the playing field. In fact, if
        everyone cheats in life in general
then I'd be a sap for not cheating. So I choose to believe, with no evidence to support this contention other than my conversations with 4 or 5 people out of the entire population of almost 6 billion people in the world, 300 million in the US, and 3,000 students at this college, that everyone cheats. That way I can cheat with a clear conscience."

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