By Hicham Chentoufi
By Hicham Chentoufi
Rabat – Cheating has become a ‘demoralizing’ issue both at schools and elsewhere. Much has been written about this ethical and quasi-human phenomenon from divergent points of view, depending on the field to which the act of cheating and the cheater(s) belong.
Some shared elements, acts of cheating are not always conceived in the same way. Talking about cheating others could be recognised from an entirely different angle when compared to looking into the others acts of cheating-not necessarily cheating us. This is because, ‘for the most part, human beings live lives directed by the passions, not by reason’ as Steven Nadler  commented on Spinoza’s major and exhaustive work, The Ethics.
What is ethics?
Ethics or moral philosophy is one of the philosophical branches that have triggered a long and hectic debate since its dawn with the stoics and the great forbears of philosophy. This stems mainly from the subject matter and the questions ethical theories deal with and endeavour to find an answer to. The subject matter is primarily concerned with sensible and judicious decisions that people make.
In other words, it is closely related to what is acceptable and inacceptable, good and bad, right and wrong, irrespective of the moral system within which we function. However, the questions are essentially associated with some significant and yet embarrassing issues like: what is bad? What is good? Where do these judgments come from? Why be moral? Should we be too particular about what we know? Should we tell lies to maintain a good relationship with our beloved ones? Should we steal if we are living in abject poverty? etc.
Finding answers to the above mentioned and many other questions has lead theorists to subdivide ethics itself into three broad scope subject areas whose boundaries are not clearly demarcated. The first is Metaethics; it looks into the source of our ethical principles, and moral grounds and tries to see whether they are expressions of sheer human emotions or they are merely social constructs that strive to manage human behavior.
Providing moral guidelines or, what I would like to call, ‘a social-moral kit’ that could be consulted whenever a flustering question rise to the surface is what normative ethics concerned with. Finally, applied ethics or “the philosophical examination, from a moral standpoint, of particular issues in private and public life that are matters of moral judgment” as defined by Brenda Almond:the examination of some contentious issues like abortion, self-immolation, euthanasia, and homosexuality… is the focus of applied ethics. As I said earlier, where one kind of ethics ends and the other starts is not clearly defined.
Is cheating an ethical issue ?
Based on the aforeknown definitions of ethics and its subdivisions , answering this question leave no room for doubt or quibbling, especially for those who equate cheating with bad attributes and ascribe it to inherent personality flaws! It goes without saying that getting something that you don’t work or getting it with the minimum possible of work while others have to fight teeth and nail to get it is utterly rejected.
And it is quite certain that cheating is like a tumor that should be eradicated at early age and at all levels, otherwise the whole society is to pay. ‘Integrity is important in all areas of life’ as Bill Taylor noted in a letter to his students. 
But looking at the other face of the coin, especially if we take into account that students are a product of a given culture, it would be too simplistic and, at the same time, too premature to attribute cheating to cheaters, using Lee Ross (1977) coined term “fundamental attribution error.”
The latter is defined as the inclination to “underestimate the impact of situational factors and to overestimate the role of dispositional factors in controlling behavior.” This unidirectional analysis tends to focus on inherent attributes in personality and adumbrate the profound and unquestionable impact of environment on students’ behavior.
As a matter of fact, we should think twice before a value on students’ behavior. Given the fact that students are just a small cog in the wheel, their behavior according to social constructivists and acculturation theories is clearly marked by the society in which they are brought up. This truth is best expressed by the American social psychologist, Philip Zimbardo, who stated that, “Human behavior is more influenced by things outside us than inside.”
It would be arbitrary to judge a given behavior as ethically inacceptable while news reports on ethical transgressions of political officials, law makers, sportsmen and even ordinary people keep seeping incessantly.
Not surprisingly, these category of people, that is students, will be averse to accept tedious sermons on the lofty moral grounds on which a student behavior should be based at school while the pervasiveness of cheating in their immediate environment doesn’t need a genius to be detected.
Though they might not be aware of their claims, they tend to echo some deranging philosophical and political questions such as should we seek power or goodness? Who should get what? Why be moral while others are not? One way or another their arguments endorse the claim that laws and moral codes are made to manipulate the weak and underpin the status quo.
Why do cheaters cheat and should and should they be punished?
Punishing or not punishing cheaters who are most of the time the real victims of cheating would be an ethically embarrassing and awkward question. There is a consensus among most educational officials, both in Morocco and elsewhere, that cheating is bad and thus the best way to eradicate it is to enact laws, take drastic measures and issue sanctions, to name but a few. It is this canonical conclusions or, strictly speaking, conjectures that make me restive.
Before tackling whether cheaters should be sanctioned or not, we should ask a very crucial question that is rarely asked: Why do students cheat?
In a culture of warpedvalues asking questions could lead to an impasse as people are praise addicts. We tend to pay much more attention to the immediate rewards than to what these rewards could breed as time goes by. In other words, cheating at schools can be considered as an end-product of what is being constantly inculcate in kids at an early age.
Almost every Moroccan child is lavished with praise for being nice, docile, agreeable or ‘drayaf’ as we say in Moroccan Arabic… it is this kind of verbal rewards that imbue children’s selves with dependence and make them live under the mercy of the adult wishes. This creation need for acceptance from the other is referred to by Rheta DeVrie as ‘sugarcoated control.’
It might sound that I am departing from one of the most stricken paths in educational psychology that came to life with B.F.Skinner and his successors. Despite their usefulness, rewards and punishments, effectiveness is culturally relative. They can beget good results when we are dealing with kids who are brought up in a culture of twisted values based on Conditional Positive Regard.
A culture that values people on the account of their ability to be or to do better than hypothetical or real competitors depending on the space allotted by its ‘agency’. They are also useful within the patterns of a culture where commands, unfairness, manipulation, and self-seeking are pervasive and tolerated.
The Form of questions, for example, in Moroccan national exams and textbooks is an example. Most questions are about ‘do’, ‘fill in’, ‘rewrite’, and ‘find in the text’… Students don’t cross-examine the things schools and teachers do with words because they are conditioned not to question and produce the counter meaning. In other words their behavior, including cheating, is the manifestation of ‘habits’ as it is laid bare by Bordieu. The oppressed self usually resort to wry strategies, cheating and the like, to assert itself evading the fall in the pit of oppression.
However, because of their effects on the students’ academic performance, both punishments and rewards have been recently reconsidered and even rejected by leading educational and psychological theorists. Alfie Kohen, in a conversation with Alfie Kohen(1995), has brilliantly done things against the grain when asked about the wrongness of both rewarding and punishing students. Kohen declares that ‘Rewards and punishments are both ways of manipulating behavior. They are two forms of doing things to students.
And to that extent, all of the research that says it’s counterproductive to say to students, “Do this or here is what I’m going to do to you,” also applies to saying, “Do this and you’ll get that.” Ed Deci and Rich Ryan at the University of Rochester are right when they call rewards “control through seduction.”’
To make the aforesaid ideas clear consider the following quote from a common core student: “students don’t cheat because they are bad but because they don’t like to be ridiculed by their peers, parents or teachers.” The quote reveals clearly what we have just discussed.
First it shows that the students’ subconscious is conditioned to get both tangible and verbal rewards and depend on the evaluation of others, something which might be very damaging to the students’ self-esteem and personality in the long run. It can be deemed as the very antithesis of taking risks and exploration and thus making sounds judgments and taking decisions.
Instead of verbal or tangible rewards, researchers, like Alfie Kohen and Rheta deVries, opt for feedback. “Good job!”, “well done!” or “kudos!” are different from “you did it” or showing the effect a given behavior on others. They don’t imbue competition or ‘the single most toxic ingredient to be found in a classroom, and it is also a reliable predictor of cheating’, and thereby create a healthy atmosphere free from anxiety and the shame complex.
In addition to the cultural and psychological causes, there are other variables that lead to cheating. The school variable is the most crucial of all. Students often complain about the curriculum overload which functions as a stumbling block towards more experience and knowledge enrichment. They also show deep resentment towards some subjects that are, according to them, neither engaging nor meaningful.
It might seem that the aforesaid arguments are a desperate attempt to sweeten the pill and find lame excuses for cheating. By contrast, the main aim is to try to look at things as they are without coming up with conjectures that are most of the time based on our beliefs and attitudes. One might argue that to let cheaters go away with this wrong is a kind of encouragement to more cheating. Certainly, nobody would accept solving problems by proliferating them. But it would be naive and absolutely unethical to ask for goodness, honesty, integrity at school while the culture of dishonesty is the rule both at school itself and in other settings.
1. Steve nadler,Spinoza’s Ethics: an introduction.(Cambridge:Cambridge university press:2006)
2. for more on this definition of applied ethics see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Applied_ethics
3. Lee Ross, “The Intuitive Psychologist and His Shortcomings: Distortions in the Attribution Process,”Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, vol. 10, edited by Leonard Berkowitz. New York: Academic Press, 1977, p. 183.
4. William Taylor,Academic Integrity: A Letter to my Students. See: http://www.jmu.edu/honor/wm_library/Letter%20To%20My%20Students.htm
5. Philip Zimbardo quoted in Claudia Dreifus, “Finding Hope in Knowing the Universal Capacity for Evil,”New York Times, April 3, 2007: D2.
6. Alfie Kohen,Punished by Rewards? A conversation with Alfie Kohn by Ron Brandt.(educational Leadership,1995) http://www.alfiekohn.org/teaching/pbracwak.htm