If you want to make large groups of high school or college students look sheepishly at the floor you should bring up the topic of cheating. Cheating is "to deceive or mislead somebody, especially for personal advantage, break rules in the a game, exam, or contest in an attempt to gain and unfair advantage" and apparently it has reached epidemic levels (see here).

The question that interests me is how cheating is justified by students - why they might think it is okay to cheat. I recently observed a group of high schoolers discussing three scenarios to bring out various lines of reasoning. They gave some insight into the minds of those who cheat at school as well as revealing a reticence to challenge others who cheat.

Scenario 1: If you are given the opportunity to cheat on a test and get an A, but there is no chance that you would be caught or suspected of the crime, would you do it and why or why not?

Some said yes. This was justified by the conditions. For example, if it was an important class perhaps cheating would be justified by the need not to fail. Some said that cheating is the only way to ensure a good future. Others said that if you are working as hard as you can, then it is justified because there is nothing more one can do except cheat. Some suggested that cheating compensates for poor teaching.

Scenario 2: In the midst of a family crisis you have not been able to study for a test. A friend offers to supply the answers to the test (he took the test yesterday). Do you accept?

Some said that the friend having already taken the test justifies using his answers to study from since they may not all be correct and they are answers you would be studying anyway. Some would want less than the actual answers, but would take direction for study. Some would not take help that would damage their personal integrity, but would still see personal circumstances as justification for leniency if they did.

Scenario 3a: You see someone else cheating. What do you do?

Some said, "not my problem, not my job to report them." Some would talk to the person directly, but if the person continued to cheat, then they would talk to the teacher. Some would only do this if the person cheating would not be penalized in a heavy way for their crime.

Scenario 3b: You see someone cheating from someone who is not aware of it.

Quite a few would take issue with the person because they are "taking advantage" of someone who is not compliant with the cheater.  Some would only talk to either the cheater or the cheated if they are friends, but not if they are strangers.

Perhaps some analysis is due, but, to me at least, it seems clear that if cheating is morally wrong then there is not much that can justify it. However, I do think we need some counter arguments, some reasons why one should not cheat in school. And because school is about to start again in a few weeks time, perhaps a reader or two needs some help to justify not cheating.

Why you should not cheat at school

First, cheating starts small, but always becomes big. As one cheats in small areas and gets away with it it becomes easier to cheat in larger areas. If you cheat on a high school test, you are more than likely to cheat on taxes, to lie to your wife and to live a contradictory life. Why? Because sin, unless arrested, has a terrible tendency to grow like gangrene. It gets easier to do and, once begun, very difficult to stop.

Second, cheating is not a good way to get ahead and leads to regret. You may also believe you are getting ahead by cheating. But the cost might be a failure in other areas - marriage, friendship, family. Ironically it is marriage, friendship and family that counts most in one's latter days of life. So it turns out that getting ahead is not really what happens. In those last painful hours of life, a cheat will wish he did it another way.

Third, cheating reveals unbelief. This is because cheating is almost always done to achieve some end to which there seems no other way. Cheating reveals a distrust in God and says that the end is so important that cheating is the only way to get there. John Piper said once:

“The way a student comes to be content with the limitations in which God has put him is by coming to trust his Father’s wise and merciful bestowment more than he trusts the radio and T.V., which claim he can’t be happy unless he experiences X number of pleasures — fame, beauty, power, wealth, intelligence, etc. To be sad because one lacks these things is a mark of unbelief, because joy and peace come through believing that God is forging for us a better future than Madison Avenue can."

Some see everything as a means to their own ends, including their faith. They might say, "God must want for me to do well, getting an A on this test will help me do well, I cannot get an A without cheating (insert condition like "the teacher is bad"). Therefore, God would be okay with me cheating." But, this is to confuse God's plan that is for our good, with material success. It is to combine the world's view of a good life with God's desire that life be good. But, a life well lived, according to the bible, is not the same as the perfect life that the world wants to offer. Cheating reveals the distrust we have in God's plan for our life. If God's plan includes failing a test, then God's plan is wrong. If God's plan contains limitations (in my ability, in my teacher's ability etc.) then it must be deviated from.

To take advice from the TV on what make's for a good life and what is justified to get it is foolishness. The world's view of cheating and what is morally justifiable is deeply warped. The TV show Suits illustrates this point perfectly. Suits is about a young guy with a photographic memory. He serves as an associate in a law firm under pretense that he went to Harvard. One of the tensions of the show is that any day now he will be discovered to be a liar and this he fears. He believes that he cannot be content with his limitations, that he must, at all costs, remain at the firm, that his lie is what he must stand on in order to be happy.

What is interesting about Suits is that the show is written to make you hope the lie remains hidden, that he succeeds in staying at the firm. Does this not reveal our culture's bent, that lying to get ahead is okay, that getting ahead, whatever the cost, is what we all need to do?

Fourth, cheating is not merely an action, but, when done repeatedly, becomes a part of a persons identity. If you cheat, you become a cheat, a liar. The question is: is that the kind of person you want to be?

Fifth, cheating is irrational (since it depends on contradiction) and can affect the quality of academic work that relies on reason to make arguments. Poor arguments, and therefore academic failure, could be caused by habitual irrationality in behavior.

Sixth, people aren't inclined to honor a cheat. Consider a sporting heroes. What people honor is not the act, but the character of the player, the grit to do it without chemical help. They do not honor the not-getting-caught cheat who does it with the aid of the pharmacist.

Finally, and most importantly scripture is against cheating and tells us of its inevitable results.

  1. Dishonesty leads to fear and anxiety (Prov 10:9). 
  2. Dishonesty leads to destructive ends (Prov 11:3). (Job 2:9). 
  3. God commands honesty (Ps 119:4-6). 
  4. Integrity builds godly character (Ps 26:1-3). 
  5. Reflect Christ (who is the truth) to others as an example for others (Prov 27,11). 
  6. Integrity builds wisdom (Prov 2:6-8). 
  7. God makes the wisdom of the world foolish (1 Cor 1:18-31).
But Ben, haven't we all cheated on a test at some point or told a lie? Yes, and I admit my own propensity for untruth. But that in no way makes it okay. God's call to confess our sin is in some part about turning from lies and to truth. And a life of repentance and faith is all about turning from the suppression of truth to the one who is the truth.

Credit to Hannah Culbertson for the content of much of this post.