Andrew Fiala

Cheating blinds us to the bedrock values of integrity, honor and honesty

Rich parents cheated their kids into elite universities such as USC. As a UCLA alum, I might joke about the University of Spoiled Cheaters. But UCLA also succumbed to this scam. And UCLA has been connected to another scam involving students who used phony passports to take English-language tests for Chinese students.

The collapse of these scams confirms the old proverb, “cheaters never prosper.” Some cheaters escape detection. But the bigger the scam, the more likely the fall.

And even if you don’t get caught, cheating undermines your so-called accomplishments. It also undermines the credibility of the institution you have swindled. If USC or UCLA is full of cheaters, what is the value of their degrees?

Low-level academic cheating is widespread. The International Center for Academic Integrity reports that 39 percent of undergraduate students admit to cheating on tests, while 62 percent admit to cheating on written work. And 95 percent of high schoolers admit to cheating on tests, plagiarism or copying homework.

Most of this goes undetected and unpunished. Minor-league classroom cheaters are often making a pathetic last-ditch effort to pass a class. It’s shameful but also ineffective and innocuous.

The professional cheaters who swindled the university admissions process are a different matter. The “Varsity Blues” scandal shows brazen impudence on the part of the biggest cheaters. $25 million in bribes and fees changed hands. Absurd lies were concocted. For example, athletic prowess was manufactured for students who never played sports. In one case, a student’s height was elevated from 5 feet 5 inches to 6 feet one inch.

It’s amazing they thought they could get away with this. But there is a vicious circle of cheating and arrogant risk-taking. The more you cheat, the more you think you can get away with it. Lance Armstrong comes to mind as a notorious example. The more he won, the more likely his cheating would be exposed. But his hubris prevailed.

Of course, when outrageous scams unfold at elite universities or on the Tour de France, it is likely that the house of cards will eventually collapse. But the cheater is blind to this reality because he is focused on a world of phonies and frauds. Perhaps he thinks everyone cheats or that no one really cares. The cheater is so concerned with the external markings of success that he forgets that decent people still believe in honesty and integrity.

Most of us know that cheating prevents us from obtaining the internal goods of an activity. Armstrong did not really “win” the Tour de France. Students who cheat on language exams do not really speak the language. And those who cheated their way into USC or UCLA are only counterfeit Trojans and bogus Bruins.

In a world that is focused on external goods, cheating is inevitable. Universities have become a mere means for getting ahead. Sports and athletics are also often viewed as a tool for getting a scholarship or striking it rich. If all you want is the money, then cheating makes sense.

But what is forgotten in that worldview is the intrinsic value of learning, working and achieving. The real reason not to cheat is because you desire goods that are only available by doing an activity with excellence. Cheating won’t help you speak a foreign language. Cheating can’t help you free solo El Capitan. Cheating won’t build a house or a business. And cheating won’t make you a good person.

You can only learn, build, create, and achieve when you act with integrity, honor and honesty. You can only actually do something by really doing it. And you can only claim to be 6 feet 1 inch if you really are that tall.

Now some people don’t cheat because they are afraid of getting caught. But the fear of punishment is still external. Fear of punishment does not teach people not to cheat. It only teaches them not to get caught by mastering the Machiavellian arts of lying, denying, accusing and covering-up.

To prevent cheating, what’s needed is moral education. This may sound trite but it’s true. External success is less important than inner virtue. Honesty and integrity are the keys to living well. And what you gain by cheating is not worth having.

Andrew Fiala is a professor of philosophy and director of The Ethics Center at Fresno State: @PhilosophyFiala