Topic: Society

Cheating, the Lacy Peterson case, and Disneyworld

For reasons that escape us, the judge in the Laci Peterson case accepted a college class generated poll presented by defense attorney Mark Geragos as persuasive evidence that the Modesto, California jury pool was biased and that the trial should be moved.

Then some of the students who did the phone survey admitted that they fabricated the data. According to the Modesto Bee, which broke the story,

“Several students said Thursday they manufactured data because they were short on time and money. They said they didn’t realize the poll could figure in a life-and-death decision.”

Well, it shouldn’t have. One reason it shouldn’t have is the well-documented tendency of students to cheat on such assignments. But the significance of the incident is that the students came forward once they realized that their fraudulent methodology had real world consequences. They did not see real world consequences in cheating (and lying, for cheating usually involves an accompanying misrepresentation) when it only involved school work.

Herein may lie part of the solution to the conundrum laid out in excruciating detail in David Callahan’s current best-seller, Cheating Nation, in which he explores the disturbing prevalence of cheating in America, and attempts to explain it while proposing some solutions.

Ethics Scoreboard doesn’t buy part of Callahan’s thesis, which puts the bulk of the blame for the cheating epidemic on corporate greed and a widespread perception of social and financial inequity. This is undeniably a factor, but a more recent story point up a greater one.

Disneyworld, which had formerly issued “Go-To-The-Front-Of-The-Line” passes to any park visitor who claimed to be handicapped, announced that it would be ending the policy in favor of a system requiring verification of the disability and including something less than a blanket line-breaking license. It seems that too many people were using imaginary disabilities to glide through the Magic Kingdom’s daunting lines.

Cutting in line is both cheating and a good metaphor for cheating generally: it is going around the rules to get ahead. Once one permits exceptions to the basic rule (the basic rule being that your place in line is determined by when you get into it, period) based on other factors, it opens up rationalizations for anyone who believes their special circumstances are at least as deserving. “I’m not handicapped, butÂ…I’m exhausted; I’m old; I’m dragging around a bunch of kids; I haven’t gotten my money’s worth; I’ve been waiting all day; I’m about to snap.” And then they cheat, convincing themselves that they have it coming. In the process, they give others motivation to employ The Golden Rationalization (“Everybody Does It”) as a justification for their own cheating.

When a person or group is able to get special treatment under the rules because some authority has decided they deserve it, whether it is tax deductions or affirmative action or legacy admissions or family leave or contracts to minority businesses, other people will conclude that they are just as deserving, and exercise their own special treatment. In many forms of cheating, the behavior is rationalized as correcting an inequity. Not the inequity that Callahan emphasizesÂ…the perception that the rules of economic competition are stacked against them, but the fact that society is so willing to suspend the rules for others when the consequences seem unfair or harsh.

Once the student cheaters realized that their actions might pervert justice, they could no longer justify them through any rationalization. Next step: making tax frauds, cheating students, steroid-taking athletes, inside-traders, resume-fakers, internet pirates, plagiarizing historians, fabricating journalists, results-fudging researchers and all the other cheaters among us that Callahan documents understand the harm that their dishonesty does to others, our communities, and our culture.

The Ethics Scoreboard will do its part.


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