Morality and Cheating on the SAT

Aristotle's explanation of what the cheaters are losing.

Posted Mar 14, 2019

Recent work by researchers in various fields has focussed on the impact of norms on our behavior (see Christine Bicchieri's Norms in the Wild or Geoffrey Brennan, Lina Eriksson, Robert E. Goodin and Nicholas Southwood 's Explaining Norms).  They do not mean merely descriptive norms, such as statistics on what some population is doing. Nor do they mean to refer to idealized standards give by people prescribing behavior. They are focussed on the role norms play in the behaviors we do, think others should do, think others are likely to do, and that we really ought to do! They argue that we represent such ideas with "clusters of normative attitudes," and that these norms work to make us accountable to each other. 

Not cheating on an SAT test is a good example of such a norm. If we begin to believe that many people fake their admissions packets for University, the prediction Bicchieri will make is that we will be more tempted to do so ourselves. Norms about cheating on the SAT being wrong will break down.

So if we are interested in preserving a "do not cheat others out of spots at university" norm, we might want to focus on some reasons to abide by it, even if, due to the FBI's recent arrests over university "admissions scams" we have come to realize that some entire families worked together to violate this norm.

But we still have lots of reasons for not cheating. We have had them for a long time, even. TED talks are supposed to be inspirational, and one that instead lectures a bit on Aristotle's account of ethics might fail by that important metric. Nonetheless, it can be helpful for an ethical theory to be explained as simply as possible. That is what I attempted to do in this TEDx talk on Aristotle, called "Why Not Cheat?" I wanted to explain what Aristotle would want to put on a class syllabus policy about cheating, as Aristotle is assured that when you cheat, you are failing to treat yourself with respect. 

Now, you might still ask, how is this possibly true? And how can it be true for the cheaters, people who are always making excuses for themselves? The ones who cheat because they have figured out some way that the general rule does not apply in their case? How could behavior they do not even think is wrong (for them anyway) harm their self-image in any way? As the popular line goes, "They are only going to feel bad about being caught." 

It requires a few shifts from our modern perspective to answer, and I try to make those in the talk. 

Virtue ethics in the tradition of Aristotle think that most people find it stressful when we fail to keep our commitments. Such views anticipate a psychological “kick” if we do not live up to standards we endorse. Aristotle talks of feeling distress. We might be tempted into cheating, but we will feel shame about it. 

But those who are "too ready to accept excuses for themselves” are a different case. They, again, are likely to point fingers at others and not ever feel responsible for what they have done. So are there no psychic consequences for people like this? If we want to update Aristotle, we see some described by the behavioral scientist George Ainslie. Having cheated on an SAT while pretending they did not means the cheaters will suffer from "reduced expectations" about doing things most people manage to do without cheating. They will experience “distorted informational processing” while trying to uphold (as we require from them, with social pressure) the idea that cheating is usually wrong. (They sure do not expect us to cheat them all the time now, do they? They have to figure out an answer to "why not?" and it will not be easy.) If they want to maintain a conception of themselves as not responsible for the cheating, and that's going to be exhausting, too. And the result will be a loss of self-trust. See Ainslie's paper for a full explanation. 

Or, if we go back to how Aristotle would put it, even if they are shameless, they will experience a loss in what it takes to be...happy.


Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics. Translated by W. D. Ross in The Works of Aristotle, edited by W. D. Ross and J. A. Smith. Clarendon Press, UK, 1908.