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Academic Cheating

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Dear Jenni


I am a Norwegian High-School student, and would like to apply for an international program course (International Baccalaureate) my second and third High-School year. The Norwegian government is very restrictive and heavily regulates the Norwegian school system (the quality is thereafter), and this is one of the few opportunities I actually have to escape from their system. To do so I have to apply and my grades are most important in this regard. My grade in English is, obviously, most important since I am applying to an international school program.



It is often possible to cheat on the English test of term (you find the test online and write a “perfect” draft before the actual test), the test your grade heavily relays on, and I would like to know whether this could be justified or not. On the one hand, it is possible to argue that to cheat is a form of self-preservation, considering that the government forces you to choose among a few program with low quality. On the other hand, it is possible to argue that if I cheat to get into the program I will cheat to gain a value, I value many aspects of the program tremendously. 

What is the moral, and ultimately the practical, thing to do?




Well, Chris, let me tell you first off--if you ever find yourself asking whether it's possible to justify doing something, this is a big ol' smackin' clue that it's a bad idea.  Granted, that doesn't mean it's easy to determine why it's a bad idea, so let's go into that by doing a little hypothetical here:


What if you were to cheat on the exam?  Well, first off, there are a lot of ways this could go wrong.  For one, you could get caught and potentially wreck a large number of future opportunities for yourself.  Or, let's say that you don't get caught and you do go to the international program, where you find that your skill with English just isn't quite up to the necessary work and you find yourself struggling, getting much worse results than if you'd stuck with a native-language program, and maybe even fail out of it, winding up in debt and other problems and with a lot of wasted time to boot.  I'm not saying either of those WILL happen and that's WHY you shouldn't cheat, I'm just pointing out that there is potentially a big risk here.  So if the kind of justification one was looking at was along the lines of "there's no real downside", well, there is, at least potentially.  So that's one clue as to the nature of this kind of action.


Next--let's say that nothing bad happens directly as a result of the cheating.  Let's say that the test graders are lazy, this exam thing really is purely a formality, and your English is perfectly fine to excel at the coursework.  So why isn't it a good idea now?  Well, for a number of reasons.  Why do you want to attend this program in the first place?  I'm assuming it's not an end-in-itself but a step to a further goal.  Are you going to cheat on your exams at the program?  No?  Why not?  It worked for you before, right?  Cheating is much easier than actually learning the material, particularly if it's hard.  Maybe only one class, because you're really bad at that one.


And, do you KNOW for a FACT that this program WILL result in better opportunities for you?  Maybe it's all a bunch of prestigious hot air that you won't be able to stomach and you'll wind up being labeled a "problem student" and shunted into WORSE opportunities than you might be able to get if you simply decided to squeeze every last dang bit you got out of the Norwegian program and your ability to learn on your own.  A good degree doesn't guarantee a good job.


Now, the thing with all these hypothetical questions is that I am NOT trying to illustrate to you how things could go belly up and thus scare you into "proper" behavior.  (Haha, I'm more subtle than that.)  What I'm actually trying to illustrate here is that once you abandon the principled approach to action (in this case, the principle of Honesty), these sorts of questions multiply ENDLESSLY and you wind up having no real way to answer ANY of them short of finding a legitimate oracle who can see the future.  And I'm pretty sure those don't exist.  As humans, our range is limited.  Proper principles eliminate the need to endlessly debate possible futures because they make sure we stay grounded on rock and pointed in the right direction as much as we can be in a world where none of us know or CAN know the future.


It is always, ultimately, futile to try and scare people out of a course of action because something bad might happen, or that some mystical force like "their conscience" will make them feel bad sometime down the road.  The real question you have to ask yourself is not "will I get caught/feel bad".  That is a trap that disguises the issue.  The real issues is this: is it better to stand on solid ground, or to be lost at sea with an endless ream of unanswerable questions, reacting blindly to some dominant stimulus of the immediate moment?  Because once you abandon principles--even if you only tell yourself it's going to be this one time--you've jumped overboard. 


Now, one further thing--some might say that the Norwegian gov't is responsible for this situation, and you don't "owe it to them" to respect their testing methods, in fact, that you owe it to yourself to escape by any means necessary.  I have this to say about that: Meh.  Personally, I think this is a cop-out and an excuse only.  Yes, the Norwegian system may not be fantastic--but that doesn't mean it's the same as a totalitarian prison, either.  Nor is there any perfect place in the world for you to escape TO.  So the solution to this one is simple: it's not about them and what they do (up until the point where you really are facing an "escape or die" kind of scenario instead of something more along the lines of "escape or maybe go to a crappier school").  This is about you, and your adherence to principles or not.


Now, you may not be convinced, even so (although I think from your wording that you're willing to be convinced).  This particular issue, while it probably seems like a little, simple one, is probably THE TOUGHEST one in all philosophy.  Getting a handle not just on the metaphorical "list of Objectivist principles"  but WHY you should adhere to principles in the first place is super-complex and difficult, so I doubt that my little discussion of it here, that BARELY touches on the high points, is going to get you anywhere if you have no real understanding of the issue to build on.  I'd recommend that you listen to Dr. Peikoff's lecture Why Should One Act On Principle? for starters.  It's a great lecture and very helpful.

Edited by JMeganSnow
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