The Ethicist: What Should I Do About My Cheating Classmate?

October 14, 2018 by Joshua
in Ethicist

My series answering the New York Times’ Ethicist column with an active, leadership approach instead of an analytical, philosophical perspective continues with “What Should I Do About My Cheating Classmate?”.

I am a senior at a competitive high school. My best friend is known for being a top student and the president of the student body. Over the last year, I caught him cheating on tests and plagiarizing work several times. When I confront him, he insists that he is not cheating, just outsmarting the system. I’m concerned that his academic dishonesty may jeopardize his future and ruin his reputation. What should I do? Name Withheld

My response: In contrast to my usual answers, I point out that his motivation to cheat stems from our educational system, which is poorly designed to educate students or to develop them into mature citizens. Sadly, it’s excellently designed to motivate cheating and short-term memorizing facts. Grades, tests, sitting in rows for hours a day for most of your life to this point. . . this system teaches compliance through coercion.

I’m in the middle of developing new views on education that may not answer this letter directly, but I see as valuable for nearly anyone to read.

I recommend following the links and watching the videos in my recent post Mind-blowing learning that works: Self-Directed Education, then to read Peter Gray’s book Free to Learn, one of the best books I’ve read because it turns everything I knew about teaching children upside-down. It illuminates more about learning than nearly anything I can think of, including what I’ve read from John Dewey.

In the meantime, recommend a different perspective than asking what others think you should do. There are many choices you can make where you don’t know all the possible outcomes, who will like the results, who might get hurt, and so on. I think of it like looking down a ski slope that splits, the paths diverge so you can’t either past the first part, and you have to choose. Or choosing which wave to surf.

When you can never know all the information you wish you could but still have to choose or risk standing in the cold while others pass you by, in life or on the slopes, the best I can think to do is to know that whichever you choose, you’ll enjoy it or live it the best you can, and that you’ll take responsibility for making it work. Also not to judge your choice based on information or experience that came after you chose but couldn’t have known at the time.

The New York Times response:

Rosie Ruiz was declared the female winner of the 1980 Boston Marathon — before it came out that she joined the race only for its last mile. She wanted the rewards without putting in the effort. As in all competitions, the substantial rewards for high status in a high school make cheating attractive. But your best friend is not only cheating in that race; he’s cheating in the proverbial game of life. The fake record he’s assembling makes him eligible for all sorts of social rewards — the respect of teachers and peers, a place at the college of his choice, career options — that he hasn’t earned. You’re concerned that his habits will lead to his being caught, punished, stigmatized. But he has already lost out. When your putative successes are faked, you’re not entitled to self-respect.

Worse, his cheating amounts to abusing the trust of others and fraying the social bonds that sustain us. To cheat, after all, is to take advantage of students who don’t. Your friend stands higher than he’s entitled to in the academic rankings of the school, which means that others are doing less well than they should be. And he’s undermining the systems of evaluation that the school uses to tell who is doing well and who needs help.

Is his conduct a reflection of surrounding norms or pressures? Your own response suggests otherwise. It’s possible that he feels his family would value him less if his record weren’t so stellar; they may even have pushed him in ways that encourage this thought. But of course, he’s being dishonest with them as well, and were he exposed, he could have family relationships to repair.

You’re not going to report him to the authorities, I know. That would get you in trouble with your peers and violate the norms of friendship. But you can keep pointing out that he’s wrong about his moral assessment of the situation. For what it’s worth, the story of Rosie Ruiz is a cautionary one. A few years after the marathon prize was taken from her, she went to prison for embezzlement. It was her first criminal conviction; it was not her last.


Every year my company has a blood drive, and human resources encourages all employees who can do so to donate. I’m H.I.V.-positive, so I know I can’t donate blood, though with treatment, my viral load has been undetectable for years. When my colleagues donate, they receive a sticker that says, “I gave blood today.” The lack of a sticker almost becomes a scarlet letter. I feel a sense of remorse and a little bit of shame. It’s a stinging reminder of my H.I.V. status. Unintentionally, it also serves as a way of outing gay men within the company as well as people who may have other exclusions they’d rather keep private. What are your thoughts? Name Withheld

My response: It sounds like you want not an ethical judgment but a practical plan to resolve your situation as best you can by your values and the values of others affected as best you can tell using empathy and projecting possible outcomes.

I would go to the donation place and explain my situation to a nurse, whom I would ask for a sticker. I might also ask a relevant organization to call H.R. and tell them what they might miss.

Besides the problem you describe, you say you feel guilty/anxious/angry/other emotion you don’t like. You can manage your emotional response—through, for example, choosing your environment, beliefs, and behavior—and I’ve never seen a benefit to suffering or being miserable. I recommend developing the emotional skills to manage your emotions. You’ll make yourself more effective in achieving your goals and feel emotions you prefer, which I call a better life.

The New York Times response:

People often adopt policies with good intentions while failing to notice that they have negative effects as well as positive ones. Those familiar stickers are a case in point. Your company is creating a culture in which people are honored for giving blood — which is, indeed, a generous act with significant benefits for society. But in so doing, the company is, in effect, shaming people who don’t participate, including those who can’t participate.

Far from being shameful in these circumstances, your noncontribution is the honorable thing to do. But explaining why would involve telling your peers something that isn’t their business. (Given the range of conditions that disallow people from giving blood, though, I don’t think noncontribution outs someone as gay or H.I.V.-positive.) Still, there is something your company can do: It can draw attention, in its messages about the blood drive, to the fact that there are many reasons people may not be able to donate. Consider sending this answer to the folks in H.R.


My family is religious, and I am not. While staying at my parents’ house with them gone, I used their dishes and accidentally made them impure. Should I tell them? I’m leaning toward no. If what they believe is true, their God can’t fault them for a violation they didn’t know about. If what they believe is not true, then the “impurity” doesn’t matter. And telling them would lead to an argument that, given our religious differences, could be explosive. Name Withheld

My response: Your question is legal/medical/other professional service. Talking to a professional—a Rabbi, priest, witch, shaman, or whoever is relevant—will answer your questions more effectively than a newspaper columnist. Your situation has happened countless times before. People have resolved it and I expect your relying on experts your parents respect will garner respect from them. If the expert tells you you don’t have to tell them, you can rest easy.

The New York Times response:

My father, who was from Ghana, belonged to the Ashanti clan of the bush-cow, and so was not supposed to eat the meat of forest animals. He used to tell us, when we were children, how he once fell ill in England when he unknowingly ate some venison. The ancestors punished him even though he hadn’t meant to do it. The general point about food taboos is that they are concerned precisely with what is unclean, and what is unclean is polluting whether you know it or not. You’ve mentioned the downsides of confession; what about the benefits? First, it would be honest, and honesty is a virtue. Second, it would be respectful: You recognize that they would want to know what happened and do whatever is required to put it right. The significance for them of the impurity of their dishes matters, even if you think the underlying beliefs mistaken. Your parents are already aware that you don’t share their creedal convictions. But it would be good to let them know that, despite this disagreement, you respect them. It should also comfort them to know that you’re honest. Those are good reasons for weathering the storm and, well, coming clean. If they need to get rid of the dishes, they can always give them to you.


I am struggling with whether to tell my adult children that before they were born, I was raped at knife point in my apartment. Their father came home and caught the assailant, who was tried, found guilty and imprisoned. Although traumatized, I found relief in therapy and have lived a wonderful, productive life. Only my siblings know.

I’d like to tell my children in case they’d like to discuss it with me. I know that I learned things about my parents after they died that I wish I’d had the opportunity to talk with them about. What do you think? Name Withheld

My response: There are many choices you can make where you don’t know all the possible outcomes, who will like the results, who might get hurt, and so on. I think of it like looking down a ski slope that splits, the paths diverge so you can’t either past the first part, and you have to choose. Or choosing which wave to surf.

When you can never know all the information you wish you could but still have to choose or risk standing in the cold while others pass you by, in life or on the slopes, the best I can think to do is to know that whichever you choose, you’ll enjoy it or live it the best you can, and that you’ll take responsibility for making it work. Also not to judge your choice based on information or experience that came after you chose but couldn’t have known at the time.

The New York Times response:

Your letter illustrates one of the most powerful guides to our moral thought: imagining how things might seem from the point of view of others. You asked yourself how you’d feel if you were in the situation of your children, and have concluded that they might feel about it as you feel toward your own parents’ experience.

I can imagine it would be a difficult conversation. Your children might not, at first, be eager to talk about it with you at any length. If they are anything like you, however, they’ll also wonder whether you’ve told them because the discussion might be helpful to you. Your letter doesn’t mention your own needs here. But you might want to give those needs consideration and acknowledgment before you talk to your children about this horrendous episode.

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