The Ethicist: Should I Tell on My Cheating Classmates?

February 11, 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 “Should I Tell on My Cheating Classmates?

In middle school, I witnessed three friends cheating on a test when a teacher was not in the room. I reminded them that we were not supposed to collaborate or use a computer to look up answers. They told me to “lay off.”

I was tempted to report them because I value being honest and because we were graded on a curve. But I was also hesitant because they were all admitted into prestigious high schools, and I was afraid that my middle school would have to report the cheating to those high schools. I was also afraid that they would know I was the one who reported them and that there might be consequences for our friendship.

There is no official honor code at my school, so I did not promise to report cheaters. Should I have reported them? Name Withheld

My response: When adults ask what they should do, I usually respond,

“What should I do?” … Asking what you should do makes sense for children asking their parents. For an adult, it looks like asking someone else to take responsibility, which I call juvenile. Asking for options or views you might have missed makes sense, but you didn’t ask that.

But you sound like you’re still in high school, so fair question. Most adults would probably say to turn them in, but it’s not so easy when your reputation and relationships are at stake.

I 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.

Another general response for such situations:

  1. Figuring out what resources you have—relationships, time, etc
  2. Figuring what skills you have and can create
  3. Creating as many options as you can
  4. Considering what outcomes each option will result in
  5. Choosing which option to act on based on those outcomes, evaluating them using empathy
  6. Implement the option you like most
  7. Do the best you can, knowing that problems will arise

The New York Times response:

According to various experts, cheating has gotten worse in recent decades — in part because of increased pressure for good grades and scores among college-bound students — and less stigmatized than it used to be. What you’ve described fits that pattern.

If you’re out of step with your friends, it’s because you’re clear that cheating is wrong. Stick with that thought. Being honest is a good thing in itself. Your friends may think you’re a sucker. They’re wrong. And there are pragmatic considerations in favor of honesty too: Dishonesty is hard to conceal in the long run, and in nearly every sphere of life, having a reputation for dishonesty is a curse. In most circumstances, as a pragmatic matter, honesty really is the best policy. But an honest person won’t be honest for this reason. I’m sure that’s true of you. It’s an ideal you value, not simply a calculation you make.

As you also understand, people who cheat exploit the good faith of those who don’t, because cheating lets them represent themselves as better than they are, relative to noncheaters. (You mention that you’re being graded on a curve.) It’s a breach of their relationship with the teachers who trust them not to do these things, with the friends they disadvantage and with the parents they betray. And it’s bad for the offenders, because regular cheaters don’t do the work to understand the material being tested, depriving themselves of real learning and the opportunity for pedagogic correction.

People who cheat like this in middle school and who scoff at criticism of it are presumably going to go on cheating. And they may well get away with it. While certain forms of plagiarism are easier to detect than before (there are various online programs for this purpose), it appears that the rate of cheating is much higher than the rate of its detection. If your friends were exposed and learned that cheating is a serious matter, they might benefit in the long run. Certainly their peers, by learning from their example, could benefit.

Should you have blown the whistle, then? Maybe not. As you suggest, losing a place at a prestigious high school can be a big deal in our society, where educational opportunity is unfairly distributed. Adding to the current unfairness by cheating isn’t exactly helpful, of course, but that wouldn’t have occurred to your friends as they nursed their outrage at your tattling. And given how little cheating is caught, reporting them would have meant that they paid a penalty that lots of others ought to — but won’t — pay. Because many people in your generation don’t take cheating very seriously, your friends would most likely have ended up focusing on the unfairness of being singled out, not on their wrongdoing.

The intervention you were considering was likely, therefore, to be very costly to you. Whistle-blowers often suffer, sometimes more than those whose offenses they report. And the burden of dealing with cheating in your school shouldn’t fall on you. (I’m glad, as a result, that your school doesn’t expect you to report cheating. So-called honor codes mostly end up being ignored — thus increasing the general level of dishonesty rather than lowering it — while occasionally harming the honorable.) So I would not have recommended reporting these friends. Even if they did something wrong, your friendship, along with the probable costs to you, weighed against reporting them.Some people, I realize, think that self-directed considerations don’t belong in the moral calculus. You can assess the consequence of your actions on others and on the world, in their view, but you’re not supposed to take your own concerns into account. They identify morality with the triumph over self-interest. This austerely demanding view is tempting but misguided. Morality should not be turned into something like the good china, which you take down from the high shelf only for special occasions. Ethics, in its classical sense, was about being a good person — and living a good life. (The first thing being part of the second.) It was meant for everyday use. The point is that you’re a participant in the situation you describe; your own prospects have to be considered, too.

And suppose that by turning in these cheaters, you became a pariah; would you have helped or hurt the social norm of honesty? Still, there may be things you can do. You might write to the head of your school board and say that cheating is happening and not being detected. (Consult your parents first, of course.) In an ideal world, students could be trusted to refrain from cheating because, like you, they value honesty. But we’re probably headed toward a world that’s simply less dependent on trust: no unsupervised tests, regular use of plagiarism checkers and statistical methods for detecting cheaters; stiff penalties for those who are caught. Given this reality, you might suggest some simple measures that could be taken. For starters, it’s not too much to ask that teachers stay in the room when an exam is being given.


I used to play rugby in college. Two of my old teammates are now assistant coaches for the team. Recently, one of the players got wasted and then fell and hit her head getting out of her friend’s car. She hit it hard enough to cause bleeding. Her friends called an ambulance.

I heard about this from one of the assistant coaches. The team is going to championships soon, and so everyone is practicing even more than before. I told my friend, one of the assistant coaches, that she should have the woman take the concussion test again, even though the injury wasn’t rugby-related. My best friend blew it off. I also texted the head coach, who also brushed it off.

I find this deeply troubling, because it involves head trauma. I believe that the young woman should be looked at for her own health and recovery. It’s the safest bet in my view.

Because I am no longer part of the team, do I have a right to speak up? If so, what should the next steps be? Name Withheld

My response: Am I missing something? You say her friends called an ambulance. Did the ambulance come? If so, did it take her to the hospital? Wouldn’t professionals then have “looked at for her own health and recovery?”

I also don’t understand the question about having a “right to speak up.” Why ask about rights?

You can say what you want, independent of people agreeing you have a right. I suggest you want not a label 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.

The New York Times response:

You’ve been told that this young woman hit her head and went in an ambulance to the hospital. Given the nature of the accident, she was presumably checked for a concussion. Your view is that she should be checked again. I’m no physician, but because she was treated in an emergency room, we should assume that the doctor there would have told her if she needed to return for another examination. If the doctor didn’t tell her that, I can’t see why she has more reason to check than anyone else on her team.

It has been a great many years since I’ve played rugby, but I know that given the nature of the sport, there will be a risk of concussion during practice and, especially, during play. So the coaches should be keeping an eye out for head impacts and for the symptoms of concussion. Still, you have no reason to think that the professionals involved here — in the hospital or on the field — haven’t been doing their job. Especially given that you have no professional responsibilities in relation to the team, you’re in no position to substitute your judgment for theirs.

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