Cheating is pervasive, but rarely receives extended ethical analysis, argues Deborah Rhode in her forthcoming Cheating. We cheat on taxes, in games and sports, in love, in finding shortcuts to get what we want.

She argues for a stringent set of criteria for breaking conventions and rules: “individuals’ natural cognitive bias to skew the cost-benefit calculations of cheating in self-serving directions, society needs a general presumption against such misconduct. To justify an exception, a disinterested decision maker should be able to conclude that the benefits outweigh the harms, that no alternatives to cheating are available, and that if everyone in similar circumstances acted similarly, society would be no worse off.”

Rhode argues that “The vast majority of everyday cheating lacks plausible moral justifications. The conduct persists because so many individuals see the benefits as much more tangible, immediate, and compelling than the costs.”

And it persists because we have so many strategies to deflect our conscience’s attention from cheating. It’s not just a matter of self-justification. We’re subject to “’ethical fading,’ in which ethical consequences recede from consciousness,” and variations in “moral attentiveness.” Euphemistic descriptions of our cheating assists this process. The more we cheat the more we become numbed to cheating.

Rhode doesn’t think most of us are morally strong enough to be wholly honest, and so we need “much more reinforcement of ethical values is needed in homes, schools, workplaces, and the media. Parents, teachers, coaches and other youth leaders must consistently affirm ethical norms and set the right example in their own behavior. . . . In the home, authoritative parenting styles, which enforce moral standards with reasoning and fairness, can help reinforce childrens’ sense of personal responsibility.”

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