In yesterday’s New York Times, the Ethicist tackled another letter from a young ‘un who was witnessing a colleague cheating and wondered what to do. This time, the two students are seniors (last time the cheating involved the entrance exams to prestige high schools and a merry band of cheating middle-schoolers). One senior has seen his/her best friend cheating on tests and plagiarizing work (several times). The cheating best friend says that it is not cheating but “outsmarting the system.”
In response, the Ethicist recommends saying nothing because “That would get you in trouble with your peers and violate the norms of friendship.” Besides, adds the Ethicist, the cheater “has already lost out. When your putative successes are faked, you’re not entitled to self-respect.” There’s more, “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.”
How exactly does the Ethicist think norms are created? By tolerated behaviors, which is how we got into the cheating thing in the first place. Without consequences, yes, the norms shift. The issue is: Which way do you want the norms shifting to more cheating or less? How does remaining quiet and threatening cheaters with loss of self-respect instill fear in the hearts of high-schoolers?
By saying nothing, this best friend sets up his/her cheating best friend for a comeuppance at some point that will be far more consequential. The Barometer’s advice? Talk to the friend one more time — discuss disclosure, threaten disclosure, suggest voluntary disclosure, and explain why remaining best friends is dangerous for both of them. One because of guilt by association (others have, without a doubt, seen the cheating — perhaps participating as well) and the other because they are now and forever prisoners of each other. One knows about the cheating and the other knows about his/her tolerance. Those who know each other’s failures to act know secrets untold and acts unconfessed that bind them forever in deception and distrust. That’s the fabric of friendship, eh?