Wednesday, August 15, 2012

How is Your Sense of Ethics?

What’s up with all the cheating lately?  Today I read an article about a teenage player in a Scrabble competition who was caught cheating by hiding blank tiles in his sleeve.  Check out the article here:

And the Olympics had a Chinese badminton team throwing matches so that they wouldn’t have to compete against a more difficult team in the next round.  Likewise, a few boxing referees were suspended and expelled for various infractions.  In one case, a boxer from Azerbaijan fell to the mat six times, easily defeated, and yet the Turkmenistani referee refused to end the match and give the win to his Japanese contender.  In the end, the Azerbaijani boxer won by decision, although he had to be helped out of the ring.

Seriously?  This is the Olympics, people.

I shouldn’t be surprised.  After all, the best way to beat an opponent at a competition is to have an advantage over him or her.  Ethically-speaking, that advantage is in skill, intelligence, or athletic prowess, and the winning competitor has abided by the rules of the game.  But sometimes those rules have loopholes, and if that means winning a gold medal in the Olympics or going home empty-handed, we shouldn’t be shocked when people find ways to exploit those loopholes.  Or flat out cheat.

I can’t say I never cheated.  But in high school I never did.  I know some kids would write answers on their desks right before the exams were handed out, but high school studies were very easy for me.  I never cheated in high school because yes, it was wrong, but also because I didn’t need to.  I just used my brain and did well.

College was a bit of a different story though.  And I think it was the peer pressure that really made me cross those ethical boundaries.  After taking a few tests in one particularly difficult EE course, a lab partner of mine asked, “Are the formulas in your graphing calculator messed up?”  I had no clue what he was talking about, and then he scrunched up his face like I was joking, pulled out his graphing calculator, and showed me a list of about two-hundred formulas broken down by category that’d he’d entered into the device's memory.  He had the Law of Sines and other trigonometric formulas, chemical reactions, Fourier Transform pairs.  And I was honestly just dumbfounded.

Of course, my shock turned to compunction when other lab partners started laughing and showed me their calculators, which seemingly had even more formulas than the first.  And then even a TA came up to us and said he’d never have gotten through EE 330 without his stash of formulas.  In my mind I kept thinking this was just so…WRONG…but that night I must have spent three hours entering formulas into my calculator.  And then when I took my next exam, I think I referenced those formulas a handful of times, and sure enough I got a 96 on it.

I look back now and still think that was so wrong.  But considering that our profs graded on curves, and I was at the bottom end of the bell curve in several of my classes, I really had no choice.  I was paying a lot of money to get a piece of paper saying I was an educated man, and yet cheaters were robbing me of my money and education.

I remember one statistics class in which the professor actually encouraged us to use graphing calculators and even laptops with the Excel statistical package installed if we had them.  I came to my first exam with my laptop, pulled it out, and watched as twenty-nine other students stared at me, most probably thinking I was a nerd for actually bringing a laptop.  I was the first one to finish that exam though, and when I received my grade, I had 100%.  I’d even gotten the two bonus questions correct.  When that course ended, I recall stopping by my prof’s office to see my final grade.  He asked for my name and looked it up, and he was shocked that I had the third highest out of all 3 sections he taught.  His exact words were, “How did you do so well in my class, and I don’t even know your name?”  I just shrugged my shoulders and replied, “It helped that we were able to use calculators and computers.”  And I felt great knowing that I used the tools available to me to do well in his class.

There’s a huge difference between using technology as a tool and relying on it though.  In none of my other courses, especially the 300 and 400 level courses, did a professor allow us to use laptops or calculators to store formulas.  We were expected to memorize those formulas.  My EE grades may not have been as good as others, especially after having gone through one and a half semesters without using their unethical trick, but dammit I knew all of those mathematical formulas better than 90% of my peers.  Granted I can only remember maybe 10% of them now, but at least I actually LEARNED something.

The question is: how many of us would cheat to get ahead if given the opportunity?  Does money or fame or having your name in the record books trump knowing that you did this on your own without the assistance of a crooked judge or a computer or some other method of cheating?  Has our society become so obsessed with success that we are willing to throw out all of our morals and ethics to obtain it?

Of course, I’m the kind of guy who follows the rules to a tee.  I take all of my corrugated cardboard and newspapers to the recycling bins outside of Wal-Mart instead of tossing it in the trash.  I always use my turn signals and stop at every stop sign, even though I know people roll through the one down the road from my house like it’s not even there.  I cringe when I hear about people scamming stores that offer no hassle returns.  But that’s just me.  I was raised properly, I guess.

But what about everyone else?  Am I the idiot for not following suit—metaphorically speaking, not putting those formulas in my graphing calculator?  I’m not asking because I’m considering a change into the realm of the unethical.  I’m asking because I want to know if you, my reader, have a firm moral ground to stand on.  If you don’t, why is that?  Because you just want to have an advantage over everyone else?  Because having more money/power/fame is really all that is important to you?

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