In defense of (some) dishonesty

Cheating and dishonesty are often framed as ethnically and morally indefensible. Either someone is honest or dishonest, without any ‘grey area’ in-between, or without taking into account the context of the situation. But rather than having to choose between what I believe to be a false dichotomy, I think, instead, many of the prevailing notions and beliefs about cheating and dishonesty should be reassessed and questioned.

People tend to overestimate the efficacy of cheating, or assume that it takes precedence over other factors. Rather, it is more like a tool. Someone who cheats to pass a biology exam is not aspiring to become a biologist, but rather just needs the extra boost to pass the course. Lance Armstrong was already an élite-level athlete when he began doping, but needed the extra boost to beat his competitors, many of whom were also doping too. It is not like performance enhancing drugs can turn a couch potato into an elite athlete.

Academic dishonesty is wrong so far as it is unfair to students who study, yet the system of higher education itself is so broken in many respects, that widespread cheating more of a symptom of the problem (for example, ill-prepared, unmotivated students being required to take courses that are irrelevant to their choice of major) , than the problem itself. Higher education is sold to millions of young people as a path to a comfortable middle-class lifestyle, and although many excel at college and get good-paying jobs afterwards, about half of students drop out, and dropouts are often left with debt and none of the benefits of having attended college. For these students and their parents, who have to pay the bill, college is a huge ripoff. There is a sort of conflict of interest in which administrators, presidents, deans, etc. make large salaries by perpetuating this system that directly benefits them.

The odds are already stacked against you. Cheating is just a tool that one can avail themselves of that improves the odds slightly; it is not some magical elixir for success. 90% of small businesses fail, but some dishonesty and cheating helps tilt the odds slightly more to your favor even if they are still overwhelmingly stacked against you anyway. It is not like cheating will turn a struggling business into Apple or Microsoft, but it may be enough to meet payroll or keep things afloat for a year or so until things turn around.

I knew someone who ran a business and was losing money, but found some exploit on a website that allowed him to procure free product, until the loophole was patched. Did he become wealthy? Hardly, but it was enough to bring the business into the black, at least temporality.

‘Corporate culture’ encourages outsourcing, collaboration, and delegation, but this is considered cheating and dishonesty in school (such as outsourcing a difficult writing assignment with a strict deadline to a ghost writer or using a paper mill). Collaboration on an assignment or on an exam is often considered cheating, too, unless otherwise specified. Why is that.

People have a false idealization of society being a meritocracy. To some extent it is: people who become physicists or doctors tend to be more knowledgeable about physics or medicine than lay people, but often the correlation between results and ability are not so clear-cut. Luck and favoritism often play a major but uncredited role.

Look how much money and fame Malcolm Gladwell and Nassim Talab have amassed over the past two decades selling popular non-fiction books. Ideally, non-fiction books are supposed to at least adhere to some standard of impartiality and intellectual rigor, yet whether anyone posts on sites such as Reddit or Hacker News excerpts from their books and or articles, without fail there is overwhelming criticism in the comments about how the aforementioned authors commit egregious logical and reasoning errors and misconstrue the arguments of their ideological and intellectual opponents, that you typically do not see with other non-fiction authors. It would seem as if Taleb and Gladwell have made a fortune peddling sugar-coated lies and misinformation, wrapped up as easily-digestible stories suitable for public consumption but falling under even the slightest scrutiny by anyone with any critical thinking of subject-matter knowledge. In a true meritocracy, non-fiction authors who commit such malfeasance would not be elevated so highly in society in terms of status and wealth.

People value honestly and ethics but at the same time seldom praise it; rather, people praise quantifiable results. So this create a conflict between the two. Read any obituary about a famous person; often the person is lauded for what he or she accomplished, not his or her moral and ethical qualities (unless somehow it was relevant to their job or public image).

The professionals rig the game and cheat, anyway. Look at the recent controversy over GameStop (GME), WallStreetBets, Citadel, and Robinhood. During the GameStop short suqeeze fiasco in January, Robinhood suspended and restricted trading of GameStop , just as short-sellers were bucking under catastrophic losses. The perceptions was, although the story is still developing, is that Robinhood acquiesced to the Citadel and other funds who were short GME, to suspended trading of GME stock, provoking cries of foul by GME shareholders, the WallStreetBets community, and Robinhood customers.

Paradoxically, unethical/dishonest people tend to have nicer, more agreeable personalities. If you are an unethical person and you know it, then all the pretense of moral superiority goes away. Much of disagreement in politics and discourse is about one group trying to impose its moral high ground and virtues on another.

You probably won’t get caught anyway, and no one can really do anything about it unless there is a serious impetus to stop the problem, rather than just ignoring it or brushing it aside. The Madoff fraud lasted decades, only ending when Madoff confessed the scam to his sons, who subsequently turned him in, not because of any investigative work by the FBI, the SEC, etc. Whistleblowers who alerted the SEC about the mathematical impossibility of Madoff’s purported returns were ignored. Lance Armstrong got away with cheating for his entire professional cycling career, and only after retiring a wealthy man was his doping uncovered, only because technology had become sufficiently advanced in the interim that old urine samples turned up banned substances that had previously went undetected. Sure, his reputation is in tatters, but maybe that was a worthwhile tradeoff for the infamy and wealth he attained nonetheless.

People consider cheating and dishonesty unfair and ‘taking a shortcut,’ but there are other things that are unfair that society deems acceptable. Someone who is tall has an advantage at basketball (and other things in life, such as dating and earning more money). It’s not uncommon for men to exaggerate their height by a few inches on dating sites, or wear height-enhancing shoes that add up to a few inches of height. Both of these are technically forms of deception, but deemed necessary to gain an edge in a competitive dating market. Someone born into wealth, such as Bill Gates or Trump, has, all else being equal, an advantage over someone born into poverty or more modest means, yet this too is considered acceptable. But cheating to rectify these inequities or to help boost one’s odds of sucess when one doesn’t posses the innate skills or talents and/or upbringing to succeed 100% honestly and ethnically, is suddenly off-limits and wrong.