I’ve been a college professor for many years. Every year at least one or two of my students are caught cheating.  They plagiarize term papers, look for answers on other students’ exams, or turn in someone else’s homework as their own.

I’ve heard every possible excuse. One student told me he was helping me by cheating. When I asked him what he meant, he said with a straight face that it was easier for me to grade tests when there were more right answers. I failed to see any reason to thank him for his “thoughtfulness.” When I caught another student clearly cheating on a test, he chose as a novel defense to indignantly tell me it wasn’t any of my business whether he cheated because his moral position was personal. Yet another told me I was too old fashioned and I should just accept the fact that students cheat.

Where does this type of thinking come from? It makes me wonder if these students saw their parents cheating on their taxes, lying to their neighbors, or boasting their good fortune if a clerk in a store gave them too much money in change. On the other hand, I also wonder if my student was right – that the idea of honesty has just become too old fashioned. 

This has caused me to take a hard look at honesty. As best I can tell, generally we still teach our children to be honest. If this is true, where does the relativistic thinking I see in my students come from? What happens between childhood and college that causes the transition from “be honest” to “cheat if you need to”? 

Maybe the transition happens as children begin to see the grey areas of life. They begin to recognize that there might be times when we shouldn’t be honest? If we are honest in every single circumstance we will almost certainly hurt people we care about.  Your friend asks you if you like her new sweater. You think it is hideous, but you want to spare her feelings so you lie. “Sure, it looks great,” you might say. To be honest in this context is called “brutal honesty.” Is there virtue in brutality? Surely not.

But if we say that there are times when it is OK to lie, we run the risk of practicing situational ethics. If we do that, who gets to say that students who cheat are incorrect in their argument that cheating on a test doesn’t matter. Maybe my student was correct in saying it was none of my business.

We have tried to tackle this question by classifying honesty by the “size” of the lie. Little white lies, we say, are sometimes OK. The big lies are not.  But this is troubling logic. Who gets to decide what lie is big and what lie is not. Undoubtedly, many of my students perceive cheating on a test, especially only on one or two questions, as a “little lie.” I don’t see it that way.

We’ve also tried to classify dishonesty by who benefits from the lie. We might say that if the lie is motivated by selfishness then it is not OK. If we are trying to protect someone’s feelings, like the friend with the sweater, then it is selfless and, thereby permissible. But this logic has problems as well. Should we accept cheating when the student truly is trying to save his family the embarrassment and expense that comes from failing a test or course? I think not.

Perhaps the answer resides in the fact that we can be honest and still spare people’s feelings. We can be honest without saying everything we are thinking. We can say to the friend with the sweater, “I’m so happy you found a sweater you like.” This is called tact. Honesty, in this context, will always work.

Absolutes can be troubling, but maybe honesty as a virtue – as an absolute – is the best policy. The benefit of absolute honesty is that you can be believed and trusted. Being trusted is of value not only to you, but to the one who needs someone in whom he can trust. Honesty – absolute honesty – benefits everyone.