Do Ethics Still Matter?

A cynical criminologist ponders the notions of right and wrong

Posted by Dawn Lomer in on August 22nd, 2011

If the code of ethics in the academic world is a precursor to real world behavior, the future may look bleak for those who believe most people are genuinely honest and ethical. The ethics experiment we blogged about last week, in which fewer students cheated when they were reminded that cheating was against the rules, may be misleading if taken the wrong way, says Michael Mopas, a criminologist and Assistant Professor, Department of Sociology and Anthropology at Carleton University in Ottawa.

Mopas isn’t convinced that what prevented students from going to the site with the exam answers had anything to do with ‘ethics’. “The message that the students got was that gaining an unfair advantage was ‘not allowed’ according to the university’s honor code.”

Wrong vs Not Allowed

Saying that something isn’t allowed is very different from saying that something isn’t the right thing to do, says Mopas. The former is about formal rules (institutional, legal, etc.), while the latter is more about ethics and morality.

University honor codes, he says, often compel students to act ethically by appealing to some notion of a common or greater good, simultaneously pointing to the list of penalties for breaking the code.

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While the e-mail in the experiment didn’t mention anything about possible punishments, the statement ‘not allowed’ and the reference to the honor code implies that there are potential consequences, says Mopas.

Rewards vs Risks

“I think it’s impossible to know whether or not people are doing (or not doing) something because it’s the right (or wrong) thing to do or if people are more rational and simply weigh the rewards of cheating (or committing some other kind of act) versus the risks and consequences of getting caught,” says Mopas. “As a cynical criminologist who deals with undergrads on a regular basis, I’m leaning towards the latter. Every year, I catch at least one student for plagiarism. When I call them on it, all of them are fully aware that what they were doing was wrong, but did it anyway for a variety of reasons.”

“Although they would never admit it, these students likely thought there was no way they’d get caught. Again, none of these students really needed reminding that you should not plagiarize. Nor do I think that being reminded that plagiarism is wrong would have changed their behavior,” he says.

Everybody Does It

The experiment revealed that students thought a large proportion of their colleagues were cheating. This shouldn’t surprise us, says Mopas. “Cheating (and stealing) are all around us: Doping in the Tour de France, baseball players getting caught using steroids, illegal downloading of movies and music, digital sampling, Ponzi schemes, etc. The students’ belief that everyone around them is cheating suggests a real cynicism about the world.” It also suggests that universally agreed upon ideas about right and wrong are no longer important.

So can people be prompted to act ethically? “I don’t know,” says Mopas. “I think the more important question to ask is whether or not ethics still matter and if we, as a society, are still guided by notions of right and wrong. And if not, why? Perhaps the philosopher Jeremy Bentham was right that people are completely self-interested and will do whatever they can to maximize pleasure and minimize pain.”

Dawn Lomer
Dawn Lomer

Managing Editor

Dawn Lomer is the managing editor at i-Sight Software and a Certified Fraud Examiner (CFE). She writes about topics related to workplace investigations, ethics and compliance, data security and e-discovery, and hosts i-Sight webinars.