Using the (later) Wittgensteinian (1) criterion for understanding-facilitation through meaning-clarification, the meaning of a term (it could be a word or a phrase) is its use. Technically, we call it, “the use theory of meaning”. It basically tells us that there is no accurate way to get to the meaning of a term unless it is used in a sentence thereby establishing its context. Nobody automatically knows the meaning of the word “bat” unless one uses it in a sentence. In the English language, it could at least be two things: the flying mammal or the stick used in playing baseball. We could think of more related examples.
Having this concern in mind, it is initially inaccurate to immediately come up with a value judgment on the concept of “cheating” unless we put it in a proper context. Nevertheless, we generally have a negative reaction to cheating as we automatically connect it with an immoral act. Simply put, we unquestionably understand it as an issue that violates certain established moral standards. There could not have been any problem here had the term “cheating” not been used in another sense.
At this point, one more important aspect of concept-signification may be raised: the use of a concept in the literal as well as in the figurative sense. One common register or collocation that we could think of in relation to the use of the term “cheat” in the figurative sense is, “cheat(ing) death”. It means being able to survive a near-death situation ( it could be an accident), or, using another common register, “a close call”. “Cheat” could also mean an easy way to overcome a difficulty as in the case of a non-native learner of the English language who struggles to pronounce the past tense/past participle form of the verb “ask” i.e., “asked”. Instead of getting into the difficulty of saying “askt”, the “cheat” is to get rid of the “k” and simply say, “ast”. In both instances, the term “cheating” or “cheat” is free from the negative moral judgment.
Another term that uses the word “cheat” without automatically connecting it with what is generally considered immoral is “cheat sheet” which, according to the online Cambridge dictionary is “a piece of paper, computer file, etc. that gives you useful information about a subject, or helps you remember or do something.” (2) However, the connotation that gives it a negative implication is likewise found in the same entry as we get to read the following:” . . . sometimes used for cheating in a test or examination.” (3) In other words, the “cheat sheet” is a neutral thing until such is used as a concealed tool while a student is having an examination.
In a traditional school setting where memorization is given more importance than the more solid aspects of education like interpretation, critical analysis, evaluation, and pragmatization, among others, cheating is common. This pedagogical method is known as “banking system” (4) wherein students are encouraged to memorize lessons without a thorough understanding of their substances. This method is likened to depositing money in the bank at one point and later withdrawing it at another. In a classroom situation, the lessons memorized (“deposited”) are expected to be poured out (“withdrawn”) in an examination. This is a situation that opens up all possible doors to cheating.
And now, we enter the realm of ethics and morals where cheating is adjudged beneath human decency and integrity. As an immoral act, cheating assaults fairness and truthfulness. As such, it is in league with dishonesty, deception, lying, and stealing. It aims to take advantage of opportunities to get over and above other people through iniquitous maneuverings. In committing the act of cheating, one underestimates and disparages the worth of another person’s humanity.
Despite all the aforementioned considerations, cheating is everywhere: In government and politics, in business and industry, in merchandise shops, in personal engagements, just to name a few. In other words, cheating is something prevalent and commonplace. In fact, in certain instances, cheating is deemed normal and dismissed as negligible as it has somehow evolved through time and has in the process gotten incorporated in the cultural apparatus of people in a social setting. What we witness in this circumstance are people cheating each other as they want to get back at the ones who cheated them before. Human societies anywhere are replete with cheating occurrences because cheaters are located in every nook and cranny of social engagements.
From the viewpoint of utilitarian ethical theory, cheating is not absolutely immoral if it is committed to promoting the happiness and well-being of the majority of people in a particular setting. A case in point is in an organization where the leadership consists of authoritarian, manipulative and exploitative taskmasters who have long been the cause of dissatisfaction, devitalization, and demoralization of people under them. Getting back at these authoritarian leaders by deceiving and cheating them for the purpose of getting even is the most common retaliatory act. In this connection, it wants to say that cheating could be exonerated in particular cases on the basis of some specific conditions initially laid out. As Machiavelli said, “The end justifies the means.”
On the other side of the ethical divide, virtue ethics is well-defined in terms of the notion that what matters most as right or wrong, good or bad, is not the consequences of an action but rather the action itself as it is carried out by a person of known moral integrity. In this sense, no virtuous person will ever act on the basis of the consequences s/he expects to occur. In the case of cheating, it is considered morally wrong in all aspects and angles and it must not be effected in whatever way possible. It is therefore definitely virtuous to confront authoritarian / manipulative / exploitative leaders and expose their wrongdoings rather than resort to cheating as an equalizer. The point being raised here may be construed as unachievable but ideals are ideals and it only takes the solid willingness of committed people to pragmatize these ideals.
(c) Ruel F. Pepa, 7 November 2019
(1) The “later” Wittgenstein is the Wittgenstein of the posthumously published Philosophical Investigations in contrast to the “early” Wittgenstein of the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus fame.
(4) Cf. Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed (1970; revised 1993, 2000, 2005)