On testing day, cramped lecture halls too often smell like desperation and the sweatpants you wore to Perkins the night before. Nothing exacerbates pre-test panic like the clusters of nervously overconfident students all around you. In a perfect world, students could be trusted to take tests online where they feel most comfortable. While at Duke, a student might stumble into the very rare, but totally real, class that hosts its closed-note tests online, allowing students to work when and where they feel most comfortable. 

Such tests can reduce anxiety, save paper, and even automatize part of the grading process—but they also allow for easy cheating. When a professor assigns a take-home quiz or problem set and tells students not to collaborate, murmurs dot the classroom as students plan otherwise. With nothing holding them accountable, too many students will take advantage of any opportunity to “get ahead.” Today’s column isn’t about specific testing procedures or policies, but rather about recognizing and overcoming the challenges we face when trying to do the right thing. 

Most students consider cheating to be a moral wrong. If asked, most Duke students consider cheating immoral, yet according to the March 2012 report on “Integrity in Undergraduate Life at Duke University,” 43% of our student body engages in some form of academic dishonesty,” usually unauthorized collaboration. When some students cheat, others feel they must do so too in order to compete with or to appease friends. Students need moral courage to bring their actions in line with their beliefs. Apathy for academic integrity has a ripple effect.  

We know that what we’re asking of students isn’t easy. Honor Council firmly advocates taking the higher ground, even when it means taking a lower grade, but we feel for you. Asking you to choose “the harder right instead of the easier wrong,” puts us in the uncomfortable—but necessary—position of encouraging students to let less ethically-minded peers take advantage of them. Cheaters put everyone else in a tougher position. 

When several students plan to collaborate, the remaining students must either accept the disadvantage and lower grade or sacrifice their moral principles. Social pressures and basic compassion can discourage even the most honorable students from “acting when the [community] standard is compromised.” We can all empathize with a stressed student feeling desperate, and everyone wants to help a friend. Unfortunately, simple requests for guidance can quickly turn into copying and unauthorized collaboration. Being academically honest is hard, but doing the right thing often means sacrificing personal gain.  

In principle, the personal consequences of the “right” choice shouldn’t affect one’s decision. If we only obey the laws of morality when they align with personal interest, morality is meaningless. If cheating is wrong, it’s always wrong. Maybe your friends are doing it, but if they jumped off a bridge, would you jump too? To be meaningful, morality must be distinct from self-interest. 

But why should morality be meaningful? Why live the ethical life? Plato’s Republic discusses the “Ring of Gyges,” a secret, mystical ring that makes the wearer invisible. Gyges, his king’s most loyal servant, eventually comes in possession of the ring and loses all accountability. While wearing the ring, Gyges can do as he pleases without facing any consequences. With this power, Gyges secretly kills the king and marries the queen. Freed from the trappings of his conscience and inundated with power, Gyges has escaped punishment and fulfilled his dreams through unethical means. Why shouldn’t we do the same as Gyges, cheat on a take-home quiz, or steal an unattended laptop? For millennia, philosophers, religious leaders, and politicians have sought to answer variations of this question. 

With our programming this year, Honor Council will offer some answers, but it’s each student’s responsibility to wrestle with, modify, and internalize them for themselves. Community, fairness, and equality undergird the Duke Community Standard and our mission. We owe it to our peers not to act like Gyges. 

The classmates who cheer beside us at basketball games, squeeze-in so we can fit on the C1, and support us as midterms approach are the same people we hurt when we cheat. Duke is first and foremost a university, and its community is academic. Undermining the academic integrity at Duke is an affront against Duke itself. While competition for the best internships and med schools imply otherwise, education is ultimately a collaborative effort, and we need to work as a team. We can help teammates practice, but we can’t hold their hands as they shoot, nor can we do classmates’ work for them. We wouldn’t steal the ball from a teammate and we shouldn’t cheat to outperform our classmates. Academic dishonesty hurts the entire team. 

Community responsibility is a critical component of the Duke Community Standard, but it isn’t the only reason that academic integrity is important. With our programming, discussions, and speakers this year, Honor Council will help students explore different dimensions of and justifications for honor and moral courage. We encourage students to explore the roots of their sense of responsibility, whether it be religious doctrine, philosophical treatises, parental lessons, cultural norms, or a strong gut-feeling. The intricacies of honor and integrity are complex. We’re here to explore them with you. 

We won’t “fix” honor at Duke, but we do aim to inspire productive conversations. Duke students are generally good people, but we all have bad inclinations, so we’re here to empower your conscience. With ethical talks and discussions led by top professors, we’ll take the angel on your shoulder to the weight room. We’ll give him the strength to keep the devil on your other shoulder at bay. Guest speakers like White House Ethics Lawyers and Olympic athletes will give Jiminy Cricket a microphone. When you take the road less traveled, hopefully you’ll feel proud wearing an Honor Council t-shirt. It’s not easy to determine what is right, and it might be even harder to act accordingly, but Honor Council is here to support you. 

Duke Honor Council's column runs on alternate Thursdays.