Missing Character   /   Spring 2024   /    Thematic—Missing Character

The Basis of Everything

The Fragility of Character in a Truth-Challenged World

Joseph E. Davis

Photograph by Priscilla Du Preez; Unsplash.com.

The great Catholic theologian and philosopher Romano Guardini began his 1963 book The Virtues with reflections on truthfulness, arguing that, among the virtues, it has absolute value. Truthfulness is an obligation, he insisted, never an option. We must always speak the truth and act so as not to mislead. Neither resistance nor possible harm relieves us of that responsibility.

Truthfulness was foundational for Guardini (and Western tradition back to the ancient Greeks), not only because faithfulness to truth is the basis of good relations and the life of the community, but because it is the bedrock of human character. Truthfulness in speech and action gives us “something clear and firm,” he observed, as is confirmed by such statements as “What is right, must be done.” Through truth, honesty, and reliability we become stable and attain character, that solid inner core and fixed vantage point from which we navigate our way in the world.11xRomano Guardini, The Virtues: On Forms of Moral Life, trans. Stella Lange (New York, NY: Regnery, 1967), 10, 15. First published in German in 1963.

In his own day, Guardini contended, the virtue of truthfulness—and by extension, character—had “suffered great damage.”22xIbid., 9. He was not alone in that conviction then; he is even less so now. In 1952, for instance, survey researchers began asking respondents whether “people lead as honest and moral lives as they used to.” That year the answers were almost evenly split, with 47 percent replying “yes” and 46 percent “no.” (Seven percent were undecided.) Subsequent surveys showed a strongly negative trend. For instance, in a 2005 Pew Research Center survey, the most recent poll I could find that asked the same question, only 21 percent responded “yes,” while 74 percent said “no.”33x“Additional Findings and Analyses: TV Choices Okay, but Content Has Gotten Worse,” Pew Research Center, April 19, 2005, https://www.pewresearch.org/politics/2005/04/19/additional-findings-and-analyses/.

If we look at virtually any area of contemporary life, from business to politics to journalism or higher education, the evidence of growing dishonesty is overwhelming. “Our problem today,” writes the psychologist William Damon, surveying the wreckage, “is that we seem to be entering a dysfunctional period of social change in which an essential commitment to truthfulness no longer seems to be assumed.”44xWilliam Damon, “The Death of Honesty,” Hoover Institution, January 12, 2012, https://www.hoover.org/research/death-honesty.

What is happening? Such a complex development does not reduce to a single cause, of course. Most thinking about the damage to truthfulness and character centers on changed beliefs and moral decline, both institutional and personal. Wider transformations in the social order are left out of the explanatory picture, or their role is minimized. The mistake is in assuming that the conditions of life can become tentative and fluid, as they have, yet virtue and character can somehow remain the same. To understand the nature of our predicament, we need to take stock of the contingency and normative pluralism of our situation. It is hard to achieve stability or practice consistent truthfulness when so many other values, often incompatible, are in play, and none can necessarily claim precedence over the others.

Awash in Academic Dishonesty

The paradox of student cheating is a good example. It is widely acknowledged that high school and college students regularly cheat in school. Less well known is that students nonetheless strongly affirm the importance of honesty and strong moral character. If one grants the validity of this seeming contradiction, then the loss of a commitment to honesty and character does not appear to explain the discrepancy. There seems to be a conflict in the realm of values themselves.

According to a 2010 survey of 43,000 high school students conducted by the Josephson Institute of Ethics, for example, 59 percent admitted to cheating on a test in the past year, 80 percent admitted to copying another student’s homework, 34 percent said they cheated multiple times, and a similar percentage admitted to using the Internet to plagiarize papers.55xCited in Jon Barron, “Are Ethics on the Decline?,” Baseline of Health Foundation, May 10, 2011, https://jonbarron.org/article/are-ethics-decline, and in “Cheat or Be Cheated? What We Know About Academic Integrity in Middle and High Schools and What We Can Do About It,” Challenge Success, 2012, https://challengesuccess.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/04/ChallengeSuccess-AcademicIntegrity-WhitePaper.pdf. In the survey, more than 80 percent of the students rated their own personal ethics as being “above average.”  Studies of high school students regularly find rates of self-reported cheating in the 70–90 percent range.66x“Cheat or Be Cheated?”

College campuses, too, are awash in academic dishonesty. While the rate of self-reported cheating among undergraduates varies by study, it is uniformly high and has apparently been rising for a long time. One paper presented survey data showing an increase from 23 percent to 84 percent from 1940 to 1982.77xCited, along with other studies, in Richard A. Fass, “Cheating and Plagiarism,” in Ethics and Higher Education, ed. William W. May (New York, NY: American Council on Education and Macmillan, 1990), 170–84. For further historical evidence, see Carter C. Rakovski and Elliott S. Levy. “Academic Dishonesty: Perceptions of Business Students,” College Student Journal 41 (2007): 466–81. Recent studies consistently put the level between 50 and 70 percent, and some go higher depending in part on what behaviors are included.88xLiora Pedhazur Schmelkin et al., “A Multidimensional Scaling of College Students’ Perceptions of Academic Dishonesty,” Journal of Higher Education 79, no. 5 (2008): 587–607. Because they are based on self-reports, these high numbers might even be undercounts, some researchers speculate.

I need not belabor the point. Every survey of students has found that cheating is “rampant,” “epidemic,” “commonplace, practically expected.”99xQuoted in Christian B. Miller, Character and Moral Psychology (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2014), ch. 3. There is no escaping the sad fact of student cheating.

An “Essential Commitment to Truthfulness”

Given all this cheating, surely it must follow that students care little about honesty or moral character and are dismissive or cynical about cheating. Yet that is not what we find. Granted, truthfulness for most young people does not have the absolute value that it had for Guardini. A 2019 survey of more than 3,000 teens (ages 13–19) conducted by the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture (IASC) asked for their judgment about the rightness or wrongness of various behaviors. When asked about “cheating at something when you are absolutely sure no one will ever find out,” 40 percent responded that it is “always wrong,” 31 percent that it is “usually wrong,” and 18 percent that it is “sometimes wrong.”1010xThe questionnaire and responses can be found in James Davison Hunter and Carl Desportes Bowman, The Context of Character: Teen Moral Formation in the 21st Century (Charlottesville, VA: Advanced Studies in Culture Foundation, 2021). An ambivalent picture, to be sure.

However, most teens appear to affirm something like the lower standard of an “essential commitment to truthfulness” invoked by the psychologist Damon. For example, on the IASC survey, when asked how important it was to become “honest—someone who doesn’t lie or cheat,” the great majority (83 percent) of teens claimed that it was very important or absolutely essential. A nearly identical 81 percent said the same for becoming a “person of strong moral character.” Of more than thirty traits and qualities, teens ranked honesty and moral character just below “hard working” and “reliable and dependent” at the top of their list and far ahead of traits like being ambitious, good looking, and popular.

We see a similar level of commitment in experimental studies designed by psychologists. To assess their impact on cheating, researchers manipulate the salience of moral beliefs. They insert moral reminders, such as asking participants to recall the Ten Commandments, into the experimental situation to gauge the effect of these reminders on cheating. They find that young people view cheating in general, along with specific forms of dishonesty such as copying from another person’s test, as wrong.1111xSee the studies cited in Miller, Character and Moral Psychology, ch. 3. Another kind of experiment, in which the seriousness of the cheating is manipulated, also shows that people care strongly about thinking of themselves as honest and will temper their behavior accordingly. The more egregious the cheating, for example, the less willing students are to engage in it.1212xSee, for example, Christopher J. Bryan, Gabrielle S. Adams, and Benoît Monin, “When Cheating Would Make You a Cheater: Implicating the Self Prevents Unethical Behavior,” Journal of Experimental Psychology: General 142 (2013): 1001–05. Too much cheating makes one a cheater, an identity that students are anxious to avoid.

Students do dismiss some forms of cheating as trivial, including doing homework together when they are expected to work alone. It is regarded as no big deal, or even salutary, since they are helping others.1313xMelissa Ezarik, “Shades of Gray on Student Cheating,” Inside Higher Ed, December 6, 2021, https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2021/12/07/what-students-see-cheating-and-how-allegations-are-handled. Yet the overall picture, confirmed by many studies, indicates a considerable commitment to honesty as an important character trait and a belief that cheating is morally wrong. At the end of the day, though, there is a big discrepancy between students’ moral beliefs and their actual behavior.

The Gap Between Belief and Behavior

The psychological and educational research literature on academic dishonesty has generally addressed the gap between belief and behavior in terms of factors that work to override students’ commitment to doing the right thing. These factors include peer influence, the force of different motives to cheat, such as desiring to avoid failure or feeling overloaded with work, and the self-serving rationalizations that students use to excuse their behavior. “Everyone is doing it” and “No one is hurt” are common justifications.

Explanations in terms of such personal factors are obviously relevant. Being honest can be very challenging, and we all know the temptation to do wrong and then deceive ourselves about it. Duplicity, however, is an enduring feature of human nature. The growing damage to truthfulness reflects something more—not just a personal discrepancy but a deep social discrepancy as well.

Consider the following two items from the IASC survey. Teens were asked, “How much do you agree or disagree with each of the following statements?”:

To the first statement, “We would all be better off if we had the same understandings of right and wrong,” 65 percent agreed at least slightly, with 15 percent disagreeing and 20 percent undecided. The responses to the second statement, “What is morally right or wrong usually changes from situation to situation,” were nearly identical: 62 percent in at least slight agreement, 20 percent in varying degrees of disagreement, 18 percent undecided.

One’s tendency would be to read agreement with statement 2 as reflecting a relativist or subjectivist orientation. Morality has no objective basis; it is relative to context or subjective experience. Agreement with statement 1, however, would seem to imply that many teens regard a nonsubjectivist understanding of morality as both possible (we could all agree) and desirable. So perhaps the high level of agreement with statement 2 should be interpreted differently. Instead of expressing their personal perspective, teens may be making what they believe is a practical statement about the social world. What they are saying is that in the different contexts of their lives, they encounter different moral standards.

One might interpret other findings from the survey as expressing similar beliefs about wider social orientations and implicit social codes. One question, for instance, asks teens to locate the way they think about honesty along a five-point scale of closeness to opposing viewpoints: from position one, “Honesty is the best policy,” to position five, “What they don’t know won’t hurt them.” The answers are quite equivocal. Twenty-six percent embrace position 1 and another 21 percent take position 2, the closest positions to “Honesty is the best policy.” Yet more than a third, 38 percent, takes the middle position, midway between the statements. A much smaller proportion, 15 percent, place their thinking close to “What they don’t know won’t hurt them” at 4 or 5.

These alignments, incidentally, are quite different from the positions the teen respondents’ parents took regarding the same item on the same survey. Seventy-seven percent of parents, versus 47 percent of teens, were at position 1 or 2, with 19 percent versus 38 percent in the middle, and just 4 percent versus 15 percent at position 4 or 5.

What does this mean? Recall the finding from the IASC survey that the great majority of teens, more than 80 percent, aspire to be “honest—someone who doesn’t lie or cheat.” If that is their goal, then perhaps we can understand the equivocation on this question as reflecting less a personal philosophy than the contingency of their social worlds. Sometimes teens might think honesty is the best policy. With their closest friends, perhaps, though even these relationships can have competitive elements. With their parents, perhaps, though 63 percent of teens on the survey agreed with the statement “I try to hide information from my parents that might upset them.” But on, say, social media, where the common practice is to strategically showcase a positive and distinctive profile, where, for instance, many apps exist to alter images, a policy of “What they don’t know won’t hurt them” would seem almost required.

And the best policy with schoolwork, where the stakes are high?

Novelty, Discontinuity, Competition

My point is not to offer another excuse for bad behavior. Dishonesty is dishonesty. But if we seek to understand the challenges to truthfulness, we need to consider the social order in which we are living.

One of the distinguishing features of our time is the segmentation of everyday life into different and discordant worlds. Historically, people lived their lives in local social settings that had a high degree of integration. Whether at work, in the family, or while engaged in civic, ceremonial, leisure, and other activities, each person was in pretty much the same social world, the same milieu. Values, behavior, and expectations were broadly consistent across the various spheres of life. They consequently reinforced each other and were difficult to change. What was appropriate in one context was continuous with the conventions and norms in another.

These unified and integrated standards were considered legitimate in themselves. As internalized through ongoing socialization beginning in youth, they shaped firmly held ideas about right and wrong. This is the firmness that has been called character. It is built on stable institutions, and it requires them.

For most people today, such a seamless mold no longer exists. Changes across virtually every area of life—the family, work, consumption, entertainment—especially those brought about by new technologies and communications media, have introduced more and more novelty, discontinuity, and competition into our everyday experience. Sociocultural integration, formed around intrinsic values, has seriously weakened. In the world of young people, consensual norms are no longer adhered to by families, schools, and other relevant institutions.

The fragmentation of the social world has also fostered a shift in the mode of moral reasoning. Confrontation with discrepant values, especially in competitive situations, where outcomes approximate a zero-sum formula, predisposes people to instrumental thinking of the means-end kind. What to do is a question of calculating the means that, on balance, will produce the most personally desired outcome and the ability to control future consequences.

While instrumental thinking is not always incompatible with intrinsic concerns—a student, for instance, might calculate what it takes to get a high grade and remain motivated by the substantive good of learning—the one tends to grow at the expense of the other. Over time, the instrumental orientation has been on the rise as religion, philosophies, and comprehensive cultural systems have declined. These are systems that could designate value hierarchies and resolve conflicts. As the hold of superordinate, intrinsic values—for example, honesty is an obligation, never an option—has grown less sure, lower-level value conflicts have multiplied.

What is a student to do when faced with a difficult exam or term paper deadline, for instance.

The Predicament for Students

The upshot for young people is that the normative messages they receive are frequently inconsistent, even contradictory. They face incompatible options and are often thrown back on themselves to make their own judgments. The question of success is especially vexed.

In an interview recounted by the sociologist Christian Smith and his collaborators in their book Lost in Transition, for example, a young man remarked, “People are brought up not to cheat. I think from a moral standpoint, yeah, it’s wrong. But…people cheat. That’s how a lot of people have gotten ahead in life…. Society doesn’t always make sense; you don’t always agree with it. It’s just what it is, though.”1414xChristian Smith, with Kari Christoffersen, Hilary Davidson, and Patricia Snell Herzog, Lost in Transition: The Dark Side of Emerging Adulthood (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2011), 48. The takeaway message for this young man is that sometimes success involves a tradeoff with honesty.

In his ethnography of an elite public high school, anthropologist Peter Demerath relates the remarks of a student survey respondent: “Cheating is real life. People who are rich and successful lie and cheat every day.”1515xPeter Demerath, Producing Success: The Culture of Personal Advancement in an American High School (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2009), 119. In a 2012 survey of 23,000 high school students sponsored by the Josephson Institute, 57 percent agreed that “in the real world, successful people do what they have to do to win, even if others consider it cheating.”1616xThe 2012 Report Card on the Ethics of American Youth (Installment 1: Honesty and Integrity) (Playa del Rey, CA: Josephson Institute of Ethics, 2012).

The perception in many areas of life, observes the psychologist Damon, is “that expecting honesty on a regular basis is a naive and foolish attitude, a ‘loser’s’ way of operating.”1717xDamon, “The Death of Honesty.”

Is this equation of cheating with success an unreasonable attitude, given the implicit moral education to which young people are exposed? They know of parents who will defend their child, even when in the wrong, and essentially do their homework for them. Young people are aware of the recurring research scandals involving schools and scholars at prestigious institutions. They know of the endless recruiting violations in college sports. They know that perfectly legal companies will sell them a term paper. It’s all out there. A host of opposing values, from protecting a child to fielding a winning team, are in conflict with honesty.

Young people also know that most cheating goes undetected and unpunished. One study found that just 3 percent of students who cheated reported getting caught.1818xCited in Miller, Character and Moral Psychology, ch. 3. It’s no better in other spheres of life. After a study of dishonesty in business, two economists concluded that there was “no compelling economic reason to tell the truth or keep one’s word.”1919xIn fact, the researchers reported, “we can find numerous stories in which deceit was unquestionably rewarded”; Amar Bhidé and Howard H. Stevenson, “Why Be Honest if Honesty Doesn’t Pay,” Harvard Business Review, September–October 1990, https://hbr.org/1990/09/why-be-honest-if-honesty-doesnt-pay.  Decisions based on purely instrumental calculations are unlikely to favor truthfulness.

Especially challenging for young people, including the best students, is how to reconcile a commitment to honesty with the much more immediate and tangible imperative of educational success. As one high school student told the anthropologist Demerath: “Grades are everything. You have to realize it’s the only possible way to get into a good college and you resort to any means necessary.”2020xDemerath, Producing Success, 103.

Like other surveys, a 2021 survey of college students at ninety-eight institutions conducted in October 2021 by Inside Higher Ed and College Pulse found that the single biggest reason given for cheating, endorsed by 72 percent of the students was “pressure to do well.”2121x“Prioritizing Academic Integrity Among Students: What Are Students’ Perceptions About Academic Integrity and Unethical Behaviors?” (Student Voice survey), Inside Higher Ed and College Pulse, October 2021, https://reports.collegepulse.com/student-voice-academic-integrity.

But “pressure to do well” doesn’t capture what is truly involved here. Young people are expected to get good grades, aim for a good college, stand out, live up to their “full potential,” let go of “limiting” beliefs, and the like. Educational institutions, not to mention parents, media, and employers, all, in various ways, communicate these success-oriented values and their integral relation to the good in life. These are the standards young people have been told they should meet, the yardsticks by which they should measure themselves.

As I have found in interviews and discussions with students, these are the standards they feel they have to answer to. Falling short, as they understand and feel it, necessarily reflects poorly on them and their decisions. They have a whole vocabulary that conveys the ethical quality of not measuring up: “mediocre,” “slacker,” “weak,” “pitiable,” “loser.”2222xJoseph E. Davis, “Adolescents and the Pathologies of the Achieving Self,” The Hedgehog Review 11, no. 1 (Spring 2009): 37–49. Failure, they stress, can jeopardize relations with parents, teachers, coaches, and even peers who have encouraged and supported them. It can leave them feeling guilty and ashamed. “For me,” remarked one student, “I feel like I have failed the very most when I pass up exciting opportunities or let down, disappoint, or upset others.” She is far from alone.

In a survey of more than 10,000 middle and high school students, the majority, when asked about the priorities of their parents and teachers, responded that they believed that both ranked “doing well academically” or “being a happy person” over more intrinsic values like being “a caring community member.”2323x“The Children We Mean to Raise,” Making Caring Common Project, 2014, https://static1.squarespace.com/static/5b7c56e255b02c683659fe43/t/5bae774424a694b5feb2b05f/1538160453604/report-children-raise.pdf.

The good of school success, even when linked to other valued goals—relationships and future opportunities—is not necessarily contrary to honesty. But the two can collide. And when they do, honesty may have little comparative standing. Students have not abandoned the value of truthfulness, but honesty, in the absence of common social standards and normative integration, has, for them, lost its intrinsic value. As one value among others, honesty, when measured on the scales of instrumental calculation, weighs in less decisively than those values that improve one’s chances to be a “winner.”

Taking Truth for Granted

The pervasiveness of cheating has led many observers to conclude that schools are not doing enough to promote academic integrity. Teachers, they argue, are often halfhearted about cheating, look the other way when they encounter it, and even encourage it on standardized tests when they view the exams as too challenging. Like parents, schools are blamed for being overly focused on performance and achievement, and not concentrating enough on mastery and in-depth learning. Recommendations to change course, from stricter enforcement to enhanced moral formation in honesty and trust, follow accordingly.

These are all well and good but unlikely to hit home unless we recognize that the conflict is not primarily between belief and behavior; it is in the realm of value itself. In our time of fragmentation and normative contingency, the priority of intrinsic goods like truthfulness cannot be taken for granted. Parents and teachers also stand on unstable ground and face ethical dilemmas that pit valued outcomes—for children, for themselves, for their institutions—against higher ideals.2424xSee my reflections on the parents indicted in the Varsity Blues college admissions scandal, “They Did It for the Kids,” First Things, November 2021, 11–13. As students know full well, they are not the only ones prone to cheat.

Personal integrity needs social integrity. To build character, we must also work to shape a consistent environment where cheating does not possess a certain logic, where telling the truth can become a firm habit, where what it means to be a good, accomplished person does not involve tradeoffs that incentivize “any means necessary.” An environment where, to return to Guardini, our lives, individually and collectively, “must testify to the fact that truth is the basis of everything.”2525xGuardini, The Virtues, 18.