President's Column - September 2004

Restoration of Integrity in the Cheating Culture
Paul T. P. Wong, Ph.D., C. Psych.
President, International Network on Personal Meaning
Coquitlam, B.C., Canada

Devastated and traumatized, Tim buries his head in his hands. The harsh words of the Vice-President still ring in his ears: "We are going to fire you for insubordination!" Replaying the scenes leading up to this dramatic encounter, Tim knows that he would not have done it differently. The choice is clear: Either follow order against his own conscience or question the ethics and legality of the administration's decision. He chooses integrity, knowing full well that there would be negative fallouts!

Still, it's unthinkable that his years of sacrificial and faithful service should come to this! Tim's presumptive world is shaken at its foundation, and he is on the verge of giving up his calling.

Where is God? Does He really care? How is it possible that these Bible-believing leaders could resort to deception and other dirty tricks to cling to power and pursue worldly success? Don't they believe in God's warning: "No one who practices deceit will dwell in my house; no one who speaks falsehood will stand in my presence" (Proverbs 101:7)?

Just like Peter Parker ( played by Tobey Maguire) in Spiderman 2, Tim is going through an identify crisis; he is about to walk away from the Christian ministry and return to a secular job. So many answered questions swirl in his tormented mind: "Am I a fool to have given up everything in order to carry the burden of serving God? What is the use of being a faithful servant, when all you get in return is persecution and abuse by none other than the self-proclaimed 'Godly Christian leaders'? Why are these ruthless, abusive leaders rewarded with power and success? Why do the wicked prosper? Why doesn't God step in and execute justice?"

Engulfed in a profound sense of sorrow and despair, Tim is struggling with the most troubling question: "If integrity cannot even be found in a Christian organization, which is supposed to live by a higher moral standard, what hope is there to restore integrity and healing in this broken world?" He desperately needs an affirmative answer before he can continue serving God.

The cheating culture

Tim's predicament is not unique. So many have been pressured to sell their souls for some personal benefits. According to David Callahan, author of "The Cheating Culture", cheating has increased dramatically in the past two decades in almost every segment of American society: sports, the education system, mass media, and the Corporate world. Bribery, insider trading, improper billings, false advertising, tax evasions, plagiarism, copy-right violations and just some of the common dishonest practices.

Problem of cheating and corruption also exist in organized religion. How many respected religious leaders have resigned in disgrace because of sexual scandals and corruptions! How many more live a double life without being exposed! The number would be staggering, when you include all the seriously flawed religious leaders, who hide themselves behind holy masks. No wonder organized religion has acquired the dubious reputation of being the breeding ground for hypocrites.

Callahan blames competition as the main culprit for cheating. In a dog-eat-dog competitive and winner-take-all capitalistic society, cheating has proven to be a much better strategy of getting a head. In the old days, the axiom was: honesty is the best policy; nowadays, the unstated axiom is: cheating pays.

In any competitive situations, cheaters definitely have a decided advantage over those who play by the rule. Our society also favors cheating, because the chances of winning through cheating are much greater than the likelihood of getting caught and being punished.

Even the Olympic ideal of fair competition in ancient Greece was not immune from cheating. In those days, winners received only crowns of wild olive leaves, but they also won the favor of gods and the promises of immortality. In addition, winners also received tangible benefits such as expensive gifts, free meals and cash for making appearance.

"Such benefits, in tandem with fame and adulation that bordered on worship, unsurprisingly fuelled the desire to win at all costs and athletes were not above cheating to do so. Although, like their modern counterparts, the athletes swore a sacred oath to abide by the rules, some sought unfair advantages. False starts and illegal maneuvers were punished with public floggings and expulsion from the games. By the fourth century athletes caught lying, cheating or involved in bribery were also fined and the money used to erect a statue to Zeus along the route to the stadium - an everlasting testament to their shame.

When the stakes are high, and when people believe that winning is the only thing that matters, then cheating become fair game. However, competition is not the only reason for dishonesty, and cheating is not the purview of democratic, capitalistic countries.

According to the International Corruption Perception index, communist/socialist and totalitarian countries tend to be among the most corrupt. This finding makes good sense. According to historian Lord Acton: "Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely." Thus, absolute power may post a greater threat to personal integrity than free competition.

There are actually many different reasons for cheating in different situations; some of them seem quite legitimate. President Clinton has elevated mendacity to an art form in order to evade legal traps. Others have turned cheating into a virtue for survival in a hostile environment. Look at the chameleon; its survival depends on its ability to camouflage. These arguments have given cheating the respectability it needs to be embraced by even the most religious and moral folks. Here are some of the justifications for cheating:

  • We don't have a level playing field, and I have to cheat in order to offset the advantages enjoyed by those with money and connections.
  • There is a conspiracy against me; therefore, I have to cheat in order to survive.
  • There is widespread discrimination against us; therefore, we just have to do whatever it takes, including lying, to survive in this hostile environment.
  • I have to tell them what they want to hear; otherwise, I will lose my job.
  • I have to fudge data to get the paper published; otherwise, I will lose my grant and fail to get my tenure.
  • We can't do business this world without cutting some corners or bending the law, because there are too many restrictions and bureaucratic controls.
  • I have always wanted to be a medical doctor. If I do not cheat, I can never get accepted in to any medical school. It is their fault to have set such a high academic admission standard, which has nothing to do with being a good doctor.
  • Everyone is entitled to have some happiness. My secret love affair is the only thing that keeps me alive and gives me energy to serve my country.
  • We are serving God; therefore, we have not choice but to lie to the godless Government in order to do God's work.
  • I am lying about my affair in order to protect my family. Nobody gets hurt, as long it is kept a secret.
  • I have every right to lie to my workers, because we are in a crisis situation that requires unusual measures to protect the organization.
  • I just have to keep my workers in the dark so that they will not question my decisions.
  • We have to lie to the outsiders in order to protect our family secret.
  • I have to lie a bit in my tax return, because the Government has already taken enough money from me.
  • I have no choice - I have to lie to protect my husband. Who will take care of the family when he goes to jail?
  • We have to lie in order to serve a higher good - to bring the gospel to godless countries.

Sound familiar? Probably because we have used some of these excuses ourselves. What is the common thread in all these excuses? Expediency! The reason may vary from one situation to another, but the underlying motive is the same: serving some self interests at the expense of integrity.

What is the cure for cheating?

Callahan proposes several solutions to the problem of cheating. He believes that society needs to reinforce honesty and cooperation in homes, schools and businesses. Parents need to teach and model ethical behavior for their children. Governments should be more vigorous in policing and punishing serious cheaters.

These are helpful suggestions. But who will be responsible for initiating these curative measures? Since cheating has been institutionalized and encouraged implicitly by corporations, how can we make corporate cultures more transparent and honest? Can a mandatory course on Business Ethics or Personal Integrity transform the corporate culture? How can we make parents and teachers examples of honesty? What is the incentive for people to sign on to a new social contract? How can we prevent individuals from cheating, when dishonesty pays?

Since cheating has permeated every aspect of our culture, it will take nothing less than a culture revolution to cure this social malaise. We need to look for a remedy that deals with the root-cause of cheating rather than the symptoms.

Restoration of integrity

Another way to look at the problem of cheating is to study individuals who refuse to lie in exactly the same situations that justify cheating. Tim refuses to take part in the administration's scheme of deception, knowing that it may cost him his job. Many athletes refuse to take performance-enhancing drugs, knowing that their decision will cost them the medal. Many believers refuse to denounce their faith, knowing that they may be persecuted or even killed.

What do they have in common? Integrity has been deeply ingrained in them and prevents them from the short cut. To do so would mean a violation of their own conscience, their core values and their sacred self. To do so would mean to give up their integrity and sell their soul to the Devil.

The word "integrity" comes from the same Latin root as "integer" or whole number. A person of integrity is a whole person, undivided and indivisible. Individuals with integrity live by a set of principles and values regardless of circumstances. You can always count on them, because you know that who they are and what they are made of. There is something consistent, truthful, reliable and trustworthy about them.

Robert Frost, one of the most celebrated poets in America, is a perfect example of integrity. He remains true to himself, in spite of his numerous awards and honors. Louis Untermeyer (1971) has this to say about Frost:

"These honors did not affect the man or his work. The quite strength, the deep convictions, remained unshaken in the person as well as in the poetry. The last lines of the first poem in Frost's first book took on a prophetic conclusiveness: They would not find me changed from him they knew - Only more sure of all I thought was true."

Like responsibility, integrity is one of the main pillars of character, and one of the main cornerstones for a free, democratic society. Laws are quite powerless in combating dishonesty and corruption, because these evils stem from the human heart. Listen to Jeremiah's lament: "The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. What can understand it?" (Jeremiah 17:7).

Therefore, the first step towards a cultural reformation is the restoration of personal integrity from within. It requires more than character education, more than a conversion experience. It calls for a heroic way of living with integrity.

Portrait of Integrity

In order to restore integrity, we need to have a clear ideal of what it looks like. Here is a general portrait of a person with integrity. Like a jigsaw puzzle, it is made up of hundreds of little things we do or say on a daily basis. The picture is incomplete, wherever any piece is missing. Integrity may also be liken to a brick house. We need to build it one brick at a time. Each of the following habits and attitude represent a brick.

  • Keep your word and promises
  • Back up your word with action
  • Be honest with people
  • Accept people as they are
  • Treat people with respect and candor
  • Let others know where you stand and how your feel
  • Speak the truth in love and with sincerity
  • Be mindful of what your own actions and thoughts
  • Make sure that your actions and words do not harm others
  • Be genuine, transparent in relating to people
  • Be humble and vulnerable towards people
  • Be true to your convictions, values and beliefs
  • Be true to your callings and ideals
  • Do the right thing even when no one is watching
  • Do your very best in whatever your do
  • Do what is right regardless of the cost
  • Have the courage to be different
  • Have the courage to stand up for what you believe
  • Have the courage to obey the dictates of your conscience
  • Live up to your own ethical standards
  • Practice what you preach consistently
  • Admit the gap between your actual self and ideal self
  • Admit your own mistakes and failures
  • Accept your self and your limitations
  • Assume responsibility for your own actions
  • Don't compromise your core values
  • Don't use people as instruments
  • Don't manipulate and mislead others
  • Don't betray your friends
  • Don't hide the truths from your friends
  • Don't hide behind the fašade of pious platitudes and rituals
  • Don't let others down in order to save your own neck
  • Don't lie in order to get out of difficulties
  • Don't tell white lies to make you look good
  • Don't make promises which you cannot keep
  • Don't exaggerate or bluff in order to get your way
  • Don't bend with the wind in order to play safe
  • Don't promise anything which you cannot deliver
  • Don't claim to believe what you do not
  • Don't pretend to be what you are not

Everyday heroes

Get the picture? It is actually a portrait of everyday heroes. They may be ordinary people in terms of abilities and achievements, but they are extraordinary in their authenticity, character and courage, which can be summarized as follows:

  1. They act according to principles rather than expediency
  2. They value integrity more than their own lives
  3. They are willing to sacrifice everything in order to pursue their ideals
  4. They endure and overcome great adversities in order to carrying out their callings
  5. They do not allow their own flaws and failures to prevent them from doing their duties and achieving their life goals
  6. They are prepared to die for what they really believe
  7. They show extraordinary moral courage by risking their own lives to help others
  8. They remain true to their convictions and beliefs in spite of oppositions and threats to their personal safety
  9. They remain their authentic selves throughout the ups and downs of life
  10. They do their ordinary jobs with extraordinary dedication and faithfulness

How many of our friends and colleagues fit the above descriptions? How many people can we depend on when we are in trouble? Whom can we trust for our life? My wife and I have a difficulty time answering these questions. Integrity has become a rare treasure in the cheating culture.

In the movie Open Range I think the main character Charlie (Kevin Costner) says that something worse than losing one's life or money is to lose one's integrity. Perhaps, the underlying cause of the cheating culture is that we have lost our integrity in our all-consuming pursuit of happiness, success, money, and power. Little did we realize that integrity is the royal road to a rewarding life of meaning, fulfillment and significance.

A positive cultural revolution

Since the loss of integrity is the root-cause of cheating, then the restoration of integrity should be an effective cure. However, integrity is not something that can be acquired through a magic moment of spiritual encounter or a lesson on ethics. It calls for a radical change in life style -- those who aspire to live a life of integrity must be willing to run the risk of becoming heroes.

Integrity does not offer an escape from the mundane, daily grinds of human existence; nor does it offer hope for prosperity and creature comforts. It only promises a long journey through the jungles and deserts, through the dark valleys and the precipitous mountain ranges. It is the daily discipline of doing the right things, undaunted by difficulties. In short, it is a lifelong hero's journey that entails pitfalls, sorrows and confronting the dragon (Pearson, 1991).

We do not become heroes overnight. First of all, we need to develop a set of core values and beliefs, which are worthy dying for. Then, we need to embrace the heroic life style of making the right decisions and choosing the road less traveled. Without the daily discipline of heroism, we will not be able to resist the temptations to cheat, nor will be have the courage to rise to the demand of crisis situations.

The challenge confronting us is to educate more everyday heroes, who may not attain great achievements, but who strive to make a difference in the world, even if they fail to gain any recognition.

A major part of a heroic education is to restore the moral and spiritual foundations of everyday life (Bloom, 1988; Porpora, 2003; Taylor, 1988). For example, Douglas V. Porpora (2003) calls for an answer to the ultimate question: "Is there a human destiny we were meant to fulfill?"

This would include an emphasis on the importance of being authentic. For the younger generation, being "legit" is the most highly valued virtue, while being a fake or phony is the most despicable sin. They would respond positively to the call to rebel against the culture of greed and deception, and create their own authentic life projects (Park, 1999).

As for Tim, he has received the answer he needs: The hypocrisy in some Christian organizations simply underscores the imperative of his mission, because Jesus himself had to battle the Pharisees all his life. Jesus has shown that goodness and hope can emerge in the midst of darkness and oppositions. Like Peter Parker, Tim has decided to continue pursuing his vision, because he is now prepared to suffer as a tragic hero.

Along with responsibility and compassion integrity is one of the banners we raise to rally our troops for the positive revolution This large scale social reform would demand more than promoting character education, business ethics and increasing governmental control. Even the experience of spiritual conversion would not suffice, because all Tim's bosses are "certified" born again Christians. Like any other revolution, positive culture revolution calls for self-sacrifice and heroism on a daily basis. It would take a large volunteer army of everyday heroes to transform the cheating culture.

Feeling like a lonely sentinel in the dead of the night in a hostile land, I sound the trumpet call to awaken the hero within everyone. We must be the changes we want to see, as Gandhi has taught us. Let's catch the vision for a different kind of culture that celebrates our noblest destiny.

References

Bloom, A. (1988). Closing of the American mind. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster

Callahan, D. (2004). The cheating culture: Why more Americans are doing wrong to get ahead. New York: Harcourt.

Park, J. (1999). Becoming more authentic: The positive side of existentialism. (4th Ed.)

Pearson, C. S. (1991). Awakening the heroes within. San Francisco, CA: Harper

Porpora, D. V. (2003). Landscapes of the soul: The loss of moral meaning in American life. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

Taylor, C. (1992). The ethics of authenticity. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press

Untermeyer, L. (1971). New enlarged anthology of Robert Frost's poems with an introduction and commentary. New York, NY: Pocket Books.