of Integrity in the Cheating Culture
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
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)
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
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
- 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
- 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
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
- 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
- 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
- Have the courage to obey the dictates of
- Live up to your own ethical standards
- Practice what you preach consistently
- Admit the gap between your actual self and
- 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
- Don't let others down in order to save your
- 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
- Don't bend with the wind in order to play
- 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
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:
- They act according to principles rather than
- They value integrity more than their own
- They are willing to sacrifice everything
in order to pursue their ideals
- They endure and overcome great adversities
in order to carrying out their callings
- They do not allow their own flaws and failures
to prevent them from doing their duties and achieving their life
- They are prepared to die for what they really
- They show extraordinary moral courage by
risking their own lives to help others
- They remain true to their convictions and
beliefs in spite of oppositions and threats to their personal
- They remain their authentic selves throughout
the ups and downs of life
- 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
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
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
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.
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
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
Untermeyer, L. (1971). New
enlarged anthology of Robert Frost's poems with an introduction
and commentary. New York, NY: Pocket Books.