What is Integrity?
"Integrity" is defined as "adherence to moral and ethical principles; honesty." The key to integrity is consistency--not only setting high personal standards for oneself (honesty, responsibility, respect for others, fairness) but also living up to those standards each day. One who has integrity is bound by and follows moral and ethical standards even when making life's hard choices, choices which may be clouded by stress, pressure to succeed, or temptation。
What happens if we lie, cheat, steal, or violate other ethical standards? We feel disappointed in ourselves and ashamed. But a lapse of integrity also affects our relationships with others. Trust is essential in any important relationship, whether personal or professional. Who can trust someone who is dishonest or unfair? Thus, integrity must be one of our most important goals。
We are each responsible for our own decisions, even if the decision-making process has been undermined by stress or peer pressure. The real test of character is whether we can learn from our mistake, by understanding why we acted as we did, and then exploring ways to avoid similar problems in the future。
Making ethical decisions is a critical part of avoiding future problems. We must learn to recognize risks, because if we can't see the risks we're taking, we can't make responsible choices. To identify risks, we need to know the rules and be aware of the facts. For example, one who doesn't know the rules about plagiarism may accidentally use words or ideas without giving proper credit, or one who fails to keep careful research notes may unintentionally fail to quote and cite sources as required. But the fact that such a violation is "unintentional" does not excuse the misconduct. Ignorance is not a defense。
"But Everybody Does It"
Most people who get in trouble do know the rules and facts, but manage to fool themselves about the risks they're taking by using excuses: "Everyone else does it," "I'm not hurting anyone," or "I really need this grade." Excuses can get very elaborate: "I know I'm looking at another's exam, even though I'm supposed to keep my eyes on my own paper, but that's not cheating because I'm just checking my answers, not copying." We must be honest about our actions, and avoid excuses. If we fool ourselves into believing we're not doing anything wrong, we can't see the real choice we're making--and that leads to bad decisions。
To avoid fooling yourself, watch out for excuses and try this test: Ask how you would feel if your actions were public, and anyone could be watching over your shoulder. Would you feel proud or ashamed of your actions? If you'd rather hide your actions, that's a good indication that you're taking a risk and rationalizing it to yourself。
To decide whether a risk is worth taking, you must examine the consequences, in the future as well as right now, negative as well as positive, and to others as well as to yourself. Those who take risks they later regret usually focus on immediate benefits ("what's in it for me")， and simply haven't considered what might go wrong. The consequences of getting caught are serious, and may include a "0" on a test or assignment; an "F" in the class; Suspension or Dismissal from school; transcript notation; and a tarnished reputation. In fact, when you break a rule or law, you lose control over your life, and give others the power to impose punishment: you have no control over what that punishment might be. This is an extremely precarious and vulnerable position. There may be some matters of life and death, or highest principle, which might justify such a risk, but there aren't many things that fall in this category。
Getting Away With It--Or Not
Those who don't get caught pay an even higher price. A cheater doesn't learn from the test, depriving him/herself of an education. Cheating undermines confidence and independence: the cheater is a fraud, and knows that without dishonesty, he/she would have failed. Cheating destroys self-esteem and integrity, leaving the cheater ashamed, guilty, and afraid of getting caught. Worst of all, a cheater who doesn't get caught the first time usually cheats again, not only because he/she is farther behind, but also because it seems "easier." This slippery slope of eroding ethics and bigger risks leads only to disaster. Eventually, the cheater gets caught, and the later he/she gets caught, the worse the consequences. Students have been dismissed from school because they didn't get this simple message: Honesty is the ONLY policy that works。
Cheating Hurts Others, Too
Cheaters often feel invisible, as if their actions "don't count" and don't really hurt anyone. But individual choices have a profound cumulative effect. Cheating can spread like a disease, and a cheater can encourage others just by being seen from across the room. Recent statistics suggest 30% or more of college students cheat. If a class is graded on a curve, cheating hurts others' grades. Even if there is no curve, cheating "poisons" the classroom, and others may feel pressured to join in. ("If I don't cheat, I can't compete with those who do.") Cheating also has a destructive impact on teachers. The real reward of good teaching is seeing students learn, but a cheater says, "I'm not interested in what you're trying to teach; all I care about is stealing a grade, regardless of the effect on others." The end result is a blatant and destructive attack on the quality of your education. Finally, cheating can hurt the reputation of the University, and harm those who worked hard for their degree。
Why Integrity Matters
If cheating becomes the norm, then we are in big trouble. We must rely on the honesty and good faith of others every day. If not, we couldn't put money in the bank, buy food, clothing, or medicine from others, drive across a bridge, get on a plane, go to the dentist--the list is endless. There are many examples of the vast harm that is caused when individuals forget or ignore the effect their dishonesty can have. The savings and loan scandal, the stock market and junk bond swindles, and, of course, Watergate, have undermined the faith of many Americans in the integrity of political and economic leaders and society as a whole. Such incidents take a tremendous toll on our nation's economy and our individual well-being. For example, but for the savings and loan debacle, there might be funds available to reduce the national debt and pay for education。
In sum, we all have a common stake in our school, our community, and our society. Our actions do matter. It is essential that we act with integrity in order to build the kind of world in which we want to live。