Professor and Author Deborah L. Rhode

The professor discusses her latest book titled Cheating.

Deborah Rhode is the Ernest W. McFarland Professor of Law and the Director of the Center on the Legal Profession at Stanford University. She was the founding president of the International Association of Legal Ethics, the former president of the Association of American Law Schools, and the former founding director of Stanford's Center on Ethics. She is the nation's most frequently cited scholar on legal ethics and the author of 27 books in the fields of professional responsibility, leadership, and gender. Her latest text is titled Cheating: Ethics and Law in Everyday Life.


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Tavis: Pleased to welcome Professor Deborah Rhode to this program. She has spent nearly 40 years now articulating truths about women, power, leadership, and the search for justice in this country.

Her latest book is called “Cheating: Ethics and Law in Everyday Life”. In it, she examines the pervasiveness of cheating in our society and why so many of us don’t see it as a serious problem. Professor Rhode, good to have you on this program.

Deborah L. Rhode: Thank you so much for having me.

Tavis: Let me ask a strange question to start. Has the notion or the definition of cheating changed over the last 40 years as you’ve been doing this work?

Rhode: I don’t think the definition has changed, but the forms it takes do evolve with time. Technology, of course, has transformed some forms of cheating.

So you have filesharing, downloading of music on the internet, or plagiarism, lifting stuff off the internet, whole sites on the internet that enable people to just cut and paste their term papers and have somebody else even write their paper on plagiarism. So that’s what I think has been the main change.

Tavis: Maybe I should have and could have asked that question a bit better because you’ve answered what I wanted to get at, which is it’s clear to me that there is a culture of cheating in our country. But so many of us who participate in that don’t see it as cheating. So the way that we, the way I, the way you define cheating may not be the way that everybody else defines cheating.

Rhode: Well, I think that’s true. It also has become normalized. Psychologists talk about this as ethical fading, so you just lose awareness that you’re crossing the lines. Social psychologists tell the story. They called it the boiled frog problem that, if you heat up water with a frog in the pot, you drop him in and it’s boiling, he’ll jump out. But if you just do it by degrees, he’ll calmly boil to death.

It turns out this is wrong about frogs, but right about people. They’ll cross lines, small, little forms of cheating, and it will snowball and they’ll lose the sense of when they’ve crossed a more serious line. So that’s what gets you things like the Wells Fargo scandal with 3,000 employees ultimately fabricating bank accounts and other forms of massive cheating.

But, you know, even with filesharing which most people realize is illegal, almost 90% of young adults think that it’s sometimes okay. They talk about it as sharing, not stealing. So there’s boundary questions that I think technology has opened up.

But there are other forms of cheating that pretty much everybody recognizes as a serious offense and we just don’t care that much anymore. Over half of taxpayers admit to cheating sometimes on their forms. 80% of high school students will admit that they’ve cheated in class. So the pervasiveness and the persistence of it, I think, is what should give us pause because there’s a price tag to it.

Tavis: I want to come back to that price tag, but I wonder how it is, though, that we instill, more deeply how we ingrain more deeply, this sense of right or wrong that we want our children to have when they look at a world and they see half the adults are cheating. In fact, cheating on Wall Street, cheating their way into the White House. I mean, there’s a link missing here.

Rhode: Well, you know, it has to start early because cheating starts early. I think sometimes parents inadvertently compound the problem by not realizing the messages that they’re sending when they help the kids with the homework or they put undue great pressure on students and focus on, you know, just the results and not the learning process.

Sports is another example. You know, winning is given too much, I think, priority in youth sports. Good sportsmanship is something that’s trotted out at the banquets once a year, but nobody reinforces it in daily practice.

That’s what has to change because if people see that celebrities can get away with it — you know, Lance Armstrong walked away with $100 million dollars even after he was stripped of his titles and said he’d do it again.

That’s the message we need to counteract. We need to do it with more criminal sanctions. We need to do it with taking cheating more seriously in schools. We need to create reward structures that give people different incentives than they now have in many workplaces.

Tavis: Twice now, you’ve said to me that we just don’t care. What was that phrase you used? Ethical…

Rhode: Numbing or fading.

Tavis: Fading. I love that term, ethical fading. Why does that exist? Why do we not care the way we should?

Rhode: Well, we develop rationalizations. Everybody does it. They deserved it. Nobody’s hurt. People think of filesharing or tax evasion as a victimless crime, but in fact, artists aren’t getting paid and other taxpayers are bearing the burden because such a high percentage of people cheat.

I think it doesn’t help when you have a president who has this history of cheating in pretty much every sphere of life. Everything from his golf games, to his universities, to his taxes, to stiffing contractors.

Only a third of Americans think his honesty and ethics are acceptable and 63 million people voted for him anyway. So I think that’s just, you know, a kind of classic statement of how little we prioritize honesty and integrity in politics and in organizations and in recreational life.

Tavis: What’s to be done about cheating in academia?

Rhode: Well, I think part of it has to begin with giving consistent messages to students about what it is and is not okay. There’s enough fuzziness in some context of that. What constitutes plagiarism, and we need to do a better job in that.

But I think a lot of the problem lies with the institutions that don’t really lean on faculty to report it, that look the other way. It’s a kind of don’t ask, don’t tell unless a serious scandal gets popular attention.

I think a lot of professors, when they do detect it, they don’t want to jump through all the hoops that it takes to put the disciplinary process in motion. So they mete out a form of rough justice that doesn’t impose serious sanctions. So we know that probably only about 3% of the cheating that goes on is ever detected and punished. So we need to change the reward structures.

Tavis: Yeah. You referenced earlier that there is a price to pay for this, societal price, and indeed there is. What is that price?

Rhode: Well, I think if you aggregate the cheating across all the realms that I’ve described, it’s close to a trillion dollars. Half a trillion dollars alone in tax fraud and misstatements, and then another $250 billion dollars in intellectual property violations, that sort of filesharing that I mentioned, and a lot in insurance fraud and organizational misconduct.

It isn’t just the dollar amount. It’s also the health and safety issues that are posed when organizations fudge the forms like Volkswagen did or GM. Those are real lives that are at risk. Similarly, people lose their life savings in cases like Enron where the company implodes in the aftermath of massive, fraudulent conduct and a lot of conduct on the fringes of fraud that people just manage to rationalize away.

Tavis: How much tougher should we be on cheating our society?

Rhode: Well, a lot tougher. One thing we know, that white collar criminals still rarely get significant sanctions. One study of high-level white collar executives who were referred to the DOJ for prosecution, only 15% of them ended up with any jail time.

A lot of cheating goes undetected because people think that they’re going to be able to get away with it or, if not, that the sanctions aren’t going to be significant enough to make it not worthwhile. Also, organizations with their focus on short-term profit structures often create reward systems that encourage it.

A kind of classic case was way back with Sears Roebuck which set up a system for auto mechanics that paid them by the job, not the hours, and had a sort of bonus system. As a result, guess what they discovered? Every car had a problem. Even David Letterman put it on his Top 10 joke list. Repair jobs needed. According to Sears mechanics, grease the ashtray [laugh].

So there’s a lot of work that needs to be done. You know, the companies, I think, just have engaged in a kind of cosmetic response to a lot of the cheating behavior. Enron had, for example, an ethics code that someone put up on eBay after the bankruptcy that said, “Never been used”. I think that kind of window dressing sends exactly the wrong message.

Companies — it has to start at the top — need to reinforce integrity in their policies and priorities and performance evaluations, and they need to do ethical climate surveys to find out how much of a problem they have and where they have it and what they should do about it.

Tavis: And you have no solution to getting cheating out of our politics, though [laugh].

Rhode: Well, it’s a little out of my wheelhouse…

Tavis: If you do, I want to hear it, yeah [laugh].

Rhode: Well, you know, I’d like the voters to pay more attention to issues of character and integrity, and I think we’re seeing the consequences of a system in which those aren’t priorities.

Tavis: Stanford professor, Deborah Rhode’s new book is called “Cheating: Ethics and Law in Everyday Life”. Professor, good to have you on. Thanks for your insights.

Rhode: Thank you so much.

Tavis: My pleasure. Up next, actor-comedian, JB Smoove. Stay with us.

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Last modified: November 1, 2017 at 5:07 pm