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What is Cheating and is it Unethical? or: A Duel With Wizard Daggers

January 29, 2013

Part of a continuing series I’ve dubbed, “To Be A Young Necromancer In Love,” updating Tuesdays and whenever the hell I feel like it.

It’s been a while since I talked about the Dungeons and Dragons game in which the player characters were out to save the world after evil had effectively conquered the world nearly a century beforehand. The game was to say the least, built on the back of a very ridiculous concept, and we did nothing to truly stray from this insanity. Surprisingly, I’ve never discussed what the players consider their greatest triumph in the game, the day they won a duel with Wizard Daggers.

Wizard Daggers was a concept that they had encountered when they came into a border town. The border town regularly passed hands between evil magic-users and evil warlords. The villainous warlords maintained control by ensuring that people in the town didn’t have access to any sort of weaponry. As one player pointed out, this was similar to how in some parts of feudal Japan villages had one knife that was kept chained to a heavy stone or stump in the village square, ensuring that no one could mount an assault against their lords. Whether the myth started with the townspeople themselves or from a conquering soldier was never made clear, but the player-characters quickly started hearing about the dangers of Wizard Daggers.

A Wizard Dagger was some sort of special dagger that could kill a man in a single stab. It was created by magical smiths and they were given to the townsfolk explicitly to bring down the warlords when they came into town. Wizard Daggers were the primary reason why not even daggers were allowed amongst the populace as there was no way to confirm whether or not this was a one-hit kill dagger.

When the town once more faced a conquering army, the player-characters decided that they couldn’t stand by and watch this horrible tyranny play itself out again and again. They beat back the first force that came to conquer it, which mostly consisted of a few soldiers. While they celebrated their victory, the townsfolk sat in fear for they knew that an army would follow the soldiers. As the townspeople foresaw, a small army arrived a few days later.

Knowing there was no way in the 99 Abyssal Planes they were going to fight a whole army, the party realized that they could challenge the leader of the army to a duel. After all, they were the de facto leaders of the town, they had beaten his men, and who had rule of the town was now a matter of honor. Accepting their claim, the feudal lord that lead the army agreed to a duel.

The players got him to agree to a duel with Wizard Daggers by placing forward Bonc, the party’s short and frail Beguiler, as their champion. So convinced he was of his own abilities, the army leader put his own lands up as forfeit if Bonc actually won the duel (after all it was a duel to the death). The important thing to note was that Bonc’s second was a barbarian descended from a clan of werewolves, and wizard daggers didn’t really exist.

Using the party’s knowledge of poisons, they were able to create a venom that would allow them to paralyze and kill the enemy swiftly. Rather than risk giving him the wrong dagger, they simply made sure that there was little chance that the party barbarian would succumb to the poison. Finally, they simply faked a grave illness and near death for Bonc to ensure that his second could fight in his stead.

What proceeded was a horrific brawl in which the nearly naked opponents continually tried to stab each other with poisoned knives. Eventually, the party barbarian came out on top, taking advantage of his greater constitution to shrug off the poison, while his opponent eventually succumbed and was quickly dispatched.

 

This whole story to me always illustrates one of the most important ethical questions that most of us either have or will face at some point in our lives. How should I define cheating? Is cheating wrong if you don’t get caught? Is using an advantage always cheating?

I had a professor in college who suggested to us that there was nothing wrong with using drugs originally designed for treating ADHD, such as Adderall, to help with studying. As he pointed out, we all know that many of the people in that room had done it already, and were using it to boost their ability to focus on material. Furthermore, no one is testing for it nor will they any time soon. Why not take advantage of it?

As he further demonstrated, the argument that it will screw up your brain chemistry is for most people invalid. After all, most people in that room had cups of coffee in their hand, one student actually had a flask, several people in the room had packs of cigarettes, and a few had marijuana (not volunteered but I knew they did). These mind-altering substances were in addition to the bevy of psychiatric drugs that were most likely prescribed to the students since depression was a common problem on my campus. Furthermore, your mind is yours, and there’s no ethical impulse to keep it pure since there is nothing morally or ethically superior in what is natural. This is because it is natural for man to change and adjust his environment to suit his needs. By extension, man’s body is a part of his environment and he should change it as he sees fit.

The question is then, is that cheating?

Would it be cheating in a baseball game if I put my strongest hitter in the 4th position of the batting order? For those who don’t understand baseball metaphors. The 4th position in a batting order is the “clean up spot.” Assuming all three previous batters can get on base, you hope for that grand slam from the fourth hitter, or even if just one person made it to a base, you’re looking for an RBI or multi-run home run. I don’t think anyone would call that cheating. I believe that most people would say it was strategy.

Yet, if that fourth position hitter was so strong because he had taken some sort of performance enhancing drug, it would be cheating.

Now, why is it cheating in baseball?

In baseball it would be cheating to take steroids because of its nature as a game. As a game, we assume that there are rules that place everyone on equal footing. By agreeing to the rules of the game, we agree to certain modes of conduct. We all remember being young kids and someone, maybe even ourselves, would want to change the rules of a game when we weren’t winning. We couldn’t though, because that’s not what playing a game is. There’s no rule in the MLB Handbook that says certain players are allowed to take some kind of performance enhancing drug. So, when they do, they’re breaking a rule.

Here’s the thing though, life isn’t a game but you can still win or lose.

You tell someone in law school that they’re not in a competition with each other, and there will be laughter. There are many many people who by choice of profession are thrust into situations where there are no rules, or where there is a constant attempt to bend or change the rules to ensure someone wins. Look at how Wall Street has been operating since the late 1970s; constant attempts to take or create advantages that will allow them to make more and more money for themselves. Look at the fact that students in top rated colleges in the United States are using drugs like Adderall as a study aid.

Everyone’s doing it, and many people are questioning whether or not it’s cheating. Even if it is, the rational economic view is that cheating is something you should do if you’re not going to get caught.

This is why many ethicists and moralists have used the terrifying boogeyman of an afterlife to reinforce their positions. It makes private transgressions much easier to pass judgment upon. Of course, cheating is cheating even if you don’t get caught because you know you did something wrong. The real question is when we’re supposed to feel wrong. When does it cross the line from making use of your advantages to cheating?

Furthermore, why is cheating unethical?

I would argue that our society is based around assumptions that there is some level of honesty between all participants. This is why we condemn things like the way a deregulated Wall Street has acted, or how the government’s TARP initiative was a giant hoodwink. It’s why we become outraged at someone who pretends to be homeless and in need of money, even though they don’t need it, or those that make use of our social welfare programs even though they can survive without the assistance. They have violated some sort of social trust, that may or may not be real in practice but it is assumed to be.

It’s that violation that’s unethical.

The important thing to understand here is that the ethical person is not naïve. There’s a difference between the person who is surprised that people are cheating, and the man who chooses not to even though he understands it is sometimes rational. The thing that you, and I, and everyone, needs to come figure out is when is it cheating.

Is rational cheating, cheating when you’re not going to get caught, wrong? Can we ever ensure that we’ll never be caught? By having knowledge of our own actions, didn’t someone catch us?

Ponder the Wizard Dagger.

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