Nearly 40 years ago, Sissela Bok, wife of former Harvard University president, Derek Bok, wrote "Lying: Moral Choice in Private and Public Life." The book, with its detailed analyses of causes and consequences, was much acclaimed when it first appeared in 1978 and is still widely used in classrooms today.
Unfortunately, perhaps in many of these same classrooms, cheating among students is rampant. In a shocking article published in 2010 in The Chronicle of Higher Education, Ed Dante (the author's literary pseudonym) described in detail how he has made a lucrative living by writing term papers, proposals, even theses, for undergraduate and graduate students, many of whom, he said, were barely literate. "As far as I know," said Mr. Dante, "not one of my customers has ever been caught."
Mr. Dante's "customers" included nurses, MBA students, even seminarians. But the majority, asserted Mr. Dante, come from three demographics: "English-as-second-language students, hopelessly deficient students and lazy rich kids." It would seem that a combination of the latter two categories could be combustible. Not surprisingly, Mr. Dante's article became the most read and commented on piece in the Chronicle's history.
According to a New York Times survey, 61 percent of undergraduates admit to some form of cheating on assignments and exams. The percentage of actual cheaters is likely higher if you include those who weren't willing to confess, even anonymously. While this group probably wouldn't steal a wallet, they talk themselves into stealing the work of others and passing it off as their own, driven by the pressure to do well in school combined with a lack of will, ability or discipline to complete certain tasks.
But students aren't the only ones who lie to get by. In surely one of the strangest and most contentious presidential contests in history, Hillary Clinton versus Donald Trump, lying has taken on huge proportions. According to PolitiFact's mid-year election report, 78 percent of Donald Trump's campaign statements that the group fact-checked were mostly false or completely false. The figure was 26 percent for Hillary Clinton — clearly better, but still worrisome.
Indeed, the proliferation of public figures who have lied is extraordinary: Eliot Spitzer's lies about patronizing prostitutes led him to resign the New York governorship, but earned him a cable talk show. And former Baltimore Police Commissioner Ed Norris was sentenced to jail for lying, cheating and stealing, but was rewarded with his own radio talk show when he emerged.
Then there's Ryan Lochte's performance at the recent Rio Olympics; the gold medal swimmer, with three of his teammates, fabricated a story about being robbed at gunpoint when it turned out he and his pals, all intoxicated, were never robbed, but instead had trashed a gas station — a rather embarrassing situation for the United States. Continuing in the sports arena: Football and baseball players have lied to Congress about their steroid use, but perhaps the biggest sports lie to gain media attention in recent years was Lance Armstrong's. A cancer-survivor who won the Super Bowl of cycling — the Tour de France — seven times, he was considered a hero. Until, that is, he was forced to admit that he used performance-enhancing drugs numerous times.
In a Baltimore Sun column about the Lance Armstrong case, the late radio host and commentator Ron Smith claimed that he "would like to see the government bring the same dedication to hunting down the Wall Street criminals who brought down the economy as it does to pursuing athletes who cheated."
It makes me wonder why the Securities and Exchange Commission, supposedly Wall Street's watch dog, never acted on repeated reports they received about the shenanigans of Bernie Madoff and those who enabled him to perpetuate a billion-dollar fraud by lying. To be sure, no one was rewarded in that case. Mr. Madoff went to jail, and his family was destroyed by his son's suicide; many innocent people lost their retirement savings, and institutions, their investments.
When I was a little girl, my mother taught me the following line from a Walter Scott poem: "Oh, what a tangled web we weave, when first we practice to deceive." It's a good warning for students, politicians (especially presidential candidates), athletes, Wall Street — indeed for everyone. For in the end, lying rarely helps anyone.
Lynne Agress, who teaches in the Odyssey Program of Johns Hopkins, is president of BWB-Business Writing At Its Best Inc. and author of "The Feminine Irony" and "Working With Words in Business and Legal Writing." Her email is firstname.lastname@example.org.