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Cheating, Moral Development, and Self-Actualization

Incentivizing cheating may lead to success, but what about self-actualization?

Artwork by Alexi Berry. Used with permission.
Source: Artwork by Alexi Berry. Used with permission.

Almost two years ago I wrote about cheating and deception ( Incentivizing Lying ). It was not well-received (less than a thousand reads to date). Despite that, I’d like to build on it here.

Recently I have caught more students cheating on exams or assignments than ever previously, while at the same time working on a presentation I’ll do in February which includes aspects of self-actualization. In “ Incentivizing Lying ” I provide a good deal of research about how deception has minimal consequence and is reinforced. I won’t go into that again here and will assume the reader accepts deception is incentivized. I conclude that post with the option to just act out of conditioning, which appeals to our animal nature, or to more existentially rise above conditioning and decide who one wants to be. This post will look deeper into moral development as well as relating that to self-actualization.

In one of the classes I teach, there is discussion of Kohlberg’s stages of moral development. Kohlberg defines three stages: preconventional, conventional, and post-conventional moral reasoning. Preconventional Moral Reasoning occurs when the rewards or consequences determine the behavior. I often ask my students when discussing this topic if they’d kill a person for a million dollars if there were no consequences. You might be surprised how many say they would; so many that students have emailed me concerned about their peers development. Those that say they would, are acting from a preconventional reasoning position; their only concern is the reward. Kohlberg posited that children function at this level, but that many adults never progress to the next stage either. There have been social media posts about how if the only thing making you behave as a good person is the threat of heaven or hell, then you really aren’t a good person.

The second of Kohlberg’s stages is Conventional Moral Reasoning. In this stage, the decision considers what society considers as correct behavior. It would stand to reason some of the students concerned about their peers’ choice are acting from this level. They see murder as wrong socially, regardless of the penalty or lack thereof.

The third stage of moral reasoning goes beyond what society expects. In Postconventional Moral Reasoning, the person aspires to behavior which is more evolved than society expects. The person creates even a stricter moral code, beyond norms. These can sometimes be mocked by others. When students ask for examples, the most obvious are visible in hindsight: Lincoln moving to free slaves despite much of society's acceptance of slavery. In general, those with postconventional moral reasoning focus on individual rights, liberty, and justice.

The last time I taught the class, I asked about cheating. An intelligent and outspoken student explained how she saw no problem with cheating in college. She discussed how colleges measure learning being unrelated to actual practice in the field. She also posited that much of what is learned isn’t needed, as students are forced to take courses unrelated to their fields. She actually argued that perhaps cheating was a way of creating your own moral code, which would be the highest stage of moral development.

A student from the same class sent a blog they found online suggesting how to cheat electronically proctored exams. In the blog, the author claims it is more important in today’s times to learn to circumvent these types of assessments than to regurgitate material that can be found online. He actually challenged the audacity of universities to invade your space to monitor you taking an exam. The point is that many share his theory that it is better to cheat on things self-considered to be arbitrary.

This is where the drive to self-actualize may come into play. One of the first aspects of self-actualization that relates to this is that self-actualizing people have a more efficient perception of reality. Self-actualizers are less likely to deceive themselves. Those who read my posts or who study psychology are likely aware of how deceptive the human mind is. The human psyche justifies its behavior through a myriad of self-serving biases. Those that are self-actualizing have honed the ability to question their thinking and see through their biased thinking.

A second aspect of self-actualizing that relates to rising above the temptation to cheat is Maslow’s concept of the B-values. In these Maslow lists Justice. One cheating while others do not could not be viewed objectively as fair or just. Additionally, honesty is a synonym for several of the B-values (as Maslow believed these B-values were actually all facets of one way of being), including simplicity, goodness, and truth. It is easy to see that these values run counter to cheating.

One could make the argument that some aspects of self-actualizing supports cheating. For example, self-actualizers fight enculturation, and do not allow societies opinions to sway their convictions. It could be said rules against cheating on things considered unimportant is simply a social construct. To counter this, I simply return to the B-values, and challenge that dishonesty is incongruent with self-actualizing, and that it is more likely a rationalization for a self-serving endeavor.

A few months ago I wrote about the perceived entitlement and lack of empathy of younger generations. The post focused on what some experts saw as the benefits of this phenomena and the character of Millennials in general. One expert went so far as to say, “they will save us all” with their ability to hack life (Stein, 2013). Perhaps they will. But will they self-actualize? Is life hacking part of achieving one’s fullest potential? Will there be a decrease in moral development? Does that even matter? It is my bias (and Maslow’s theory) that self-actualizing is part of the innate drive of humans, once it is uncovered beneath the other drives (physiological needs, safety needs, love needs, and esteem needs). As such, I’d certainly like to see more focus on that rather than simply success.

Copyright William Berry, 2020


Stein, J., 2013. The Millennials: The Me Me Me Generation., Time Magazine, retrieved from

Source: Artwork by Alexi Berry. Used with permission.