Cheating & Lying in America: Where has all our morality gone?

Lance Armstrong on a bike

Lance Armstong: the newest face of cheating in America

I remember the first, and only, time I ever cheated. I was in third grade—of a Catholic school, no less—and a friend in my class had put the idea in my head: “You can write the answers on your hand for the test. You don’t need to study.” I can’t remember what was going through my head then, but I tried it. And the nuns caught me (I got detention and a painful rapping across my knuckles with a ruler). I got spanked by my dad, too, and punished at home for who knows how long.

It was enough to make an impression on me that cheating was something I should never, ever do.

Now that my son is in the third grade, it’s something I talk to him about often: you never cheat, you never lie. You always tell the truth.

So it gets me thinking: why is our country rampant with lying scandals? There’s Lance Armstrong, who is now (finally!) admitting that he won his seven Tour de France medals thanks to one of the “most sophisticated doping programs ever” (despite his years and years of denials otherwise). What a huge disappointment. And there’s the Notre Dame tackler Manti Te’o, who has now allegedly made up the existence of a girlfriend, who died a horrific death (both are supposedly untrue, although how the lies got spread is still being investigated). The public feeling about both Lance and Manti: “He’s overcome so much to get this far.” (We do love a good overcome-at-all-odds success story in this country.) And then there’s Bernie Madoff and so many others—from athletes to other ponzi schemers—who cheat the system to get ahead, to collect riches, to garner fame.

The prize? The sprawling homes; the expensive, flashy watches; the boats; the parties; the flashy cars; and, of course, the fame and the (false) admiration of society that comes with being a huge “success”.

Think about it: Lance Armstrong wouldn’t be a household name today if he had come in 23rd in the Tour de France. He wouldn’t have become a celebrity of his own, dating stars like Sheryl Crow, becoming the poster boy of top brands, and gracing numerous magazine covers. He wouldn’t have started Livestrong (and some could argue, he wouldn’t have helped so many people with cancer). Our society celebrates the winningest (that is a word), not the losers.

And that focus is partly to blame for the eagerness by so many to get ahead at all costs.

But where’s our internal sense of morality? Have we completely lost it in modern America? Was there no one in these people’s lives to show them that cheating is just plain wrong? Is there no one in their lives now who can show them the “right” way? Or am I just being naïve—not getting the way things really work in this world. Maybe.

One psychologist, Nigel Barber, Ph.D., has said that “Cheating is a way of life.” Even Thomas Jefferson was quoted as saying: “Money, not morality, is the commerce of civilized nations.”

But the more I think about it, the more I realize that it’s our country—with its definition of success as wealth and so-called fame—that’s partly to blame. It’s also the media that pounces on a story of David overcoming Goliath (e.g. Lance overcoming cancer and then going on to win seven titles; Manti overcoming horrible personal circumstances to help Notre Dame become a winner; Bernie Madoff rising from a humble Queens upbringing to become a Wall Street “success”).

That, and there’s a disturbingly pervasive belief in our society that we’re entitled to grab what we want, now, no matter whether it’s right or wrong, good for the environment, good for our family, good for our health…the list goes on.

So, do we just throw up our hands and say that’s the way it is? I have a somewhat more optimistic opinion that we can change, but it has to begin at the beginning.

We must start with our children: we must teach them that grades (and sports trophies) aren’t the be-all-and-end-all. Parents push their children to have top grades and win top honors: I can understand this. We want our children to do well, to succeed, to have the right opportunities in life. But this puts inordinate pressure on our children to get ahead at all costs. No wonder we hear about cheating scandals in schools: these schools are a microcosm of our society. That’s where it all starts.

But take away the pressure to achieve—and getting ahead at all costs becomes less important. Teach our children to love what they’re doing and to do their best, even if that best doesn’t bring top honors or awards.

Above all, though, we must teach them to hold sacred a sense of morals, a belief that—at the end of day—how we live our lives, how we treat other people and the world we live in, is what really matters. We need to get back to an internal sense of right and wrong. It’s pretty simple, actually. There aren’t a lot of grey areas when it comes to morality. As Mahatma Gandhi put it: “Morality is the basis of things, and truth is the substance of all morality.”

Bottom line: You can’t take fame, fortune, and riches with you when you’re gone (we’ve heard that so many times), so what good is spending your entire life working toward something that may make you feel good temporarily, but is an empty, hollow pursuit? Now that’s a question I’d like Oprah to ask Lance in her interview.

Valerie LatonaAbout Valerie Latona
As the former editor in chief of Shape (the active lifestyle magazine) for 5 years, I personally spoke with a lot of women (thousands over the years, from around the nation) and what I found is this: it's not easy to stay healthy, to get (and stay) fit, and to stem the weight gain tide (and even the tide of disease) that inevitably happens to us as we get older.