The Ethics of Cheating

Like many of history's great philosophers, I do some of my deepest thinking in various corners of my bathroom.  Today, as I massaged shampoo into what's remaining of my hair, I began thinking about cheating in games.

I think most people can agree that cheating to improve one's position in a game does not put you on the side of the angels.  I don't know how grievous a sin it is exactly, but it will probably shift you closer to the NAUGHTY column on Santa's ledger.

Does the same hold true if you cheat to lose?

Suppose we're counting up points in Dominion.  I'm last to report my score, and it's higher than my opponent's.  I've won.  Does my opponent need to know that?  Would it be the greater overall good to report a lower score and give my opponent the chance to savor the same moment of triumph I just experienced privately?  Does bestowing victory in this way do anybody any harm, or is it an act of selfless charity-- a mitzvah, if you will?

The knee-jerk reaction is that cheating is wrong, full stop.  By giving my opponent the illusion of victory, I'm robbing him of the chance to learn from mistakes, and lessening the value of future victories that are truly earned.  But if the lie goes undetected, to my opponent this is an earned victory, as sweet and delectable as any other.  I've already savored my victory internally.  By passing it to my opponent, am I not bringing more happiness into the world?

I realize the equation is different if the deception is discovered.  There are ancillary matters of trust, embarrassment, and other messy emotions.  But what if that wasn't an issue?  What if the lie would never be revealed?


I think this is similar to many hypothetical questions about lying, deception, and motivation. Like, if you cheat (safely) on your spouse, but they never find out, "what's the harm"? These things can be discussed at great length, as they bring logical utilitarian ethics in conflict with intuitive ethics.

I think the explanation is that many (all) ethical principles, including the ones wired into our brains, are convenient heuristics, not laws of nature. The heuristics are tuned to the real world, and real world situations don't tend to be the sort of vacuum frictionless experiments that drive these philosophical what-if musings.

So it's what you call "ancillary matters" that are important. Not just "what if I'm caught", but "what effect does this habitual pattern of behavior have on myself". And yes, if you can magically erase the hair, risk, and murkiness from reality, then a lot of intuitive ethical principles can be set aside as well.

(And yes, heuristics are necessarily flawed; there are plenty of real world situations where lying and cheating are the right thing to do. The point of a good heuristic is just that it's a good, quick approximation.)

I think there's a Greater Good argument to be made in certain circumstances. For example, you're the teacher of the game or -- better yet -- the one in the group who always wins. Chalking up one for someone else may add to the perceived fairness of the entire enterprise (e.g., a regular game night)

In my 15-ish years of P.S. (Post Settlers) boardgaming, I've actually done this twice. In both cases there was absolutely no way anyone could have known, and in each case it was a last-minute decision based solely on the group dynamic during that game. It will likely not surprise you to learn that each game, by game's end, had roiled up a bit of discontent along the way. And cheating to lose, I felt, was just the easiest way to calm everyone.

FWIW, in re: what Dug said... I was, in my regular games group, the guy who most often taught games, as well as the guy who usually won games. But that didn't really play a part in this.

I've cheated to lose many times. In all cases, the opponent was my daughter. I don't know if this was the right thing, but my goal was to instill in her a love of board games, or at least, not downright abhor them. If I continually dominated--whether or not the game was luck-based--she would often cry and stop playing. It was always a tenuous balance whether to lose or win in times when I could control the outcome. I wanted her to be able to cope with losing but not be so dispirited that she wouldn't play again. By the time she hit 3rd or 4th grade I mostly played all out. She's 12 now and can clean my clock at "Set" and hold her own in many other games but there is still the occasion when my soft, daddy's heart weakens, and I find myself playing a little less hard to win.

Virtually all games you can deliberately lose without cheating. And doing so is generally considered crappy, except for special situations - like when you're playing against a child who is still learning 'games' but is very emotionally invested in them, then it might be okay to make some bad moves or to anti-cheat or whatever. But I wouldn't want you to throw a game to me, whether the rules allow it or not.

I would also consider it unethical to hook my brain up to a computer programmed to simulate a life of pleasure and success, without asking me first.

If I could, I'd insert a comic strip panel of me standing unseen behind Jesse, frozen mid-gesture raising a massive cable coupling to the base of his skull that leads to a blinky-flashy-supercomputer, my face turned toward the reader with wide eyes, raised eyebrows, and open, pursed lips.

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