On the Concept of Cheating

Posted on April 12, 2018 by

A while back I blogged over at PhilPercs about the concept of cheating. That blog post was the seed that grew into a forthcoming co-authored publication aptly titled “Cheating and Enhancement: Implications for Policy in Sport” (and who says blogging is a waste of time?!). Below is a summary of that initial post where I posed some of the main questions I had concerning the concept of cheating that I’d like to open up for discussion. My interest in cheating began while considering the phenomenon of flopping so that seems like a natural starting place for the discussion.

The phenomenon of flopping (see here) seems morally problematic to me. My initial reflection on flopping  was that it was an attempt to deceive the officials into thinking an infraction had occurred in order to gain an advantage for one’s team and as such I wondered if it should be considered cheating by the players who engage in the practice. I’m still unsure if flopping is cheating but this has led me to think deeper about cheating itself.

Here are the questions that interest me about cheating: What is cheating? Is it something different than simply breaking a rule? Is every breaking of a rule an instance of cheating (it doesn’t seem to be the case)? And, is the concept of cheating getting at the same sorts of things in different contexts; so for instance, is cheating in sport different in any morally significant way from cheating on your taxes, or on your spouse, or on a test?* And how is it defined in the context of sport? I know, lots of questions, but here let’s focus on cheating in sports.

How are we to define cheating in sports? There are a few ways to to do so but each brings its own set of issues. First, we could say that cheating occurs when one intentionally breaks the rules. So, if I purposefully do something against the rules I cheat. But this doesn’t seem to be right. If I purposefully foul someone in order to stop them from scoring, say in basketball, then I cheat? On this view it seems that I do. This seems wrong to me. Certainly I commit a foul, but committing a foul seems much different than cheating. What seems more like cheating is committing a foul then acting as if I did not commit the foul by deceiving the refs and crowd into thinking that no foul was committed. Or maybe I cheat if I commit a foul and don’t tell others that I have committed the foul. In the latter case I am trying to get away with something that is against the rules and that seems to add a component to the original formulation of cheating that rings more intuitive to my ears. This added component seems to be deception. But to further press on the initial formulation, intentionally breaking the rules isn’t always bad is it? Consider a case where I intentionally break a rule to even the playing field for the other team. Let’s say I commit a foul and no one notices but it turns out that committing that foul would win us the game if I do not rectify the situation. To make up for my egregious play I break another rule but this time I intentionally break a rule in order to give the other team another shot at tying the game. It seems commendable for me to do this and not at all like cheating. So it can’t be that cheating occurs when we intentionally break the rules. But for those who like the formulation then there will be at least two kinds of cheating, moral and immoral cheating and this seems odd given hat cheating seems to be something immoral by it’s very nature (whatever that may be).

In a fairly recent post my fellow blogger and LSU philosopher James Rocha suggests that figuring out the immorality of cheating is quite easy, he writes: “This is really a simple matter: if you intentionally break the rules to give yourself an advantage, it doesn’t matter how big of an advantage it turns out to be. Intentional cheating is the crime; you don’t get out of it by being a poor cheater.” For Rocha, cheating then is intentionally breaking the rules to give yourself an advantage. This alleviates some of  the concerns I raised about the first formulation. On this understanding cheating has a component of advantage built into it. But this seems arbitrary to me. I think people cheat even when there is no rule present. Breaking a rule does not seem sufficient for cheating and neither is it necessary. Let’s assume that using performing enhancing drugs is cheating (this is contentious for me but let’s roll with it). We think it’s cheating because it gives one an unfair advantage. So, MLB has decided to ban drugs that give one an unfair advantage. So Barry Bonds hires a chemist to devise a drug that is not on the banned list. He then uses this drug and receives the desired advantage. He didn’t break the rule per say, but this would still seem like cheating nonetheless (again, assuming it’s wrong to enhance). Also, what if one breaks the rules, not to gain an advantage against her competitors but to break a personal record? This wouldn’t be cheating on Rocha’s account because the athlete would not be breaking the rule to gain an advantage over anyone else which seems to be the wrong-making feature Rocha was trying to get at. In any event, I don’t share Rocha’s optimism with regards to the ease he alludes to when thinking about how to cash out the wrong in cheating.I had initially planned to write about cheating before Rocha’s post but I think it’s appropriate to engage with what he said first given that he beat me to the punch.

A fruitful way forward, I suggest, is an appeal to achievements.** When our evaluation of a given achievement rightfully changes due to us finding out one has enhanced themselves or when finding out that one has circumvented acquiring the goods internal to the sport in question, then we have a clear case of cheating; cheating occurs when one purposely fails to acquire the goods internal to the sport in question. This usually happens because one is overly focused on the external goods that accompany the games (fame, fortune, and the like). Obviously, much more needs to be said about this, luckily Allen Habib and I have said a bit more in our forthcoming piece, and I say a bunch more in my dissertation, but I’d be curious to hear what you all think about cheating.

As always, you can find me on twitter @justincaouette


  • See Stuart Green’s “Cheating” in Law and Philosophy 23 (2):137-185 (2004) for a nice run down of the different accounts of cheating and his attempt at coming up with a unified account of cheating.
  • Gwen Bradford’s excellent book, “Achievement” (OUP 2015) is a great start for those interested in reading more about the concept of Achievement itself.