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Cheaters never prosper: it's essential to our society

Instruction in ethics, separate from any religious education, should be made available to all children.

Cheaters never prosper, or so the proverb goes. Yet over the past few weeks, revelations about match fixing in tennis and rumours that the NSW Independent Commission Against Corruption will make no adverse findings against public officials behaving badly raises concerns that sometimes those with a case to answer may walk free.

Whether the watchdogs won't or can't act is hard to say. The head of the Tennis Integrity Unit contends that, "corruption is very difficult to detect and to obtain the evidence to prosecute". ICAC was stymied by a High Court decision that limited the types of corruption it was authorised to investigate.

Surely in a world where cheaters prosper, insisting on honesty and integrity makes us nothing more than chumps.
Surely in a world where cheaters prosper, insisting on honesty and integrity makes us nothing more than chumps. Photo: Simon Bosch

The perception that the top end of town is subject to different standards to the rest of us has disastrous consequences for the morale and morality of society as a whole.

In short, we lose faith, not just in the honesty and integrity of those who play for Australia and are sworn to represent our interests, but in all those with money and power. And if they're all crooks, we reason, why should we refrain from stealing and lying when doing so could increase our wealth and power? Surely in a world where cheaters prosper, insisting on honesty and integrity makes us nothing more than chumps.

This conclusion is understandable, but it's also wrong. Yes, it's true that most people will cheat if they think they will get away with it. This means anti-corruption measures must be baked into any system that can be gamed. It also requires citizens to fight for the proper regulation of business, sport and politics, as well as the flourishing of a free and public-minded press, willing and able, as The Guardian's Michael White argues,  "to take on the bad boys, arouse public opinion and see the challenge through to the courts despite the threats of overpaid gagging lawyers".

At the same time, we need to accept that although the blunt instrument of the law is necessary, it will always be insufficient to detect wrongdoing and – by bringing the perpetrator to justice – deter others from doing the same. Into thIs considerable gap must come ethics. We need to teach it to our children from at least prep to year 6, and optimally, through the senior school years too.

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Ethics is a subset of philosophy, and philosophy programs for children as young as five exist in some Australian schools. My own children went through a program at their primary school, which was outstanding. They learnt how to listen, take turns, reason and argue. They enjoyed every minute of it and emerged from the program as critical thinkers capable of contributing constructively to the our democratic society, which requires an informed and inquiring citizenry.

Properly taught, ethics reinforces the need for careful listening and respectful argumentation by supporting children to explore and debate difficult questions such as, should drug smugglers be executed? Is it OK to lie, and what is love?

Academic reviews of such programs have found that children are more than capable of engaging in age-appropriate ethical inquiry. It helps them clarify and articulate their own values, to learn and understand the different views of their classmates and to modify their own under the weight of further evidence.

The trouble is that when school starts this week, only Victoria will have ethics instruction in the curriculum where it belongs, so it can be delivered with the authority and expertise of qualified teachers. Elsewhere in the country, where ethics is offered, it's provided by volunteers and positioned as an alternative to special religious instruction or scripture.

This is a false dichotomy, and forces too many children to miss out. Scripture classes do not purport to teach ethics and the evidence shows they don't. What they provide to children of a particular religion is instruction on the basic tenets of that faith.

Leaving aside the contested question as to whether this sort of instruction is appropriate in Australia's secular schools, what is beyond question is that ethics should be made available to all children, whether or not scripture is provided during school hours or their parents choose to enrol them in it.

If we believe that our democracy, our economy and our sport will run a whole lot better with people of integrity at the helm – not people who only do the right thing when they're confident of getting caught – then we must equip the next generation with the core skills they need to be the honest brokers of tomorrow. We need to teach them – every single one of them – ethics.

"Cheaters never prosper" is a modern phrase, though a  similar idea hails from the 17th century. Found in John Harrington's Epigrams, it comes with an ironic twist. "Treason doth never prosper, what's the reason? For if it prosper, none dare call it treason."

The twist reminds us that keeping humans honest, and preserving the values of honesty in society, have never been child's play. But now that ethics is, we might finally have found the answer.

Leslie Cannold is an ethicist, researcher and public speaker on gender, values-driven leadership and respectful relationships.

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