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You who are on the road must have a code that you can live by

Our writer talked with a group of private school students

Students have endless choices to make: Will it be snowboards or skis? Snoop Dogg or Green Day? What do you do when a friend tells you he has the answers to next week's exam?

A group of students, aged 14 to 17, gathered to ponder that very question, and others like it, as they explored ethics in the new millennium. The answer, they discovered, wasn't a simple one.

All of them said cheating was wrong, but none would turn in a friend for having the exam answers.

"Cheating is wrong," said one girl. "But so is ratting someone out."

But even the prohibition against ratting had its limits, the students decided. Was the friend offering the answers for free, or was he charging money? Had he done it before? If so, ratting might be in order. But there was a further, practical consideration — would the friend beat you up if you turned him in?

The final answer, the students decided, would be determined on a case-by-case basis. "You have to listen to your inner voice," said a 17-year-old boy. "If you've been raised right, it's going to tell you what to do."

Although moral crises seem clear enough on television or in the pages of a novel, the real world presents complex shadings, competing loyalties and countervailing values. All the students agreed with the Ten Commandments (or at least the major ones — "Thou shalt not kill" was universally accepted, but "Coveting thy neighbour's goods" offered some wiggle room), but found their everyday lives called for a more nuanced moral code.

"Your sense of ethics is inside you," said one student. "If it isn't, you weren't raised right."

The sins the students typically encounter are far less serious than murder. So where do they draw the line? Almost all of them had encountered schoolmates cheating on exams, but none had turned in the culprit.

"I've seen people cheating lots of times," said Hope (all names have been changed), a 15-year-old Grade 10 student. "All I ever do is give them a dirty look."

Many found friendship and peer pressure often trumped the rules of academic justice: "I find it difficult to rat someone out," said Jerry, 17. "I don't know why. It's just the way I am."

Melanie, 14, said she'd turn someone in if they persisted — "One or two times isn't that big a deal. But there's a point where it becomes systemic. That's when it gets serious. They're competing with people who are doing it by the book. You have to do something about it."

But some of the students said they'd have a hard time turning in a serial cheater if he or she were a personal acquaintance: "It's easier to rat out someone who isn't your friend," said one student.

Most of the students said a number of their schoolmates regularly cheat on exams, and described a set of cheating techniques that would do justice to the CIA—students punching answers into the memory banks of scientific calculators so they can be recalled with a combination of keystrokes, or girls writing crib notes on their thighs, then hiking their skirts to read them.

"I keep seeing people cheating on exams, over and over," said Roger, 16. "I keep telling myself that I should turn them in, but I never do."

The students didn't see their approach to cheating as an ethical lapse. "It's wrong, but the people doing it are going to be punished in their own way at some point," said a 14-year-old boy.

The students displayed a modern sense of ethics, keenly aware of the need for openness in a world that is changing with unprecedented speed. Alan, 16, said he had learned his ethics through a variety of sources: "You learn by watching your role models," he said. "You look at your teachers, your parents and some of your friends — but not all of them. There's a part of you that knows what's right, and what's wrong. You have to pay attention to it."

Several students said churches or other religious organizations had little influence over their sense of ethics. "They don't speak to people anymore," said Alan, who believes years of scandal and a dogmatic approach to complex issues have undermined the moral authority and relevance of many major churches.

Instead of relying on these traditional arbiters, Alan and the other students developed their personal approach to ethics by considering a broad and eclectic range of influences. Several mentioned Terry Fox as an ethical role model. Others cited Wayne Gretzky, youth activist Craig Kielburger, and champion cyclist Lance Armstrong.

One of the most common ethical dilemmas students face is a uniquely modern one — whether or not to download music. Many students have spent hours debating it with friends, and many have computers filled with MP3 files. The students find themselves defining the standards on a case-by-case basis.

Roger, for example, said nothing was wrong with downloading a few songs from any given musician: "It can be an advantage to the artist,"he said. "You're promoting them."

How many songs could you download without crossing the ethical frontier into the realm of piracy? On this point, the students had no rigid standard: Some said anything more than one song was too many, others said there were cases where you could justify up to 10.

But all agreed that wholesale downloading was wrong. "Musicians put a lot of work into this," said one girl. "You're not allowed to steal what they do."

James, 17, said the most interesting ethical issue he's seen lately is the one posed by major league star Jose Canseco, who admitted in his newly published biography (Juiced) to using steroids throughout his baseball career. Although Canseco is unapologetic about using performance-enhancing drugs, insisting they're a natural part of contemporary athletics, James and his fellow students were deeply offended.

"It's absolutely disgusting," said James. "Canseco was out chasing records set by guys who weren't juicing up." As the students saw it, Canseco's ethical breaches weren't limited to athletic cheating. They were also angered by the fact he named other players as steroid users in his book, including superstar Mark McGwire.

—Peter Cheney
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