While there is mounting evidence that a
rational argument is not determinative of the action of its audience
there is still some value in setting out the reasons why cheating in
academic settings is not desirable behavior and deleterious to
social welfare. Undesirable behavior left unchallenged and with no
attempts to dissuade its exhibitors of its consequences is less
likely to diminish in frequency.
It is generally understood that there are
several different ways a person can act in a manner not consistent
with Academic Integrity including: Plagiarism, Fabrication,
Cheating and other forms of Academic Misconduct.
Rather than at this time looking on all forms
of violations of Academic Integrity the focus is on one: Cheating.
A good deal of what is presented here concerning a justification for
forming the moral judgment that cheating is morally wrong can be
applied to the other forms of violation of the general notion of
When examining the many different principles
that can be used to support the moral judgment that cheating is
morally wrong it becomes rather easy to understand and accept why
cheating is nearly always thought to be something that humans should
not do. Nearly always? Yes, just nearly and not always. The
exceptions are within some carefully drawn parameters as in some
games and warfare to name two contexts with exceptions to the notion
of cheating as morally wrong. For example in a game such as
baseball there are forms of cheating thought to be artful and
acceptable and others not to be tolerated and even subject to
punishments. The line between the two is somewhat difficult to draw
and appears to shift over time. In warfare, there are many who
consider there to be certain “rules” and then there are those who
would violate those rules. The victor often decides when the rules
can be broken and cheating considered a strategic weapon and not as
cheating as a violation of Academic Integrity?
It is not simply prudent but necessary to
understand exactly what is meant by that term “cheating”. Just what
are we talking about? Then, there can proceed a consideration of why
such behavior should be adjudged as morally wrong.
For the present purpose the notion of
“cheating” will be confined for the most part to:
- Using another person’s work and submitting
it as one’s own, such as a paper or even including collaborative
- Taking answers from another for an
- Allowing someone to use your work on an
examination or in an assignment
- Getting an advanced look at an examination
by stealth, getting exam questions in advance,
- Copying material without proper citation
and other forms of plagiarism
- Padding bibliographies with works not
used in any form,
- Using or possessing notes and answers in
advance of an exam or exercise and using them during the exam or
exercise that does not permit such use,
- Using electronic devices to obtain
information during an examination or exercise that does not
- Taking a test or performing an exercise
for someone or having someone take a test or perform an exercise
There are other forms of cheating and with the
advance of technologies and forms of instruction there are and will
be variations on and additions to the list just presented.
Why is it
wrong to cheat?
Why is any human action judged to be wrong? In
what way wrong? In this context the notion of cheating being wrong
is intended in a moral sense. It is not applied in a pragmatic or
aesthetic sense. For a moral judgment that any human action or form
of behavior is morally wrong there would need to be some
justification or reason upon which that judgment rests or is based.
The justification most typically takes the form of some ethical
principle being violated.
Now there are a variety of ethical traditions
that provide general principles which can be used to condemn such
actions as have been termed “cheating” and each does so for a
variety of reasons. This treatment of cheating will examine a few
of the most popular of approaches to the question of the basis for
The various approaches to moral reasoning can
be examined according to what feature of an act is the basis for it
being termed morally right or wrong. First, there are those who
would condemn the actions in and of themselves as violating some
principle of the moral good. Second, there are those who would
condemn the acts for what they produce or fail to produce. Given the
current limitations in time a very quick overview as applied to
cheating the following is offered.
A follower of Immanuel Kant would condemn such
acts as violations of the Categorical Imperative for we cannot will
that all humans would behave in such dishonest ways in their
dealings with all other humans. The moral duty for Kant would have
people use reason to examine if they could will that all other
people should behave in the same way towards all other persons. So
the would-be cheaters should consider if they would want to live in
a world where people cheated as they please. Given that would-be
cheaters need to consider living in a world where would-be cheaters
need the services of others it would appear to be reasonable to
conclude that the would-be cheaters should not want to have inferior
care and services from providers who cheated their way into
positions. Nor would they want dishonest or inferior services being
delivered to those they know and for whom they care.
Atheistic Natural Law Theory
Natural Law Theory would condemn such acts as
violations of behaviors which species exhibit that enable them to
survive and prosper by personal achievement and growth. People,
indeed our species, survive by virtue of our accomplishments. We
learn a good deal which we use in our efforts to survive and
prosper. Cheating instead of learning weakens all in society.
People need to be truthful and to earn their way in the world if the
species is to survive challenges and to progress and flourish.
People need to trust one another if we are to have social life.
People need to trust that others have the knowledge and skills which
they claim and upon which others rely.
Theistic Natural Law Theory
For those who believe in a deity as the source
of all creation and the provider of laws, there is the notion that
survival and prosperity takes place through direct exchanges not to
be diminished through falsehoods such as represented in cheating.
For those who believe in a deity and the acknowledgement of several
commandments there are the purported directives that direct humans
to avoid falsehoods. Divine commandments prohibit not only the
taking of what is not ours but of coveting it as well. Cheating
violates these divine prohibitions.
as Fairness Principle
For someone applying the principles of John
Rawls and seeking to maximize human liberties and equality of
opportunities while minimizing the differences amongst social
classes and individuals, there is also a condemnations of cheating
and lying as violations of the liberty principle and as supporting
Now I offer a look at those approaches that
condemn the acts for what they produce or fail to produce.
For Utilitarians who consider the consequences
of repeated behavior upon others (Rule Utilitarian) there are also
strong reasons to think that acts of cheating do not produce the
greatest utility or the greatest amount of physical and emotional
happiness nor does it satisfy the interests of society nor provide
for a sense of wellbeing for humanity.
For the Utilitarians who consider the
consequences of acts of cheating there is a concern that as a rule
cheating would not only not produce much general happiness but would
actually produce harm instead. Society is not well served and the
interests of society are not well satisfied if persons who are not
capable of providing the knowledge and services needed by others are
given positions due to their having cheated.
There is an approach to ethical thinking based
on consideration of virtue of mind and character rather than upon
rules or duties. When considering moral character or virtues it
would appear obvious and direct that the virtues of truth and trust
and excellence of character would not support engaging in any forms
of deception or dishonesty. Virtues are acquired and demonstrated
through practice. Developing virtuous habits strengthens character
and the willingness to resist temptations to do what is not
consistent with virtuous behavior. Whether the virtues to be
cultivated and exemplified are those based on what aim at a good
life or wellbeing or based on those exemplifying the virtues
associated with women more than men with caring, self-sacrifice,
nurturing of others and solidarity and community or based on what
most deem as admirable traits in others, cheating is not virtuous.
For Ethical Egoists there is the attraction to
such actions in thinking that through cheating some desirable end
could be achieved with less effort than otherwise would be
required. This is the popular thought anyway.
Ok, so how do egoists justify cheating? Well,
whatever makes the egoist happy is thought of as the GOOD thing to
do. This is the ethical principle of an egoist. The potential
cheater thinks achieving the desired end by stealth or falsehood or
through a variety of means that are in violation of academic
integrity will make the egoist happy. Most likely this is the case
because they think there is less work involved rather than being
motivated by thoughts of the pure joy of achieving a successful
deception. Few people cheat for the pure sake of cheating.
The cheat usually gets a higher grade or reward
than otherwise would result from their lack of legitimate efforts.
They avoid negative outcomes. They may even provide reason for the
instructor to think that the instructor’s work was effective in
producing high academic performance. Friend and family of the
cheater may also be pleased at the accomplishments and
For the ethical egoist cheating might appear to
be morally justified unless the ethical egoist has an interest in
having a properly functioning society with fully capable individuals
proving goods and services.
Why is cheating attractive?
With so many theories providing
a clear set of principles and reasons with which to condemn cheating
as being immoral, it is a wonder that people would do it. Yet they
do cheat and in a
2013 report we have that “In fact, the rate of students who
admit to cheating at least once in their college careers has held
steady at somewhere around 75 percent since the first major survey
on cheating in higher education in 1963.” With all the latest
surveys indicating that academic dishonesty is very popular it
prompts the question:
So, what makes cheating appear
as attractive? Why would anyone want to do it and think that they
had done a good thing rather than a bad thing?
Well there are several reasons
and there is research into why people do cheat in general and even
in the academic setting. Based on a survey done by a company that
performs private investigations and digital and business forensics,
comes the claim that 9 in 10 students admit to cheating in
college and the students who do report cheating indicate that they
cheat frequently using a variety of techniques and that they suspect
faculty do the same.
Most disheartening come the reports that only 12
percent of students said they'd never cheat because of ethics.
Hicks Crawford on the
College Life reports that students are not lazy but they do cut
corners and they offer these reasons for cheating.
1. They're ambitious.
2. The competition is ruthless.
3. They don't fear the
4. They don't understand the
5. There are too many papers to
Ralph Heibutzki has reported that students’ reasons for
cheating can be placed into five different categories. These
categories were ambiguous attitudes, competitive pressures,
institutional apathy, lack of understanding, and self-interest.
Donald McCabe, Kenneth
Butterfield, & Linda Trevino in 2012 in their book, Cheating in
College: Why Students Do It and What Educators Can Do about It,
reported that more than 2/3 of college students report in engaging
in some form of cheating and those cheating habits among college
students develop prior to arriving at college, and continue to run
rampant in professional schools. Their focus was on what can be
done to reduce its prevalence and they hold that a program featuring
deeply embedded honors code as a key to creating an ethical
environment. However other measures might also be considered and
attempted including altering student attitudes towards cheating as
early as possible and identifying the reasons that particular groups
are more inclined to cheat and then addressing those factors.
As well as it has been
documented that cheating is widespread and appears to be rising in
frequency, it also appears obvious that simply offering reasons why
it should not take place appears to be ineffective in halting or
even diminishing its occurrences. Offering rather sophisticated
reasons why cheating is morally wrong appears not to be a means of
making a significant decline in its frequency. Then what is to be
done? Perhaps getting down to basics might work. Making the case
clearly and often and in the simplest terms as to just why is it
wrong both morally and even practically, might be worth making part
of a program.
Why is it wrong? The simplest terms
Now here is where we shall put
aside the formal theories and simply focus on the most popular
reason people give for finding an action to be morally wrong. Many,
if not most people today, tend to think they should be tolerant and
not judgmental and hold actions of others to be acceptable provided
that they do not harm others. So here we have the key idea. The
most popular moral imperative appears to be: DO NO HARM. This near
universal position is most likely due to neurological factors that
have been described as manifesting in what has been termed our
“Ethical Brain” providing us who are considered normal with the
feelings of empathy and sympathy needed for social life. Those
lacking in such behaviors are often described in pathological terms
as socio path or psychopath. So if harming humans is in some way
thought to be wrong or something humans ought to avoid doing, why
then is cheating to be avoided? This may not influence the behavior
of the ethical egoist who is successful at cheating and for whom
there appears to be no downside as the harm caused to others is of
little or no concern. For other than the ethical egoists the
results of considering the impact on others might just prove to be
quite different. As one begins to consider the consequences of the
violations of academic integrity on those other than the violator
the negative outcomes or harms appear.
How does cheating harm anyone?
How does cheating harm anyone?
At first thought it may appear
that cheating would produce beneficial results for many.
The student gets a higher grade and is happy.
The instructor gives a higher grade and is
happy thinking that the learners are achieving
The parents and friends of the student are
happy that the students is doing well
Those subsidizing the tuition and expenses of
the student are happy with the student’s achievements and
So, what is the problem then?
Well, let us look at the harm
done by looking at to whom it is done.
Harm to Students:
Other students are cheated and
feel hurt when they learn some get grades that they did not earn
through hard work and mastery of the course content. Students who
have been following the rules and are being honest are upset to
learn that others, their peers, achieved grades through dishonesty.
They think it unfair that they needed to work hard to achieve what
they have while others can be afforded a similar result through
cheating, theft and lies. Students who are honest often express
their anger not so much toward their fellow students who have been
dishonest as toward instructors and others, who accept it, permit it
or encourage it. There is the sense that everyone should play by
the same rules. To accept otherwise is just not fair. While many
students appear to have an understanding why a peer might cheat,
giving into temptation due to pressures or stress, still honest
students do not like that their peers “get away with it”.
Students who are in competition
for positions within or acceptance to an academic program think that
it is not fair to allow people to achieve such by dishonesty. Those
excluded from positions or acceptances are particularly hurt if
other students who were accepted based on an academic record that
was not honestly achieved have eliminated them.
Harm to Instructors:
It is not only honest students
who are hurt but instructors as well. The reputation of the
instructor is hurt when students and colleagues learn that the
instructor has allowed or encouraged or not effectively inhibited
cheating. The instructor is thought to be unprofessional or a less
effective instructor. Not being vigilant in the enunciation and
enforcement of standards of academic integrity is not often seen as
a means to achieve some form of positive recognition in the academic
Harm to Family and Friends:
The student who cheats may
present family and friends with an image as one who has earned
whatever grades and positions are achieved. However, deceiving our
friends and family is not a good thing to do. If caught, there is
great shame for the person who cheats and for those closest to that
person. There is a discomfort produced when family and friends
learn of the dishonesty and they must reassess their view of the
cheater. It may cause friends and family to wonder whether or not
the person who practices academic dishonesty is dishonest in general
and capable of being dishonest with them. Dishonesty sows the seeds
of distrust. These are definite harms.
If not caught, family and
friends may think that the student who cheated has knowledge, which
they do not in fact possess. There may arise situations in which
family and friends will not be well served by the lack of knowledge
or skill, which the deceptive student might have acquired had they
not cheated. This is a potential harm.
Harm to the Public:
Society is poorly served if
people are permitted to become credentialed, certified and licensed
through cheating. They are less able to perform their role in
society as those who did not cheat. Those who have achieved their
positions through dishonesty are more likely to cause harm to the
public through shoddy work or malpractice.
Society is hurt by cheating for
the cheating is not and will not likely be confined to the academic
world. In many ways in public life cheating is becoming more
common. False and distorted claims are made on job applications.
Public officials are more prone to dishonest claims and acts.
Corporate leaders deceive and accountants cheat as well.
Any cheating which is tolerated
promotes more cheating but when it is tolerated in the academic
world at times and in places where young people are being prepared
for taking their roles in public life it is particularly harmful for
it produces cheaters, well trained cheaters and cheaters who believe
that it is acceptable.
Harm to the Cheat:
The cheat suffers harm as well
from cheating. The student who cheats does not learn anything from
cheating except for how to cheat and perhaps how to cheat
successfully. This is not likely to produce true friends, admirers,
and supporters. It is not likely to produce a person who has
acquired knowledge that enriches a person, expands their horizons,
broadens their experiences, and develops their abilities.
What was not learned might be
knowledge that could have served the cheater well in situations
unimagined at the time the decision to cheat is made.
In cheating the cheater aids
and abets the practice, continues its popularity and spread. The
cheater will probably complain throughout life of being the victim
of cheating: of those who cheat in billing, weighing produce,
misrepresenting products and business agreements. The cheater will
complain of doctors of medicine who perform malpractice due to
ignorance of what should have been known. They will complain of
faulty work by electricians, plumbers, architects and the like who
provide incomplete or faulty services and most particularly work
that suffered because they did not know what they should have known
but did not because they cheated.
In the very simplest of terms:
cheating is a bad thing to do. Don’t do it. Don’t harm others and
do not harm yourself!