The CUNY-Wide Conference on Academic Integrity

at Eugenio María de Hostos Community College,

Friday, September 29, 2017

Academic Integrity and Cheating:  Why is it wrong to cheat?

Remarks prepared by

Philip A. Pecorino, Ph.D.

Queensborough Community College, CUNY



The presentation offers a definition of cheating as a form of violation of academic integrity and explanations for why cheating is attractive or tempting and then why, in the most fundamental sense, it should be judged to be morally wrongful behavior in an academic setting. The remarks make use of several ethical principles as well as the most popular notion that doing harm to self and others is a morally wrongful act.



·       Preface

·       Introduction


·       What is cheating?


·       Why is it wrong?


·       Moral Theories:

  • Categorical Imperative

  • Atheistic Natural Law Theory

  • Theistic Natural Law Theory

  • Justice as Fairness Principle

  • Utilitarianism

  • Virtue Ethics

  • Ethical Egoism

·       Why is cheating attractive?


·       Why is it wrong?  The simplest terms


·       How does cheating harm anyone?


·       Resources



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 Academic Integrity.

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 wrongful behavior. 

What is 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:

  1. Using another person’s work and submitting it as one’s own, such as a paper or even including collaborative homework
  2. Taking answers from another for an examination,
  3. Allowing someone to use your work on an examination or in an assignment
  4. Getting an advanced look at an examination by stealth, getting exam questions in advance,
  5. Copying material without proper citation and other forms of plagiarism
  6.  Padding bibliographies with works not used in any form,
  7. 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,
  8. Using electronic devices to obtain information during an examination or exercise that does not permit such,
  9. Taking a test or performing an exercise for someone or having someone take a test or perform an exercise for you.

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 moral judgments.

Moral Theories:

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.

1.    Categorical Imperative

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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

4.  Justice 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 unjust differences.

Now I offer a look at those approaches that condemn the acts for what they produce or fail to produce.

5.  Utilitarianism

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.

6. Virtue Ethics

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. 


7.  Ethical Egoism

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 achievements. 


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, Kessler International, 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 punishment.

4. They don't understand the lectures.

5. There are too many papers to write.

 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 progress.

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 community.

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!