As a graduate teaching assistant and course instructor, I’ve encountered cheating and plagiarism a number of times. I know that many of my friends encounter similar issues as well. So, to mark the end of this semester, I thought I’d start a mini-series of posts on the subject.
First up: the “you’re only cheating yourself” perspective on academic dishonesty
1. Does this perspective adequately explain the badness/wrongness of cheating?
2. Does this perspective adequately explain why we enforce academic dishonesty policies?
“You’re only cheating yourself” might explain one aspect of the badness of cheating, albeit in an awkward way. Ordinarily, “cheating” is used to express an act involving fraud or deceit. While academic cheating does involve fraud or deceit, they are not directed towards oneself, as the saying suggests. (And, while it is possible to deceive oneself, cheating and plagiarism are not usually accurately described as self-deceit). Other bad features of cheating do affect oneself, though: cheating (and plagiarism) involve basically telling a lie about the origin of one’s work, and this threatens a person’s integrity. It also cheapens the value of a student’s word, as everyone at least implicitly agrees to some academic misconduct policy by enrolling in courses at a college. But of course, it is much catchier to say “you’re only cheating yourself” than “you’re only harming yourself,” for instance.
But the reformulation of “you’re only harming yourself” starts to make clear what’s wrong with the “you’re only cheating yourself” perspective on academic misconduct – it’s plainly false. While there surely is some sense in which you are cheating/harming yourself, there are also plenty of other people you could be harming, typically including but not limited to the author(s) from whom you stole work and your teacher who has to deal with the problem.
So basically, “you’re only cheating yourself” tries to make cheating look like it’s not in your self-interest and therefore is an imprudent thing to do. But, beyond being imprudent, cheating is typically immoral. As such, “you’re only cheating yourself” provides only an incomplete account of the badness/wrongness of cheating.
But let’s just pretend that “you’re only cheating yourself” were true, and that cheating does not harm anyone other than yourself. It would still be a misguided perspective to hold on cheating, because it can’t convincingly explain why anti-cheating policies are enforced. After all, students do tons of things that are inconsistent with fulfilling their academic potential: drinking too much, not paying attention in class, skimming or skipping assigned readings, etc. Cheating is only one among many such practices, and it is not obviously worse in terms of imprudence or “cheating yourself.”Maybe you’re a student who conscientiously comes to class and reads the textbook, but you’re having trouble writing one little section of a paper and so you plagiarize it. Or, you’ve studied well but you draw a blank on an important test question and so you cheat off of your neighbor. Why are these academic misconduct scenarios necessarily any morally worse than a person who always spaces out or falls asleep in class? In terms of harms to oneself, they are actually better.
It would be seriously and inconsistently paternalistic to enforce academic misconduct policies on the grounds that a student is cheating herself, while not enforcing all other similarly self-harmful student behaviors. Enforcement only makes sense on the assumption that some other people are harmed or have their rights violated when you cheat. More on this next time.