“you’re only cheating yourself”

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

Two questions:

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.


  • I always understood “you’re only cheating yourself” from the perspective that you’re supposed to have learned something from a class, and cheating is just a way to try and get good grades without actually learning anything. You’re only cheating yourself in the sense that by taking the easy option you’re cheating yourself out of a real education, so to speak.

    I always remember a skit that a couple of Seniors did my Freshman year in High School, where a kid gets away with cheating on his test by copying the answer for the capital of some country he’s never heard of. then, years later, at a job interview, the interviewer says–“Well you both seem equally qualified, so let me just ask you: what is the capital of…” A ridiculous scenario that drew a laugh of course, but I think it gets at what you’re asking.

    These days though I think about cheating in terms of signal theory. People pay to go to universities because of the value of the diploma they get at the end. If I can get that diploma while doing much less work than my peers, I still get the benefit of the signal. But if everyone is cheating, and this is known outside of the school, then it degrades the value of that diploma. So it’s in the interest of the school to police cheating in order to protect the value of their program.

  • This is good: “You’re only cheating yourself in the sense that by taking the easy option you’re cheating yourself out of a real education, so to speak.”

    Right, so it’s not in your self-interest to cheat, because there’s some reason why you should know the thing you didn’t learn. Of course, this is often false – humanities courses for engineers, math courses for humanities majors. That’s why the self-interest argument misses the distinctively moral aspects of cheating. And that’s why that skit was funny – bc, omg, that random thing *did* turn out to be important! :-)

    And the signal theory analysis seems right to me, but it’s still just about the self-interest of the institution. While that’s an important component of the story, it can’t be the end of it. I’ll talk a little about why I think cheating is actually *wrong* next time, although it won’t be anything groundbreaking.

  • It’s totally why that skit was funny. I actually think the “cheating yourself out of a real education” argument isn’t an argument from self-interest; it is a value/moral one. It’s saying there’s value in actually learning this stuff, and you’re selling yourself short by not taking the time to. Even if that value isn’t practical value.

    I will say that part of why cheating’s wrong isn’t because of the institution’s interest, but because of the harm it does to other, honest students in the program.

    But I await your next post on the matter.

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