Last time, I discussed some problems with the theory that, when you cheat, “you’re only cheating yourself.” Today, I have a few things to say on the wrongness of cheating. These are by no means comprehensive or ground breaking, just some food for thought.
First, I’ll backtrack just a little and say that there is a meaningful respect in which you “cheat yourself” when you cheat. Many people agree that there is something intrinsically valuable about an education, apart from its value as a means to a career and a livelihood. As such, in cheating, you may keep yourself from life-enriching educational opportunities that would have had intrinsic value. The line between prudence and morality is not firm or easily defined, however, so it may be difficult to tell whether or not the “cheating yourself” line is more of a distinctively moral aphorism or more of an appeal to a students’ self-interest. You can read my last post as a defense of the latter interpretation. I suspect that people provide this advice to students as a kind of backup motivation for not cheating, in the case that they don’t see the moral force of other-oriented considerations, or just don’t care.
But here are some of those other-oriented considerations, ordered from those typically involving the most to the least harm:
- Your fellow students: These are the people who you harm the most when you cheat on a test or on a paper. Even though your professor may not deliberately “curve” grades, he or she surely grades at least somewhat relatively to the abilities and performance of the class. It is very common for a professor to look over the test or papers to get a feel for them before marking any scores. Particularly in a small class, one or two cheaters could skew the grades all by themselves. Further, as Adam notes in this comment, enough cheating can ultimately end up devaluing diplomas. Finally, even if your cheating does not affect anyone else’s grade or diploma, the existence of cheaters negatively affects all students via the effects it has on your teacher (more on this below).
- Your teacher: I had no idea of how much cheating (including plagiarizing) harms teachers until I personally began teaching about two years ago. Previously, I figured that it would be kind of fun to catch cheaters and punish them mercilessly. Actually, it hasn’t been like that at all, at least in my experience. I have come to dread reading any work that students have done at home, for fear of finding plagiarism. When I copy and paste a sentence of a student’s work into Google, I brace myself for the results. I didn’t really have an awesome “gotcha!” feeling when I caught someone with a crib sheet during a test. Because cheating and plagiarism happen with quite some frequency, I now approach all students as potential cheaters and must investigate all students’ work (perversely, especially the best work) for evidence of academic dishonesty. This attitude is detrimental to the relationship that teachers ideally ought to have with students: one marked by cooperation, congeniality, goodwill and mutual respect. Beyond a teacher personally being harmed in having to play cheating detective and then deal with the offenders, the negative effects on a teacher can easily trickle back down to the students in changing the way they are treated by a teacher for the worse.
- The author: Honestly, I doubt that authors whose work has been plagiarized are often materially or substantially harmed by the plagiarism. In the kind of courses I’ve taught (critical thinking, intro to philosophy, biomedical ethics), very few of the students are headed for academia, and the assignments are not of the type that one could go on to publish. But harm to authors can and does occur, probably mostly when one academic plagiarizes work from a lesser known academic and gets all the credit for it.
I’d really like to hear from anyone else who has teaching experience, either to confirm or disconfirm (2) above.
Also, there are probably even more reasons why cheating is wrong. I want to hear them!