the wrongness of cheating

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:

  1. 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).
  2. 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.
  3. 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!


  • To take a non-consequentialist stab at it; I think cheating is wrong because it is a form of dishonesty. While not all dishonesty is immoral (lying to the Nazis to hide Anne Frank’s family being a good example where it was quite moral) I think cheating in school fits comfortably into the category of dishonest that is.

  • For sure. Honesty, integrity, and the like fall into the genuinely moral harms to self category, I think. Because externalism about moral motivation is true, some people don’t care about those though, so then you have the other-regarding considerations.

  • Interesting.

    I wonder if this is more or less of a problem the higher up in education you go. IE, when you move from general requirement courses to upper-level and major-specific courses, or even further up to graduate level classes.

    My instinct is that it becomes less of a problem, but I can think of a few ways that might not be true. What do you think?

  • I also suspect that it becomes less of a problem. Work at higher levels (especially graduate level) is subject to much closer scrutiny, and hopefully the people doing it actually care about learning the material & making a contribution in ways that do not characterize students in general ed requirements.

    You do occasionally hear about plagiarized dissertations, but that is an extremely stupid thing to do. You can’t plagiarize the whole thing, but a small plagiarized portion contaminates the whole thing intellectually, so basically all of your actual work is at risk (not to mention your entire reputation).

    I wouldn’t be surprised, though, if there were considerable amounts of plagiarism in upper-level undergrad courses. They are often much more difficult than you’d expect and, even having performed well in a lower-level course, a student might feel in over her head.

    What were you thinking?

  • Makes sense. I was just thinking that the lower level courses, especially when they’re for general requirements rather than major-specific, are often thrust upon a student and they’re more likely to just want to get it over with by any means possible.

    Upper level courses, while harder, also are in subject areas that students have chosen to be in.

    But your idea makes sense to me as well. I think it could go either way; you’d have to ask someone who’s taught both to get an idea.

  • […] in the New York Times lately, and it occurs to me that I have dropped the ball on a series of posts about pla­gia­rism that I started ear­lier this sum­mer. Although I had planned to write other stuff […]

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