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Is Cheating on Exams Ever Ethically Justified?

Situational Ethics is Problematic on College Campuses

Situational Ethics was pioneered by Joseph Fletcher. In situational ethics, right and wrong depend upon the facts of each situation rather than societal or cultural norms. There are no universal moral rules or rights – each case is unique and deserves a unique solution. Ethical decisions follow flexible guidelines rather than absolute rules and should be taken on a case by case basis.

Rationalizing Unethical Actions

One problem with situational ethics is it can be used to rationalize unethical actions. An example is widespread cheating that occurred on an examination at Harvard University. In May 2012, Harvard forced dozens of students in a Government class to leave in its largest cheating scandal in memory, but the institution would not address assertions that the blame rested partly with a professor and his teaching assistants. The issue is whether cheating is truly cheating when students collaborate with each other to find the right answer -- in a take-home final exam.

Administrators said that on final-exam questions, some students supplied identical answers (right down to typographical errors in some cases), indicating that they had written them together or plagiarized them. But some students claimed that the similarities in their answers were due to sharing notes or sitting in on sessions with the same teaching assistants. The instructions on the take-home exam explicitly prohibited collaboration, but many students said they did not think that included talking with teaching assistants. 

This is hard to understand from intelligent students such as those at Harvard. I mean, in what universe is coaxing teaching assistants into giving answers to exams ever ethically acceptable? Moreover, the first page of the exam contained these instructions: “The exam is completely open book, open note, open Internet, etc. However, in all other regards, this should fall under similar guidelines that apply to in-class exams. More specifically, students may not discuss the exam with others—this includes resident tutors, writing centers, etc.”


Cheating                                                                     USED WITH PERMISSION

Students blamed the teacher for the way they prepared for the exam, saying the course was much harder than in the past. This is nothing more than a rationalization for an unethical action. To use the unique circumstances of the exam to justify cheating is like claiming because a teacher can't teach -- very well at least -- cheating is justified. This defense is like saying: Don’t blame me. The teacher/test made me do it.

Another problem with situational ethics is where do we draw the line? Might it be acceptable in one class and not another? Who makes that decision? Or, is there a rigid set of standards that apply to all exams and all students? 

Utilitarian Analysis

One way to ethically analyze cheating is through Utilitarianism. Modern-day utilitarians divide themselves roughly into two groups: act utilitarians and rule utilitarians. An act utilitarian believes the principle of utility should be applied to individual acts. Thus, one measures consequences of each individual action according to whether it maximizes good over bad. A rule utilitarian, on the other hand, believes that instead of considering results of specific actions, one must weigh the consequences of adopting a general rule exemplified by that action and then judge individual actions by seeing if they conform to those rules whose acceptance will produce the most utility. 

One problem with act utilitarianism is it may be used to rationalize otherwise unethical actions by claiming the good outweighs the bad even though the bad is substantial. An act utilitarian would consider the possible benefits of cheating (e.g., get a higher grade-point average; better job; more pay) and weigh them against the harms (e.g., getting caught; being suspended; losing the opportunity to learn material tested later). The act utilitarian might conclude the potential benefits outweigh the harms, perhaps because the school does not monitor cheating very well.

Rule utilitarians, on the other hand, claim that we must choose the action that conforms to the general rule that would have the best consequences. For the rule-utilitarian, actions are justified by appealing to rules such as “Don’t Cheat!” The reasoning might go something like this: If everyone cheated, grades would mean nothing (although some students might do a better job at cheating than others), teachers would not know which topics they should spend more time on, unqualified students might graduate with honors, employers might hire the wrong candidates, the university’s reputation might be tainted.

As the new academic year gets underway, instructors should consider whether their own actions encourage cheating. I mean the rules must be clear and unequivocal. Monitoring students is a necessity in this age of using social media to cheat. Offenders should be punished. It's up to each teacher to set a consistent standard and act in accordance with his or her words. This is the best way for students to learn that cheating is wrong and students are in college to develop the skills needed to be successful in the workplace where cheating is not tolerated.

Blog posted by Steven Mintz, aka Ethics Sage, on August 29, 2018. Visit Dr. Mintz’s website and sign up for his newsletter.