Attending the university that is “home” to the cheating scandal that has caught the media’s eye has ensured that I am regularly bombarded with the issue. Dr. Vitz’s post on the cheating scandal reminded me that I’m fortunate enough (thanksgiving shout-out) to have a medium to discuss the philosophical questions that accompany such situations. In particular, I’ve had this nagging question: Can consequentialists condemn cheaters? This question arose when I began to wonder about the thought process that these students must have employed in motivating their actions. I imagine that their thought process might have been something like this:
- I need to “perform well” in this class in order to get my degree. (in order to graduate in order to get a good job in order to make money in order to be “happy”)
- Unfortunately, I am not prepared enough to perform well on this test without “aid”.
- Thus, I will cheat for the sake of my future happiness and for the sake of convenience of not having to study.
It seems though, that these premises can be expressed in utilitarian terms:
- I should do things that increase the overall utility
- A good grade will make me happier
- Cheating will allow me to receive a good grade
- Therefore, I should cheat
Before beginning to discuss this argument, let’s throw in a few simplifying assumptions:
- Let’s assume that a student thinking this will not get caught.
- Let’s assume that the student is not making it more difficult for other students to pass (since a professor might grade on curve, which would make it more difficult for them to compete with the cheater)
Even with these assumptions, intuitively, there seems to be something wrong about cheating. There are some consequentialists who are comfortable with tossing out the dictates of moral intuition (e.g. Naverson, Rachels, etc.), but for those who are not quite willing to bite that philosophical bullet, this is problematic. Moreover, as I will argue, this intuition persists in a variety of situations that make it even more difficult for consequentialists to find grounds for condemning cheating.
How can a consequentialist combat the previous argument? (1) cannot be challenged, as it is the central tenet of consequentialist thought. The truth of (3) is presupposed for argument’s sake. (4) follows if 1-3 are true. Thus, it seems that the only left over premise to challenge is (2).
In one sense, (2) does not seem like it can reasonably challenged, for it is up to the cheater to decide what will make him/her happy. In another sense, however, consequentialists could challenge (2) by noting that a cheater would be happier in the long run if he/she worked for the grade that he/she received. Thus, they might say that the cheater should study to pass the test because, in the long run, they will be happier. Aside from the fact that this challenge rests on psychological claims that are dubious, the conceptual limitations of consequentialism make it difficult to take this challenge seriously. For this point, consider the following “cheater scenario”.
Suppose that our cheater realizes the “truth” of the aforementioned claim (that he would be happier if he worked for his grade instead of cheating) several minutes before the test. Consequentialism, as its name implies, is forward looking, so it largely irrelevant what our cheater “should have done” previously. Now, she/he faces a choice: cheat and increase the overall utility or fail and decrease the overall utility. At this point, the consequentialist challenge to (2) is not a challenge at all, and the cheater must refer to 1-4 to make his decision.
Our intuition persists, however, and we think the student ought to not cheat. I cannot see how we can make sense of this situation without the help of concepts from other ethical thoeries (e.g. deontology or virtue theory). But enough of my silly comments. To my internet interlocutors, I pose this (seemingly) interesting inquiry: Do you see a way out of this conceptual conundrum for consequentialists?