AskMe is cool, gets professional responses September 25, 2006 12:32 PM   Subscribe

Sometimes AskMe takes you in a surprising direction, and this thread is one of those times: a college student asks if he should take advantage of a contraband answer key to check his graded homework, and the community is nearly unanimous in its ethical condemnation of the practice. That is, until a philosophy professor and professional ethicist answers to the contrary. Probably not sidebar-worthy, but a neat example of how an issue that seems at first to be black-and-white bleeds a little gray once the experts join the fray.
posted by Saucy Intruder to MetaFilter-Related at 12:32 PM (39 comments total) 3 users marked this as a favorite

As much as I agree with the professor's comment, it'd still get the student's ass canned, though, should he get caught.

And yes, I suppose that upon getting caught, he could say "oh, but an ethics professor in Askme on the internet said it would be cool and stuff" but in the real world, where universities care about real things like cheating and not post-modern philosiphising bullshit, some dude's answer on AskMe isn't going to make a lick of difference.
posted by Effigy2000 at 12:41 PM on September 25, 2006

The poster asked if it was ethical, not if he would get caught.
posted by Saucy Intruder at 12:44 PM on September 25, 2006

I don't dispute that. But it's a valid concern don't you think? Why ask if it's ethical if you're not worried that something you're thinking about doing is wrong ?

Don't get me wrong, Saucy Intruder. I think it is cool that a philosophy professor and professional ethicist offered an answer that was unique and contrary to the consensus of the hive mind. My point, however, is that the poster should still consider that he could get caught and that the professor's opinion isn't gonna save his ass when/if he does.
posted by Effigy2000 at 12:50 PM on September 25, 2006

being a "professional" ethicist doesn't mean you necessarily have better judgment. when there's law and precedent, training is important to be able to judge, but when it comes down to weighing consequences against one another, training is not necessarily all that useful. (there are ethical philosophers who argue on all sides of various debates, some of them beautifully, and some of them, quite frankly, stupidly).

in my opinion, the most important rule is transparency. If you are openly using a cheat sheet to check answers, and the prof & yr peers are cool with it, you're all set. If you are hiding the fact that you're doing it, then it is not normatively accepted in the circle which is affected, so don't do it. You may disagree with the professor, if he thinks you should not use it and you think you could use it and still be ethical, but guess what? he makes the rules in the class he teaches; when you become a professor, you can tell your students to use cheat sheets. And you can drop the class because the prof doesn't run things the way you like them. But taking the class is entering into a contract with the group and the teacher, where you follow the rules set out.
posted by mdn at 1:05 PM on September 25, 2006

I thought it was neat too. And I got so confused I found myself unable to leave a sensible answer, so I tiptoed quietly out.
posted by languagehat at 1:23 PM on September 25, 2006

what a load of horseshit. the kid is using the old homework to check his work. it's not like he's bringing answers into tests or copying homework. and the kid has enough sense to understand that he needs to learn the skills.

i don't think any university would kick him out, or even disipline him for what he proposed. in fact, they would never even know ... because he isn't doing anything wrong. he is not turning in someone else's work, plagerizing, or generally taking an unfair advantage to complete work. he is only checking his work.

for all of those who say it's cheating--get a life. the kid is simply going about something in a better way. what's truely important to him is that he learns. he certainly would be able to do that in real life, now, wouldn't he? why should school be any different?
posted by lester's sock puppet at 1:51 PM on September 25, 2006

..but guess what? he makes the rules in the class he teaches;..

I think ontic's point, as evidenced by:

But following authority's wishes does not make something ethical.

is that the transparency rule is invalidated when the authority or community is not acting faithfully. In this case the argument is that "learning" trumps grades. Also important is the OP's intent - whether to get better grades or to learn the material better.

I'm sure in ethics there are all sorts of example where violating the rules are, in specialized cases, more ethical than following them. The rules are there to enforce the broad and general case and organizations generally frown on people making the case-by-case ethical distinctions by themselves. But that doesnt mean that the specialized case does not exist or that rules meant to be broadly ethical are applied ethically in all cases.

The OP may get caught and even punished but, like the hypothetical case of a man violating a law to further the greater good (isn't this the plot of many hero movies?), that's not ethics we're discussing anymore.

Also, regarding:
But taking the class is entering into a contract with the group and the teacher, where you follow the rules set out.

The contract is with the teacher and is invalidated by the rules above. I'd argue there is no contract with your fellow students. Only between each student and the teacher/school.
posted by vacapinta at 1:53 PM on September 25, 2006

I believe this is superergatory.

On the contrary, I found both of the professor's answers super-regurgitory, but yes, it was fun.
posted by jamjam at 2:03 PM on September 25, 2006

Irony may have taken a hit post 9/11, but sophistry seems to be doing quite well, thank you.

mdn is right on, say I. One self-style pro's opinion may be interesting and well presented, but it carries no more weight, frankly, than any other poster who's been in similar situations.

The key here is not the OP's words or intent or apparent integrity in appealing to AskMe, it's what is right in the context of the class. If homework were assigned and never collected, each student would be responsible for their own best method of learning. Clearly, this particular teacher has chosen to do things differently. As a weighted portion of the final grade, daily homework should be prepared and handed in independent of outside assistance.

The poster who had no intention of doing an end-run around course requirements would go directly to the teacher with this question. Appealing to a bunch of well-meaning strangers is no substitute.
posted by rob511 at 2:11 PM on September 25, 2006

being a "professional" ethicist doesn't mean you necessarily have better judgment

This bears repetition.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 2:16 PM on September 25, 2006

One self-style pro's opinion may be interesting and well presented

Except that he isn't self-styled. He is a pro. Full stop.

being a "professional" ethicist doesn't mean you necessarily have better judgment

True. Almost certainly, but not necessarily.
posted by solid-one-love at 2:22 PM on September 25, 2006

There are a lot of different theories about what makes ethical claims true (these are called "meta-ethical" theories). Different professional philosophers subscribe to different ones. Ontic subscribes to one of these theories, as he says in his answer, and reasons accordingly. Although I think his reasoning is interesting, I also think it's wrong. Indeed, the fact that his meta-ethical theory gives so clearly the wrong result in this case seems like a reason to doubt that meta-ethical theory generally.

I take it his meta-ethical theory is one according to which individual people don't have obligations to one another unless they expressly promise to act in a certain way? Or, maybe not even then, provided that the person who made the promise can fulfill one of her own goals (a worthy goal like learning) by breaking the promise? This is baloney, says me.

People have obligations to one another. One of the basic premises of being in a class is that the students will obey certain ground rules to make evaluation fair. If this student checks his/her homework in advance, thus guaranteeing that he/she would get a perfect score on the (graded) homework assignments, when other students don't all have the same resource for checking, then that's a violation of the ground rules, a betrayal of the fellow students, and cheating.

Notice that you can consistently think that this would be ethically wrong, but not very, very ethically wrong. That is, even once you accept that it's wrong, there is still quite a bit of discussion to be had about how wrong, and exactly why it's wrong. But it would clearly be wrong, under most ethical theories I can think of.
posted by LobsterMitten at 3:01 PM on September 25, 2006 [2 favorites]

Of course if another student's parents (whose own parents were Nazis made rich from stolen Jewish gold during the war), paid for them to have an expensive tutor in mathematics each week (perhaps a member of the Columbia Mathematics Faculty), then that would be completely fair.
posted by Captaintripps at 3:08 PM on September 25, 2006

the professor who replied in the thread indeed disagreed with the general 'NO' and wrote a thoughtful, rational and detailed explanation of why... which in my experience on AskMeFi is passing rare.

then (btw it seems everyone's conveniently glossed over this) he went on to strongly recommend an alternative (oh and then reinforced this in his followup comment)

Creative solution: You don't get to look at the old homeworks, but your friend does, and he or she can steer you in the right direction. Then it's just making use of a friend who's taken the course before."

granted, I've never been to college, but exactly HOW is using old homeworks simply to validate answers and assist in the learning process (especially if you do it after turning the stuff in) 'cheating'? I mean fercrissakes, it's not like the OP is breaking into the prof's desk and stealing exam answer sheets - and by the tone of everyone's responses, that seems to be the assumption here.

so, ok, ok don't all jump on me at once, I do get the bit about 'transparency' and 'fairness'. and that's gonna start me off on my entitlement rant, because whoever said life is fair, so I'll stop now
posted by lonefrontranger at 3:10 PM on September 25, 2006

Any ethicist worth his salt can argue both sides of any situation.
posted by smackfu at 3:11 PM on September 25, 2006

Er, I don't see the responses as an overwhelming chorus of no until a specific turning point, either.

Looks to me like those who feel very strongly that this is cheating jumped in with a NO, while those who thought "not necessarily" wrote longer, less vehement responses, discussed whether this was a matter of ethics or not, etc.
posted by desuetude at 3:13 PM on September 25, 2006

I take it his meta-ethical theory is one according to which individual people don't have obligations to one another unless they expressly promise to act in a certain way?

Seems like, so unless I expressly agree with each student in the class not to cheat, make loud noises, bore them with irrelevent questions, and make an infinite number of other little express contracts I'm under no obligation to them... yeah that's just nuts.

then that would be completely fair.

It might not be fair in some very large sense but the tutoring in itself would be ethical, it would pass the tranparency test.
posted by scheptech at 3:22 PM on September 25, 2006

I took it that the question was, would it be ethical to do this:
1. in a situation where homework is graded and counts significantly toward your grade in the course,
2. check your own homework answers against an answer key before turning them in, so you could go back and figure out how to do the ones you missed, then turn in the corrected version of your homework to be graded.
3. With the understanding that the teacher doesn't know you're checking your own work beforehand, and
4. not everyone in the class will have this opportunity.

The answer to that question is, it would definitely be unethical, ie it would be cheating.

It might indeed be a good way to learn, and it might be done by a person with good intentions, and the prof might be a dick who doesn't care about students, and the other students might be lazy, and the educational system might be imperfect in many ways, and the student might get caught or might not, and the building might be painted yellow, and so on... but all of that is immaterial, because it would still be cheating.

Now, maybe people think that the student should go ahead and do this, even though it would be cheating. There are plenty of reasons one might have for thinking that...

- maybe it's the best and only chance the student has to learn? But no, that argument won't fly, because the student can turn in the uncorrected version, and then immediately check a copy of it against the answer key, thereby getting the learning without getting the unethical grade boost.

- maybe ethics don't really matter, and it's a dog eat dog world in which you should do whatever you can to get ahead? I think this is quite wrong, but more importantly the poster seems to think it's wrong too... since here he/she is, asking about ethics.

- maybe the professor's supposed laziness somehow cancels out whatever ethical duties the students have to him/her? This isn't very convincing to me, though, because the students have obligations to each other as well. (and maybe to an abstract ideal of fairness. But I don't expect everyone to believe that.)

- ...?
posted by LobsterMitten at 3:33 PM on September 25, 2006

Now that there's a MetaTalk thread about this, I can post the immediate snark reaction that I had when reading the ethicist's post:
So, did you cheat on your ethics homework?

I don't know why people are pretending that there's some trade-off going on here. It's quite possible to make a best-effort attempt at the homework, turn it in, then look at the graded solutions of previous students. Getting the right answers before turning it in is cheating (unless the prof. okays it), purely to obtain a grade advantage. You can whine about the illegitimacy of graded homework all you want ---fine, I'm even on board with that. Getting the solutions before you turn them in isn't sticking it to the man, it's cheating. And in this class, the homework is worth 1/3 of the grade, so cheating on the homework would give the poster a serious advantage over more ethical students.
posted by Humanzee at 4:13 PM on September 25, 2006

ok, but how does this situation read on the moral barometer?
posted by carsonb at 4:34 PM on September 25, 2006

I'm sure in ethics there are all sorts of example where violating the rules are, in specialized cases, more ethical than following them.

I was going to address this above but didn't want to ramble on, so cut it out... but the difference is whether you willingly enter a contract or are thrown into or effectively trapped in a situation, or, perhaps, if you are actively fighting to change something, even if you could leave (eg, if you had the choice of fighting for civil rights in a country or moving out, you could make the ethical choice to change the rules). But again, this has to be done openly to be an ethical move. If you believe that the situation is unfair as it is, and you want to change it, then breaking the rules is an intentional act.

This case is mere rationalization. It is almost never difficult to come up with plausible-sounding reasoning to buttress particular actions - as someone said above, that is sophistry rather than philosophy. Look: the reason professors commonly don't want students to have access to the answers before they do the work is that it is all too likely that the student will end up cheating herself by getting lazy and taking a little too much advantage of the work already being done. So sure, it's all about learning, but learning is not always easy or exactly what you're in the mood for. Sometimes students need to be pushed a little bit, to actually do the work. It's the same reason communism doesn't work: if you're gonna get the same results no matter what degree of effort you put forth, you might put just a little bit less effort in. And that will add up. A tiny bit less effort every day, and by the end of the semester, you've actually had significantly less practice than you would have had, and thus learned less.

I'm not saying grades are the end-all and be-all, believe me; I think gradeless and open book style classes can totally work (the way co-ops and small communes can) but they should be chosen openly and endorsed by the professor. This case isn't so much a terrible breach of morality in itself as it is an act of dishonesty, and as such, unethical.(and not to get onto another tangent, but that doesn't necessitate that all forms of dishonesty are in themselves impermissable, as re: the classic "lying to the nazis" example, but that in this scenario the conflict is not concerning those kinds of stakes)
posted by mdn at 5:30 PM on September 25, 2006

I don't see the responses as an overwhelming chorus of no until a specific turning point, either

Yeah, me either. There were plenty of thoughtful responses, including small_ruminant's nicely framed contrarian point, before the 'professional ethicist' posted. And to be honest, I found his answer muddied the waters more than it clarified them, in part by relying on some assumptions about the prof we have no evidence for.
posted by mediareport at 5:57 PM on September 25, 2006

being a "professional" ethicist doesn't mean you necessarily have better judgment.

Yeah I find little that's remarkable in that answer, despite the declared credentials.
posted by scarabic at 7:57 PM on September 25, 2006

Here's what confuses me about ontic's response: is not about getting grades. It is about learning...

Perhaps he means that college SHOULD be about learning (according to HIS ethics). I'm not sure what it means to say that college is ABOUT something -- as if it had a theme that we'd all agreed on, or even that some authoritative body agreed upon. When I went to college, no one told me that it was about learning or about grades or about anything. It was just a place where certain events occurred -- classes, tests, parties, etc. One could READ meaning into it (one can read meaning into anything), but that doesn't mean it intrinsically HAS meaning.

Now, I would love to live in ontic's world. I HATE grades and I think they should be abolished. Grades stand in the way of learning, and I DO think college should be about learning (should be... not is). But in my experience, college is first and foremost about grades -- and if any learning goes on, that's just good luck.

Most people are naturally competitive (with others and/or with themselves) and grades instantly hook into this part of their natures. Once a system has grades, punishments or rewards, these aspects, to most of us, quickly become all important. We strive for them (or against them, if they are punishments), worry about them and compete over them.

How would you feel if a professor told you, "You clearly learned a lot in this course, but I'm giving you a D- due to some technicality?" Compare this with, "I don't think you excelled in this class, but I'm giving you an A for effort."

In many courses, grades are the primary way that professors communicate with students. And, unfortunately, professors are not just facilitators of learning. For many of the young people in colleges, they are surrogate parents. They are figures of authority; they are people who can express approval or disapproval.

I think people are born to love learning and born to seek approval. But the love of learning is fragile. For many, it gets stamped out BEFORE college starts (by years of lackluster or bad schooling), whereas the need for approval never stops (many of us adults seek it from our bosses, and our salaries become the grownup version of grades). Even for those of us who never lost our love of learning, the need for approval is ever-looming and -- generally -- the stronger of the two urges. Grades hook right into it.

I find it interesting that -- in a system supposedly about learning -- I compare my grades with your grades. Why? Why should it matter? We say that it's unfair if I get better grades than you, if we've both done the same amount of work. And it IS unfair. But so what? If school is about learning, it's about learning -- not fairness. Fairness becomes all important in a system about hierarchy, competition and approval-seeking. Not in a system about learning. Learning is an INDIVIDUAL process. Each person learns in a unique way. My learning process has nothing to do with yours, and so they shouldn't be compared. It WOULD be unfair -- in a learning-based environment -- if I had more opportunity to learn than you.

College is like a game show. You have to keep wracking up points (grades) to get to the next level; and the end goal -- which you can only get via grades -- is the diploma. If you manage to get good grades without learning a thing (not all that hard, really), you still get handed the prize when you finish. If you study and learn but don't get good grades (also possible), you lose.

If school is a mechanism for learning, then it's not a very good one. Like many here on Metafilter, I'm a voracious reader and studier, even though I left school 20 years ago. But I (we) am in the minority. Most of my COLLEGE EDUCATED friends and co-workers have forgotten all but trivial snippets of what they "learned" in college. As have I. Most of my learning was done POST college.

Nor did college teach me "how to learn." I learned that from my intellectual parents. Most of my friends, who didn't grow up in a household like mine, never learned how to learn (or developed a lifelong love of learning), despite the fact (I'd argue partly BECAUSE of the fact) that they went to college.

Where in college to we learn how to learn? Mostly, we take classes on specific subjects where we MAY learn about those subjects (and then forget about them after the class is done) and where we MAY learn HOW TO STUDY FOR A TEST. Which is not the same as learning how to learn.

As for whether or not it's ethical to cheat in school, who can say? School DOESN'T have a unified meaning for all -- or even most -- people. Again, it's a place where stuff happens. That makes it rife for associations and symbolism (school is good; school is evil), but no two people will necessarily share the same associations and symbols.

Compare school with football. Football is a game with clear rules. Most viewers WANT to see the game played by the rules, so they are invested in an ethical system in which cheating is bad.

There are also plenty of ethical statements that are universal or close to universal: murder is wrong; helping people is good; stealing is bad; etc. These are (semi) universal, because they hook into basic human (evolved) drives. School doesn't. We didn't evolve along with schools. Schools came later.

However, school DOES have strong meaning to individual people (meaning that differs from person to person). Many of us were raised with strong values about school and education. Also, may people work very hard to get into school, and this changes the way they feel about school. As someone who has always hated school, I often found that criticizing it made me about as popular as someone who criticizes God in a church.

But that wasn't the universal reaction. If I went around saying, "I think murder is great," all but a few people would be horrified. But if I say, "school sucks," some will agree and others won't. But the KEY thing is that, agree or not, most people will feel really strongly (just as strongly about as they do about murder) about their opinion. We spend years and years and years in school. We invest our lives in school while we're there. We're there when we're young and forming as people. How could we NOT feel strongly. It's a shock, therefor, that not all others feel strongly in the same WAY that we do. Discussing school is like discussing marriage. Sometimes it's like a discussion between an newly-engaged couple with stars in their eyes and a bitter couple going through a divorce. Is there even a possibility for meaningful discourse. When feelings run high, most people assume they are onto a universal truth. Most people assume that because their marriage was so bad, the very institution of marriage is horrible.

Getting back to the original post, here are some more complicating factors:

-- Let's say the professor asks you (or orders you) not to cheat. Are you compelled to obey this? Well, are you compelled to do anything anyone else tells you to do? What if the person asking is a stranger? What if the person asking is a friend.

In most schools, some professors are strangers and others are friends. I had professors who were almost anonymous. They were tiny blips that I could barely see -- standing way far away from me, in a large lecture hall. I had other professors who I got to know really well. I talked with them during office hours; I even socialized with them at parties. Cheating in their classes would have felt like cheating a friend.

-- When we CHOOSE to go to school, do we agree to follow the rules. And are we bad people if we violate a rule that we agree to follow?

First of all, do we CHOOSE to go to school?

I didn't choose to go to elementary school or junior high school. I was forced to go by my parents and by the law. And I had a horrible time. I had years and years of daily agony in those schools. Am I a bad person if I didn't always follow the rules in a "jail" that I never chose? Do we blame a slave for breaking the rules of the plantation?

My first school of choice, I guess, was High School. It's not against the law to drop out, so I guess I was there by choice. But I had been primed with years and years of, "If you drop out, your life will be ruined for ever and ever." I HATED high school, but dropping out never entered my mind. It didn't seem like a choice. Remember, I had no money or job or skills or real knowledge of how the world worked.

College, perhaps, seemed a little more like a choice, but I was still pretty unformed and ignorant about the world. In my (Jewish, intellectual) culture, EVERYONE went to college. Choosing not to go would have taken great courage. (I eventually DID drop out, and this decision almost brought me to the point of a nervous breakdown and created a huge scandal in my family.)

As an adult -- in a fairly good economy -- I CAN think about quitting jobs. And I would quit a job that I didn't agree with, rather than stay in that job and try to thwart it. If I think the job is bad, then I SHOULD quit. I am there by choice, but if I choose to stay, then it's only fair that I play by the rules. But this is a very adult perspective, and I can only make it because I feel secure that I can get another job if I leave my current one. And I only feel this way because I know more about the world than I did when I was in college.
posted by grumblebee at 7:38 AM on September 26, 2006

Wow, what a night for the internet to go out at home. I feel I should clarify a few things.

First, it is completely accurate that just because one is an ethicist does not mean one's judgment is any better or any worse. After all, I'm sure there are other ethicists who would disagree with me. At best, we've seen so many complicated issues that we have a talent for seeing relevant and irrelevant reasons for ethical conclusions more easily. Even that can function badly at times. Long and short, ethicists should be humble. I've got no crystal ball that tells me when something is ethical or not -- which is why I give reasons and everyone else gives reasons rather than saying "I'm an ethicist, it's wrong."

Second, I did not cheat on my ethics homework. That said, I think that it's a little too easy to conclude from "x is cheating" that "x is unethical" in every case. I know it sounds weird, but ethicists aren't always going to trumpet the conventional mores of the day.

Third, I live in the real world too but I believe that missing any chance you get to make the real world more like the ideal world makes the world a worse place. Of course, you have to be humble about what your vision of the ideal world is.

Fourth, I have in fact studied the social contract. However, I believe that there are deeper moral truths that both justify certain parts of any contract and invalidate certain parts of it. In this case, I think there are duties to self-improvement that can invalidate parts of the sub-social contract that many of us make when we attend universities and other schools.
posted by ontic at 8:56 AM on September 26, 2006

By the way, thanks for all the reasonable discussion and giving me a MeTa thread.

I thought I should take a separate post to respond to the meta-ethical question. So just for you, LobsterMitten: in fact I don't hold an explicit promise theory of obligation. Quite the opposite. I do think there is a certain duty to make the class fair for the rest of your classmates whether you've signed the contract, promised or not. But I think this duty is overridden by the obligation one has for self-improvement. If the poster's intentions were anything else, I vote no. And I'm taking these intentions as expressed, which isn't always the case. But while I believe the overriding duty makes it morally permissible to use the past homeworks, I do think that one could do something better.

A lot of my ethical background here comes from watching professors completely disregard their duty to help students learn (and students disregard this duty too). And with this, all of the wonderful idea of university suffers. I'm in some ways an educator prior to being an ethicist, so it's possible I'm weighting things with a biased mind.
posted by ontic at 9:11 AM on September 26, 2006

Ontic, as Humanzee pointed out, in this case the student can get the extra learning boost without getting the grade boost. I think it would clearly be unethical to use the special access one has to past answers to give one a grade boost in the course.

But I'm enjoying the discussion.

Do you think getting the grade boost (in this case where it's clear that the student could get the learning without the grade boost) is ethical, provided only that the student's primary intention was to learn? That seems wrong to me. (Do you, in general, believe in the doctrine of double effect? Do you think it's ok to bomb civilians so long as your "primary intent" is to destroy only the buildings they are in?)

Secondly, I worry that an ethical theory that puts a lot of weight on one's "ethical" obligation to "self improvement" (enough weight that it can override obligations to others) risks calling a lot of selfish, prudentially-motivated behavior "morally obligatory"; that seems to me a clear violation of the concept of moral obligation. Why call this an ethical obligation at all, why not just say that one has a merely prudential interest in self-improvement?
posted by LobsterMitten at 10:13 AM on September 26, 2006

Do you think getting the grade boost ... is ethical.

These discussion can lead nowhere (logical) without shared assumptions. One can say simply, "deception is wrong" and ward off questions about why it's wrong by saying, "it just is." And that's that. Cheating is a deception, therefore it's wrong.

I'm going assume that we don't have an ethic against deception, but rather an ethic against harming others. We tend to look down on deception because, in general, deception harms other people.

But who is harmed if I cheat on my homework -- or even on a test? Even if this inflates my grade?

IF it were the case that a teacher was only allowed to pass, say, ten people out of a hundred, then my deception would be wrong. I'd be gaining a precious commodity by false means and robbing someone else -- someone who followed the rules -- of their rightful reward. But I've never been in a class like that. In my schooling, if it so happened that everyone got all answers correct, then everyone got an A. (Ethical considerations may come into play when grades are curve-based.)

My grades aren't based on your grades, and my grades can't change your grades. And we can both graduate. And whereas future employers might check to see if I graduated from college, few are going to care about my grades.

The employers that DO care are foolish. What does it mean that Charlie got a 3.0 and Ed got a 4.0? Does it mean Ed is smarter than Charlie, that Ed worked harder, that Ed cheated better, that Ed took easier classes? There are too many variables for such a number to be meaningful.

Most of us rely on ethical shorthand: "deception may not ALWAYS be wrong, but it usually is, so let's just think of it as wrong." Such shorthand is really useful for making quick choices and not always having to think everything through. But we should be careful when we judge others based on such shorthand.

Were I leading a discussion about this matter, I'd delve really deeply into everyone's assumptions. And not just their general ethical assumptions. I'd need to know their feelings about school, professors and education. I urge anyone, before continuing with this thread, to try to clarify, at least for themselves, what school means to them. Is it sacred, profane or mundane?
posted by grumblebee at 11:17 AM on September 26, 2006

grumblebee: For clarification, I consider education sacred and school somewhere between mundane and profane, with the possibility that it could become sacred if it paid more attention to education.

But to answer you, LobsterMitten, I think I'm going to takeI am fairly in agreement with grumblebee: I suppose I see the grade boost as ethically neutral for oneself. I'm not gaining a valuable commodity by taking the grade boost, I'm merely assuring that the sign of my progress is equal to my progress. So I don't think I'm in double-effect territory. But in general, I'm not a fan of the principle. Let me know if you still think it's the only thing that could save me.

Secondly, I don't think it's uncommon for ethical theories to have duties to self-improvement. I like Kant's take on it that in addition to others, you have to treat yourself as an ends and not merely as a means. My general leanings are neo-Kantian. I think it's pretty well represented in this case: you're not treating your professor, your fellow students, or yourself as a mere means to your educational end.

As grumblebee correctly points out, this all gets much harder if the other students' grades are somehow dependent on yours. In that case, if you have knowledge of it, I'd go with unethical. (Though I'd also want to claim that the professor's assessment methodology was unethical.)
posted by ontic at 1:38 PM on September 26, 2006

Whoops, forgot to finish the sentence in the second paragraph. Strike "I think I'm going to take".
posted by ontic at 1:40 PM on September 26, 2006

I guess I have been assuming in all my reasoning that the grades are curved. (I'm thinking eg of the foundational math courses for an engineering degree, which usually are curved.)
posted by LobsterMitten at 2:20 PM on September 26, 2006

Since it has already been pointed out that "cheat or learn" is a false dichotomy, at least in this case (there are other options), perhaps we can look for a moment at the idea of "self-improvement" through deception. At what point is the theoretical value of the "self-improvement" - which I would claim is a negligible or questionable degree of improvement in this case, anyway - cancelled by the actual erosion of one's resistance to gaming the social contract? In other words, I would argue that every small choice one makes toward personal gain through deception has an incremental impact on the development of one's character that far outweighs the alleged minor "improvement" to one’s learning experience that supposedly could be gained through cheating. I’m not so much arguing “slippery slope” here, as cumulative transition. The original poster knew this was an ethical dilemma, but is still trying to rationalize the choice that would be the most personally beneficial (seemingly). I would argue that this would increase the ease with which future dilemmas will be similarly spun. Ultimately, it is the Original Poster’s own sense of ethics that is being gamed here. In my opinion.
posted by False Dichotomy at 2:59 PM on September 26, 2006

FD, that sounds good, but I think it's an overly-simplistic view of Human psychology. It's like saying that the more someone shoplifts, the closer they get to robbing a bank. Maybe that's true, but where's the evidence?

I certainly don't feel like I have signed a Social Contract. I feel as if I've signed MANY social contracts. I have one with my co-workers, one with my clients, one with my friends (one with EACH friend), one with strangers I pass on the street, one with my family, one with my wife, etc. There are each unique contracts, and they don't really affect each other.

I'm a pretty honest guy, but even if I started conning my friends, that doesn't mean I'd start conning my wife.

I think we all want to believe that character is more integrated than it is. We want to be able to say things like, "once a cheater, always a cheater," because that makes it easier to form rules to live by. Alas, life is more complicated.
posted by grumblebee at 3:05 PM on September 26, 2006

posted by NinjaTadpole at 3:12 PM on September 26, 2006 [1 favorite]

grumblebee: That's why I said I wasn't arguing slippery slope. My point isn't that "the more someone shoplifts, the closer they get to robbing a bank," it is that the more someone shoplifts, the likelier they are to make the choice to shoplift again. As for whether someone who cons their friends can be trusted as a spouse, well - I'd not personally be inclined to trust them, evidence or no. (And incidentally, I rarely have evidence to support any of my opinions, though they are carefully considered for at least several minutes apiece.)
posted by False Dichotomy at 3:19 PM on September 26, 2006

posted by False Dichotomy at 3:24 PM on September 26, 2006 [1 favorite]

As for whether someone who cons their friends can be trusted as a spouse, well - I'd not personally be inclined to trust them, evidence or no.

Same here. But this is mostly because life is short. So one must take some shortcuts in reasoning. I think it's fine to do that, but it's even better if you can remember -- now and then -- that you are taking shortcuts and that your practical methods of living don't necessarily map to the truth.
posted by grumblebee at 3:44 PM on September 26, 2006

this all gets much harder if the other students' grades are somehow dependent on yours. In that case, if you have knowledge of it, I'd go with unethical. (Though I'd also want to claim that the professor's assessment methodology was unethical.)
I would agree that the methodology of the professor is unethical if he/she is grading "on a curve", as this is method of assessment is fundamentally flawed in the first place.
posted by dg at 3:57 PM on September 26, 2006

grumblebee: "but it's even better if you can remember -- now and then -- that you are taking shortcuts and that your practical methods of living don't necessarily map to the truth."

posted by False Dichotomy at 4:18 PM on September 26, 2006

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