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Moral Moments

Rightness and Rewards

by Joel Marks

As a teacher, I encounter cheating as a matter of course, or courses. (As long as I’m punning, I might as well point out that ‘cheating’ is the inversion [perversion, subversion – choose your version] of ‘teaching’.) I have attempted to tackle the problem head-on in my classes, which makes sense, since most of them are about ethics. What is the point of talking about issues like abortion and euthanasia and capital punishment if, in the meantime, students and teacher ignore the dishonesty that is going on right under their noses?

And make no mistake about it: Academic cheating is rampant. Indeed, it is the norm, according to my experience, the testimony of my students, and national surveys. I once caught 80% of my college ethics class cheating on a quiz; and that is precisely the figure of the phenomenon, in research based on anonymous self-reports, given by Who’s Who Among American High School Students.

But when I talk about academic cheating being ‘ignored’, I don’t necessarily mean that a teacher looks the other way. For it is perfectly compatible with ignoring cheating, in the sense I mean, to have a draconian policy of punishing cheating, or clever and elaborate techniques of precluding it. I understand the concept of ignoring in a fundamental, ethical sense, to wit: failing to grapple with the underlying motivation of cheating.

If the teacher or the grading system makes it impossible for a student to cheat, then where is the honesty? If your mouth is taped shut, you cannot lie; does that make you truthful? Furthermore, if the teacher or the grading system promises certain and drastic consequences for cheating, then what motivation is being appealed to: honesty, or fear? (Or cleverness, for of course, strictly speaking, the consequences attend upon getting caught.)

Such considerations occurred to me as I pondered the prevalence of cheating. I also realized that there were purely academic costs to the standard preventive and punitive approaches. For example, perhaps the only sure method to prevent plagiarism – and certainly the only efficient one when teaching scores of students at a time – is to prohibit the writing of essays outside the classroom. But this has the anti-educational effects of limiting research and reflection and the cultivation of editing skills.

So I was curious to read about an effort at the University of Maryland a few years ago, initiated in recognition of widespread cheating on that campus, to offer a positive incentive for honesty. Discount cards, redeemable at local shops, were distributed to all students who signed a pledge not to cheat.

There are times when one can only smile at the magnitude of folly (or else go mad). I suppose it is obvious to everybody (except, apparently, the mastermind of this scheme) that anybody who is a cheat to begin with would find this a golden opportunity to deceive anew, albeit not for a higher grade but for some goody at the local computer store or sweets at the college coffee bar.

Let us even suppose that the effort met with some success, namely, a reduction in the amount of cheating on campus. What, in fact, would have been achieved? To my way of thinking, the result would be downright damaging to the cause of honesty and integrity. That is because the linkage between rightness and reward would have been reinforced, but that is the antithesis of rightness properly conceived.

Those who would seek to shape our behavior via rewards (and punishments) apparently conceive ethics as a form of engineering. We could call this ‘ethical engineering’ (as opposed to ‘engineering ethics’, although both terms are ambiguous. Of course I am talking about the engineering of ethics, not the ethics of engineering). This is the attempt to make us good by means of behavioral conditioning, that is, by rewarding right behavior (and perhaps also punishing wrong behavior, although B.F. Skinner would not have approved of the latter).

But I question whether this would even work empirically, not to mention conceptually. For again, what it teaches at the basic level is that goodness is a strategy for being better off. But if goodness thereby ceases to have intrinsic value, then, in a pinch – i.e., when no payoff is perceived for doing the right thing – it won’t even have instrumental value.

The approach I have chosen for teaching my ethics classes, therefore, involves allowing maximum latitude for cheating. This means that the burden of honesty rests squarely on the students’ shoulders. This is not to say, however, that my students are simply ‘free to cheat’. Far from it! I use every rational (but non-coercive and non-contrived) means at my disposal to persuade my students that it is wrong to cheat.

Let me be very clear about the rationale of my grading practices: I have not adopted them for the express purpose of making an ethical point. To do so would probably itself be unethical, as if I had kicked someone to make them understand that it hurts to be kicked. Rather, my justification, as suggested earlier, has been to preserve educational opportunities in the face of rampant cheating. However, it is certainly meet that a collateral opportunity has arisen to augment the content of the course, by having the grading system reflect that content.

For example, if a student complains that in my course a cheat could get a higher grade than an honest student, I ask her whether doing the right thing has to imply benefiting from that act. Could it even involve suffering for it?

All of this obviously has implications far beyond the classroom, but if the content of an ethics course doesn’t convince a student not to cheat on ethical grounds, to what avail would be any extrinsic strategy to meet the same end? It might win the battle, but it would surely lose the war.

© Joel Marks 2002

Joel Marks is Professor of Philosophy at the University of New Haven in West Haven, Connecticut. www.moralmoments.com.

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