Adventures in Ethics and Science

In an earlier post, I shared the responses freshman engineering students had made (via electronic clickers) to a few questions I asked them during an ethics lecture I was giving them.

My commenters are pretty sure I left out options in the multiple choice that should have been included.

In this post, I consider some of those other options, and I try to explain my thinking in formulating the questions and the possible responses the way I did.

(Also, I’ll include the questions themselves, since the Quimble polls I used to present them in the original post seem not to be working at the moment.)

The first question:

On tests and quizzes, I don’t cheat because:

A. I don’t want to get caught and fail.
B. I want to find out whether I really understand the material.
C. It wouldn’t be fair to my classmates.
D. It’s more work to cheat than to learn the material.
E. Huh? Of course I cheat!

Other options commenters thought should be included:

From Grad: “Because it’s wrong” or “Because it’s dishonest”.

From Ewan: “Because I agreed not to”.

From Dave Semeniuk (or from his English prof, at any rate): “Because I’d be ashamed if my classmates found out”.

From speedwell: “Because I’m just not the kind of person who does that sort of thing”.

From Nick: “Because I’d feel like a fraud or a liar”.

From djinn: “Because I trust my knowledge of the material better than my classmates knowledge”.

From Amy: “Because I don’t need to”.

From outeast, concern that option E conflates a whole range of reasons:

There needs to be a full range – options like ‘I want to find out what I know, but I sometimes cheat because I am afraid of being humiliated for what I don’t’, or ‘I don’t cheat, but I try to compare my answers with those of other students’, or ‘It’s not always cheating to copy someone’s answer – it’s not my fault if there’s something that I missed in class.’ If there are no options that fit people’s moral flexibility on the issue of cheating then the poll is bound to force the responses.

For the record, for those concerned that the students were aiming to please me with their clicker responses, I should note that there were students who selected option E. As well, I asked these questions during the third lecture of four I gave in the course, so I doubt they felt any special attachment to me — at least, not one that kept them from surfing the web, playing games on their handheld devices, sleeping, or carrying on non-whispered conversations in the front row while I was lecturing. (Not all the students did this, but enough to be noticeable, and in about the same numbers as I had observed conducting themselves in this way when the engineering professors gave their lectures.)

I appreciate the nuances in these responses. But the clicker allowed a maximum of five options per question.

I purposely avoided the “because it’s wrong” response because my experience of freshmen and science majors is that a lot of them are moral skeptics, at least when they’re talking with someone from a philosophy department. A significant number seem inclined to believe that right and wrong aren’t “real”, not like transistors or electrons.

They do, however, understand that consequences can be real. The options I offered were aimed at discovering which consequences of cheating (or of not cheating) seemed most important to them in terms of influencing their decision not to cheat (at least to the extent that they make that decision).

Somehow, frosh have an easier time taking a realist attitude toward fairness (toward their classmates, for example) than toward right and wrong. I’m still trying to work out why that should be the case.

Do first semester freshman know that they know the material, let alone better than their classmates do? (I had such fear of flunking out freshman year that I could make myself study for hours — and my grades were actually really good. Possibly I was weird, though.) Would they really be ashamed to have their classmates know they cheat? The ones who brazenly cheat (not necessarily in this class, but in others from which I’ve heard reports) appear as if they wouldn’t be.

Which is not to say they shouldn’t be.

As for agreeing not to cheat, that might work if we had an honor code under which they had to explicitly agree not to cheat (we don’t). Then again, it might not. That school up the road where I was a graduate student had an honor code, and it also had the most flagrant cheaters I’ve ever seen.

The second question:

If my classmates cheat, it’s my business because:

A. It might wreck the curve and hurt my grade.
B. The instructor might stop trusting any of us.
C. Employers might think grads of our program/school are dishonest/don’t know what they need to.
D. I’ll have to work with people who don’t know what they ought to.
E. Huh? It’s none of my business.

Other options commenters thought should be included:

From Grad: A, B, C, and D.

From speedwell: “Those goddamn cheaters are injuring the reputation of my profession and making me look bad by association”.

From Cathy W: “If people succeed by cheating, other people are, in effect, punished for being honest, and that’s just not fair.”

From Nick: “I don’t want to live in the sort of society where deceptive and fraudulent behavior is considered acceptable”.

From Joshua: “It’s not my business because I don’t really care if another student gets caught or fails to learn or experience whatever consequences I believe cheating to have.”

My prediction, when I wrote the question and the possible answers to it, was that most of the freshman hadn’t thought much about cheating as a crime against anyone but the instructor. For some reason, it’s not uncommon for students to view themselves as individuals in battle against difficult material, or against the person grading them, or against a harsh universe. This seems to make deciding to cheat a decision about whether to help yourself to a particular weapon in your battle for survival.

I hoped that the very fact of my asking a question about how they might be affected by someone else’s cheating might make them consider whether their own decision to cheat (or not) might involve other interested parties besides themselves and the instructor.

The third question:

Who’s responsible for confronting a cheater?

A. Instructor/TA
B. Other students who see the cheating happening
C. Other students who hear about the cheating after it’s happened
D. Other students who hear about the plan to cheat before it happens
E. All of the above

Other options commenters thought should be included:

From Grad: “All of the above, but some more than others depending on context.”

From speedwell: “Nobody in particular. It’ll catch up to them someday. Their shoddy workmanship will break. Their boss will notice. They won’t get that promotion. They’ll be stuck in the mud someday while the people who bothered to do it right the first time sail on by.”

On this question, given what I expected as far as the students viewing cheating as a single-victim crime (where the victim is the instructor or TA), I was expecting the students to line up behind option A. Indeed, it might have been unanimous if I had asked this question before the one about why it might be their business if someone else cheated. (If I can get my time-machine fixed up, I’ll go back to find out for sure.)

Since we don’t have an honor code that spells out student responsibilities for confronting others who may be cheating, it really feels like there’s some ambiguity here for students — even for the students who are pretty committed to the idea that cheating is a bad thing. How to apportion responsibility within the community for upholding community norms is something people seem to have to work out on an ongoing basis.

Recognizing that you’re part of a community committed to a certain set of norms strikes me as a necessary first step, though.


  1. #1 captain sarcastic
    December 2, 2007

    The honor code seems to address some of this, yet it also leaves ambiguities. I taught a computer science course populated by a combination of in-major undergraduate and (out of area) graduate students. One of the graduate students left a printout that basically said “Hey, [fellow graduate student], here is the assignment. Be sure to change the variables so the TA doesn’t catch on.”

    Their explanation was cynical: they were too busy, it was an out of area class for them. After going through the honor council rigmaroles, the end result was both students dropped the class without penalty. Both earned their PhDs in their respective fields.

  2. #2 Eva
    December 2, 2007

    I am always amused at how seriously researchers take the answers to this type of polls- has anyone considered that the students might randomly select answers/not answer truthfully/make up answers?

    Why would anyone do that?
    *Just for fun
    *They would like to ruin/skew the study
    *Because they are tired of being asked silly questions
    *Because they just don’t care

  3. #3 Graculus
    December 6, 2007

    Somehow, frosh have an easier time taking a realist attitude toward fairness (toward their classmates, for example) than toward right and wrong. I’m still trying to work out why that should be the case.

    Maybe because abstraction is hard, but empathy is easy?

    From my experience, a majority of people find it easier to work from the specific towards the general, rather than the other way around.

  4. #4 John B
    December 6, 2007

    I’ve had some interesting experiences with cheaters. My favorite being a student caught in a pretty obvious case of internet copy & paste plagiarism, who explained the he had paid another student to write his midterm paper for him, and couldn’t believe the hireling would plagiarize like that. (penalty was an F in the course and 6 credits of ethics courses)

    On your last question, I’m surprised you don’t bring up to honor code that students have been living under since elementary school. That one deals pretty clearly with the ethics of ratting each other out. Justice, there, comes in form of the rat getting pushed into lockers and having his head flushed in the toilet from the next two or three years.

    Maybe they’ve matured well beyond that.

  5. #5 David Harmon
    December 6, 2007

    To amplify on Graculus’ comment, “right and wrong” are abstractions. “Fairness” only looks like an abstraction, it’s actually a social response, much more deeply based.

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