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Their Cheating Hearts May 7, 2007

Posted by Nina Rosenstand in Ethics, Nina Rosenstand's Posts.

So 34 out of 38 students at Duke University’s graduate business school have been disciplined for cheating…and this in spite of having taken ethics classes!

“Business students are more likely to cut corners than those in any other academic discipline, several studies show. A Rutgers University survey last year found that cheating at business schools is common, even after ethics courses were added following scandals that bankrupted Enron Corp. and WorldCom Inc.”  See http://www.bloomberg.com/apps/news?pid=20601103&sid=aEL5ZnKhQuXY&refer=us.

 For one thing, this is really sad… for another, why am I laughing? Because it is so horrendously offensive that it’s funny? Or because it plays into stereotypes about the business environment? But unfortunately it also plays into stereotypes about ethics classes: Do ethics classes actually teach ethics? Should they? Most people outside the profession think college ethics classes are about teaching values, but who among us teach “right from wrong” in our ethics classes? We make the assumption that the students already have a sense of ethics, so we won’t show them disrespect by trying to teach them something they should have been taught before the age of 7, and then we proceed to discuss values as a phenomenon, and rational options.  Has the time come where we, as professors who teach ethics classes, should consider using textbooks that actually teach morals—the dos and don’ts—to our students? Just like elementary schools introduced values classes after the school shootings in the 1990s, so I predict that we will be called upon to teach values to our students, not just teach about values…



1. Dwight Furrow - May 3, 2007

We need to distinguish teaching “right from wrong” from assessing the reasons and motives that support judgments of right and wrong. It is the latter that we teach in philosophical ethics.

In my experience, on uncomplicated issues such as cheating, most students know what is right. What they sometimes lack is an understanding of the reasons why they ought to do what is right. They are unsure why moral considerations ought to matter to them. I take it, that through the study of philosophical ethics, they come to an understanding of these reasons.

However, many people including the Duke students, lack something else essential to moral conduct–a motive to act on moral considerations. In the competitive world of business where one is judged by profits earned or credentials acquired, many people lack the motivation to allow moral considerations to constrain their decisions.

I doubt that reasons, in and of themselves, are powerful motives

As philosophy professors we can be as clear and convincing as possible about the justification of moral claims, but that in itself does not give anyone a moral motive. Of course we can use our charisma as human beings to induce that motive, but we all know this often fails. That is not a sign of failure as a professor, but a complaint about human existence.

Hopefully, for some of our students, providing a comprehensive understanding of the implications of morality or its absence will enlarge a motivational state already primed for such considerations.

2. Charlette Lin - May 3, 2007

When a student makes the decision to cheat, their desire to gain whatever they may gain from cheating is greater than their desire to be “morally right”. It seems to me that all you can do is influence how much people value being the later. In this society, I’m sure most people know that cheating is considered “wrong”. Simply “teaching values” don’t appear to greatly affect how a person would make decisions if they have already developed most of their values.

3. Dwight Furrow - May 3, 2007


Good comment, and congratulations! The first student comment on this blog. A round of applause!

4. ajax5 - May 4, 2007

Hey everyone. Thanks for putting this together Dwight.

On the issue of whether we philosophers should teach an ethic of right and wrong, I have mixed feelings. I think that exposure to the various justifications for moral claims is probably what we do best. When we ground such justifications in real world ethical issues, I think the message gets closer to the right/wrong arena. I’m not sure we should be in the business of providing standards of right and wrong behavior for our students. I tend to agree with Dwight that one needs to act from a moral motive that can only come from the substance of their own lives.
Unfortunately, a by-product of mainstream American society seems to be a genuine disconnect between morality as it is generally presented either at home, at church, or at school and the need to internalize that sense of right and wrong when it comes time to choose a course of personal action. For too many, perhaps, doing the right thing looks and sounds great until it is time for them to do the right thing.

5. Nina Rosenstand - May 5, 2007


Absolutely! But how do we make “not cheating” more attractive than “cheating” without just appealing to self-interest, if “doing the right thing” is low on a person’s scale of values? I agree with Dwight and Ajax5 here: we do have a problem with a fundamental disconnect between official morals and personal choices—which is why psychological egoism is so popular among students. What we can do, as teachers, is paint the larger picture of motivations, expectations, and, in the final end, what constitutes a “good life.”
Great comment, and welcome to the blog!

6. Evan - May 8, 2007

Clearly these students value a letter grade over the aquisition of knowledge. This is perhaps a symptom of a disfunctional accedemic system rather than a disfunctional morality.

7. Evan Simons - May 8, 2007

(I just posted, but it didn’t seem to work so if this posts twice, sorry)

Clearly these students value a letter grade over the aquisition of knowledge. This is perhaps a symptom of a disfunctional accedemic system rather than a disfunctional morality.

8. Thea - May 14, 2007

I think that this is what happens in a society when prestige and money become synonymous. In generations past, prestige could be acquired in myriad ways including benevolence, ethics, special skills and abilities, knowledge.

Today, those things do not provide people with prestige automatically. Instead, they are relevant only so far as they can be translated to money. As a result, benevolence, ethics and many types of knowledge will become like an old language that has been deemed useless by modern day society.

I really don’t think that there is a lot that one philosophy professor or one class on business ethics can do to change the shifting emphasis in our society from class and style to money. I think that the answer lies in uncovering exactly how we got into this mess in the first place. Maybe we should go ask the business professors!

9. Eric - May 20, 2007

Does anyone have any information regarding what is considered cheating for those statistics?

Also does anyone know what kind of test this was?

Most tests I take in school measure my knowledge on some specific topic. Most tests don’t measure my individual ability to creatively come up with new material. A robot could be programmed to ace most tests if you told it all the things it needed to know and when to apply the information. That’s not to say that robots can’t be creative.

What I’m trying to say is how can it be clearly concluded that these students value there grades more than their knowledge. I’m sure some do, but I can imagine myself talking about my answers with another student in order to improve and expand my understanding of the topic.

This website “http://www.baltimoresun.com/news/nationworld/bal-te.nat29apr29,0,1409775.story?track=mostemailedlink” says that the students were meeting in groups to work on the test and that the students were allowed to use notes and other materials for the exam.
Being able to use notes and other material makes it very ambiguous in my mind whether this form of cheating is “wrong”. I’m using the word cheating just because they were still rule-breaking regardless of if the rule is a good one or not.

Charlette says “When a student makes the decision to cheat, their desire to gain whatever they may gain from cheating is greater than their desire to be “morally right”. I think there are more possibilities than this. One example of this is; Students may make a decision to cheat because they don’t agree that doing so would be “morally wrong”.

To relate this to my ethics class- The college environment with its set rules of what cheating is; applies Kant’s ideas of ethics. These rules don’t look at the consequences but instead say “this is always wrong” even if there could be a net benefit to the students and world. If you are a college student who instead prefers Benthams hedonistic calculus you might conclude that cheating in some situations is actually the “right” thing to do.

I think Kants ideas of what ‘one should do’ creates a system of laws that is more practically applied in the real world. That doesn’t mean though that they will always be morally correct. The first example that popped into my head could be Robin Hood- where he broke the law to do the Right thing.

One thing I think we do here in America to counterbalance this is be selective in terms of charging the crime that are committed. Sometimes people will not be charged with a crime. Another way we sneak in Benthams ideas is in the sentencing process. Sometimes someone will get a lesser sentence for committing the same crime although it certainly isn’t based entirely on happiness and suffering.
Also in some types of crimes the consequences or costs are considered in determining the settlements.

To get back to the questions presented in the original post: no I don’t think ethics teachers should teach students “right from wrong”. The obvious reason being that we would not be able to agree on what is right and what is wrong.

10. Amal:-D - May 7, 2008

The thought of teaching right from wrong in a classroom is outragous! For one thing what one student considers wrong varies as we ask every student. Our cultures and moral standards vary. For example I believe it is morally wrong to drink but because I am the minory in a classroom where most would nod their head and smile at the thought of alchol should my beliefs be dismissed? I strongly believe that Ethics is the one thing that most children should have already developed and I strongly agree with Prof. Rosenstand when she said that we would be basically insulting their intelliegence if we tried teaching them right from wrong. Speaking of cheating, I am sure if students could be guranteed to get away with cheating in their classrooms, they wouldn’t think twice. Unfortuantly we leave in a competitive society where the person sitting next to you in your Philosophy class is trying to do better than you to make their application look better when it comes time to applying to a University. What exactly is cheating? By using google to find things am I cheating myself out of what I could have learned had I used a encyclopedia?

11. A Free Spirit - October 11, 2009

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