A Utilitarian Approach to Analyze Cheating From an Instructors’ Perspective

In May 2012, Harvard forced dozens of students in a Government class to leave in its largest cheating scandal in memory, but the institution would not address assertions that the blame rested partly with a professor and his teaching assistants. The issue is whether cheating is truly cheating when students collaborate with each other to find the right answer -- in a take-home final exam.

Administrators said that on final-exam questions, some students supplied identical answers (right down to typographical errors in some cases), indicating that they had written them together or plagiarized them. But some students claimed that the similarities in their answers were due to sharing notes or sitting in on sessions with the same teaching assistants. The instructions on the take-home exam explicitly prohibited collaboration, but many students said they did not think that included talking with teaching assistants.

The first page of the exam contained these instructions: “The exam is completely open book, open note, open Internet, etc. However, in all other regards, this should fall under similar guidelines that apply to in-class exams. More specifically, students may not discuss the exam with others—this includes resident tutors, writing centers, etc.”

The students applied a situational ethic to the take-home exam. They were using the unique circumstances of the exam to justify their actions. The problem is this kind of situational ethic allows for different interpretations by different students based on their individual circumstance. Moreover, they sought to skirt responsibility by claiming the instructor and/or the teaching assistant were responsible for their actions and blamed it on a difficult exam. This defense is like saying: Don’t blame me. The teacher/test made me do it.


The problem of siding with the students is it becomes a relativistic ethic where in one class working with teaching assistants is acceptable but not in another. It becomes hard to draw a fine line between right and wrong. If working with teaching assistants is right, then what’s wrong with students sharing notes so long as they take the exam and write their answers independently.

Utilitarianism is a useful ethical reasoning method to evaluate the rightness or wrongness of student cheating. Modern-day utilitarianists divide themselves roughly into two groups: act utilitarianists and rule utilitarianists. An act utilitarian believes the principle of utility should be applied to individual acts. Thus, one measures consequences of each individual action according to whether it maximizes good. A rule utilitarian, on the other hand, believes that instead of considering results of specific actions, one must weigh the consequences of adopting a general rule exemplified by that action and then judge individual actions by seeing if they conform to those rules whose acceptance will produce the most utility.

One problem with act utilitarianism is it may be used to rationalize otherwise unethical actions by claiming the good outweighs the bad even though the bad is substantial. An act utilitarian would consider the possible benefits of cheating (e.g., get a higher grade-point average; better job; more pay) and weigh them against the harms (e.g., getting caught; being suspended; losing the opportunity to learn material tested later). The act utilitarian might conclude the potential benefits outweigh the harms, perhaps because the school does not monitor cheating very well.

Rule utilitarianists, on the other hand, claim that we must choose the action that conforms to the general rule that would have the best consequences. For the rule-utilitarian, actions are justified by appealing to rules such as “don’t cheat.” The reasoning might go something like this: If everyone cheated, grades would mean nothing (although some students might do a better job at cheating than others), teachers would not know which topics they should spend more time on, unqualified students might graduate with honors, employers might hire the wrong candidates, the university’s reputation might be tainted.

The rule utilitarianist would claim that we can’t break the general rule that we shouldn’t cheat even if doing so in a particular circumstance leads to more overall benefits. This is because in the long-run violating this rule – like violating moral rules in general – will lead to more unhappiness.

As the new academic year gets underway, instructors should consider whether their own actions and the test itself encourages cheating and, if so, how to make the necessary adjustments to create a fair exam that tests students’ knowledge on a level playing field. The ethical point to be made to students is they are developing the skills needed to be successful in the workplace where cheating is not tolerated.

Blog posted by Steven Mintz, aka Ethics Sage, on August 21, 2018.

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