The Foundation of Justice in Academic Misconduct
One of the best aspects of graduate school is teaching. The vocation of an educator demands tremendous effort and copious amounts of time, but the reward of influencing and developing young minds makes it worthwhile. Personally, I love working as a teaching assistant, but there are aspects of the job which are the epitome of boredom such as proctoring and grading; however, arguably the most challenging aspect of teaching is handling academic misconduct. This past spring I was proctoring an in-class quiz (yes, this was in the time before COVID) and I became aware of a student who appeared to be cheating. This individual seemed to be staring, unblinkingly, at the paper of the student immediately beside them. This conspicuous action caught my attention, so I began to observe this student. Eventually, she shifted her gaze and it seemed she had only been staring off into space though I wish she had been staring into an area not occupied by another student’s work. Through grading the quizzes, I concluded she was not cheating, but even in the slim chance she was, her efforts at subterfuge were not benefiting her grade. I was grateful to avoid having to reprimand her and go through the process of handling academic misconduct, but this event caused some questions to spring into life. Why is cheating wrong? Why is it just for us to punish students who cheat or plagiarize? Is cheating wrong if no one is harmed by the action?
As a Christian, I can answer these questions with confidence. Cheating is wrong because the act requires someone to steal ideas or work from someone else and present them as their own. Therefore, cheating is not only an act of intellectual theft, breaking the commandment, “thou shall not steal,” but it is a dishonest act tantamount to lying and breaking the law, “thou shalt not bear false witness” (Exodus 20:15-16). Furthermore, since I cannot recall knowing anyone who wants their work plagiarized or stolen, cheating seems to directly conflict with the golden rule e.g., “So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you” (Mathew 7:12). I do not want someone to pilfer from my academic labor, so it would be morally unjust for me to steal from the labors of others. From a Christian worldview it is clear if my student decided to copy another’s work then their action would have been objectively wrong. Now by worldview I mean, “the sum total of all the things one believes, especially in regard to reality, truth, knowledge, and value.” 1 Hence, a Christian worldview is derived from Holy Scripture and the character of the Trinity and provides biblical answers to the paramount questions of life: origins, meaning, morality, purpose and destiny.
To answer the second question, why is it just for us to punish students who cheat or plagiarize, we need to determine what we mean by justice in this context. Since our discussion revolves around proper punishment and why it is correct to punish certain actions, we are in the realm of retributive justice.2 Many of the Levitical laws in the Pentateuch focus on retributive justice. For example, “whoever steals an ox or a sheep and slaughters it or sells it must pay back five heads of cattle for the ox and four sheep for the sheep” (Exodus 22:1). A crime was committed, theft of livestock, and retribution was made, repayment of what was stolen. Therefore, for the purpose of our discussion, justice is someone receiving proper reward or punishment for what their deeds deserve. Thus, since cheating is wrong through the eyes of the Christian worldview, a punishment of say a zero on a quiz or a failing grade on an exam would be just. Of course excessive punishment such as expulsion for cheating on a quiz is unjust because the punishment is not proportional to the deed. Additionally, the motivation behind the action should be taken into account in determining proper punishment. Stealing to prevent oneself from starving is different than stealing to obtain wealth or prestige.
The last question of whether cheating is wrong if no one is harmed by the action poses no trouble as a Christian because all sins are ultimately perpetrated against God Himself. Even if someone cheated in a manner such that everyone was oblivious and no one was adversely affected, his actions would still be wrong in the eyes of God. Hence, the question of cheating can be handled by the Christian worldview in a manner that aligns with what most people, Christian or not, believe to be true. Most people would hold that cheating is wrong and it is just to punish someone for academic misconduct. Now, can other worldviews do the same? If we remove God from the equation and come at these questions from a purely naturalistic and materialistic framework i.e. everything arises from natural causes and only matter exists, can we arrive at the same conclusions? 3
Let us assume God does not exist and the explanation for our existence is derived from solely natural processes. In this setting can we make a case for why cheating is wrong? One explanation would be that cheating undermines the integrity of the university and devalues the degrees of its student body. For example, if we knew cheating was rampant in a certain medical school we might trust their graduates less and the school could lose its accreditation. This reason demonstrates well the impact widespread academic dishonesty can have on a college; however, it does not show cheating is wrong for a single individual. This explanation does not say why it is wrong for me to cheat on an exam but only why it would be troublesome for my degree if everyone cheated. In other words, this explanation does not show the action itself is wrong only the consequences are undesirable if everyone engaged in academic misconduct e.g. my degree has less value. Note, by the same rationale similar justifications, such as cheating devalues the course or a department are met with the same problem.
One might then say, “Well, I agree with the Christian that cheating is wrong because it is a form of stealing.” Then the follow-up question is why is stealing wrong? If we are only the products of time, chance, and matter, as an atheistic worldview requires, and the only difference between us and our nearest genetic relatives are fortunate genetic mutations, why is it wrong for me to steal from another person? It is well documented that animals steal from one another, and you can most likely verify this from personal experience if you own multiple pets. A purely naturalistic framework requires that we are only animals, but our reaction when people steal is much different than when other animals steal. We laugh when our cat steals the dog’s chew toy and buries it in her litter box, but we groan and become filled with righteous indignation when a corporation steals from impoverished communities or a thief makes off with our new laptop. There seems to be a difference, but this difference from a purely materialistic perspective cannot be actual because in such a framework we are only animals ourselves. In other words, we cannot show stealing is objectively wrong from a naturalistic perspective without also showing it is wrong for our cat to steal the dog’s chew toy. At best, we can only attempt to show a community which does not allow theft is better off than a community which does. A community which allows theft would limit trust amongst its constituents, diminishing cohesion and harmony, which are important factors in the productivity of the community; however, this again leads to the same problem because we must now answer why trust and productivity are objectively good qualities to be sought above other goals like wealth or notoriety.
Thus, stealing is not objectively wrong for the individual but there are only undesirable consequences if everyone engages in thievery. This discussion could continue but at this point it demonstrates one of the challenges which occurs when we remove the eternal datum which God provides. In a purely materialistic setting, we are unable to state cheating is objectively wrong. Ultimately, the morality of cheating is subjective without an eternal reference point. We might show positive consequences can occur if everyone avoids cheating, but this does not prove cheating is morally right or wrong. If everyone avoided alcohol, then many positive consequences would occur such as no more accidents due to drunk driving, but this does not imply drinking in moderation is immoral. As a Christian, I know stealing is objectively wrong because of God’s own revelation and because it goes against his character. If you remove God who is “the same yesterday, today, and forever,” you remove the reference necessary to define objective morality (Hebrews 13:8). Morality becomes subjective to the point we cannot condemn actions such as theft as objectively wrong. This means the answer to the first question in a naturalistic framework is weaker than the answer given from the Christian framework. In the Christian framework cheating is objectively wrong whereas in the naturalistic framework cheating is at worst detrimental to society if a large proportion of the community engages in such dishonesty. How does this affect the answer to the second question from a naturalistic perspective?
Is it just for us to punish students who cheat or plagiarize from a naturalistic worldview? From the Christian perspective it is just to punish students who commit academic misconduct because such actions are objectively wrong and to ignore them would be to accept them as honorable. This reason cannot apply to the naturalist because the naturalist cannot state cheating is objectively wrong in their worldview. Therefore, they would need to have a different rationale for deeming it just to punish students who cheat. Our working definition of justice is someone receiving the proper reward or punishment for what their deeds deserve, but this then requires someone to determine what acts deserve rewarding or punishing. In the Christian worldview, this individual is God who is completely outside and above the influence of mankind. In the naturalist’s worldview, people or groups of people decide which actions are worthy of exalting or demeaning. Thus, a naturalist can say the community formed a set of laws, of which one is not to cheat, and then enforces them by punishing those who do not abide by them. Thus, by this code it would be just to punish cheating students; however, unless these laws were made by some objective framework, outside of the codifiers themselves, then their standards will necessarily be subjective. This would result in justice being different in different locations. In other words, certain actions in certain places will be greeted with reward while others are met with punishment. Hence, the naturalist can state it is just to punish students who cheat under a set code such as a university’s policy for academic misconduct; however, their justice is subjective and based on the biases of those who wrote the original law.
This leads to some troubling consequences. To give one example, it removes the ability of one community, group, nation, or tribe to claim another is unjust if they are abiding by their set of laws. Ravi Zacharias provides an illustration of this very problem in a message he gave titled, “Questionable Answers.” In this message he details some of the events at the Nuremberg trials where various members of the Nazis regime were tried for their crimes in World War II. On one wall of the courtroom was the Ten Commandments and on another wall was a painting of the temptation in the Garden of Eden. As Ravi describes the scene,
Millions had been sent into their gas ovens and here the men are being tried, and the tribunal is sitting staring at them. What is in the backdrop? The Ten Commandments. What is in the foreground? The temptation to redefine good and evil. That is why the prosecutor kept pushing and pushing when they defended themselves by saying, “We were operating according to the law of our own land.” He (the prosecutor) said, “Ladies and gentlemen is there not a law above our laws?” 4
If there is no law above the laws of individual nations and communities, then the defense mounted at Nuremberg is unassailable because without an arbiter outside mankind the laws of all nations, even Nazi Germany, are on equal footing. One way out of this predicament for the naturalist is to conclude all moral laws are social constructs and accept all moral claims as subjective. As the well-known atheist Richard Dawkins so famously wrote, “DNA neither cares nor knows. DNA just is. And we dance to its music.” 5 In other words, actions are neither good nor bad; they are neutral. If morality truly is subjective as claimed in the naturalist’s framework, then the moral depravity of laws cannot be discussed objectively but only as a matter of taste or preference to how someone desires society to be organized. Essentially, this makes the statement that theft is wrong no different than saying broccoli tastes dreadful. Thus, in a Christian worldview morality and justice are intimately connected by God; whereas, in a naturalistic worldview they can be decoupled so that what is just is only the opinion of those in power and not tied to any objective morality.
Now a naturalist might state that the laws of individual communities are flawed, but they are ever progressing forward to a better state of justice. The problem with this statement is measuring progress requires a fixed point of reference or an objective standard which is being approached. The naturalistic worldview does not permit such objective references for morality so progress can only mean change and nothing deeper. From this discussion we see the naturalist can state it is just to punish students who cheat; however, it is not just because of the moral nature of cheating but only because it aligns with a given code or law. This means the Christian worldview provides a deeper meaning of justice connected to objective morality.
How can the naturalist answer the final question, is cheating wrong if no one is harmed by the action? Cheating was still wrong when it affected no one in the Christian worldview because God’s law was transgressed. We have already shown objective morality has no meaning in a purely materialistic worldview, but do even pragmatic reasons exist to say such an action should be avoided from a naturalistic framework? If one can cheat in a manner such that no one is affected, hurt, or aware, and he benefits, why should he not cheat? As long as the benefit to the individual outweighs the harm to the community, there is no logical reason for the naturalist to condemn the cheating of a single individual unless to say the action conflicts with their subjectively defined law. This demonstrates another troubling consequence an atheistic worldview generates; reason alone cannot lead us to moral judgments. The atheist philosopher Kai Nielson admitted this very fact,
We have not been able to show that reason requires the moral point of view, or that all really rational persons, unhoodwinked by myth or ideology, need not be individual egoists or classical amoralists. Reason doesn’t decide here. The picture I have painted for you is not a pleasant one. Reflection on it depresses me…Pure practical reason, even with a good knowledge of the facts, will not take you to morality.6
In a naturalistic worldview there are no logical reasons to not cheat, and so there is no way the naturalist can be consistent and condemn cheating on a rational basis. Therefore, in a materialistic worldview one can cheat, and if done successfully, no consequences exist for their actions. Moreover, no consequences exist for any action which avoids detection by the community. This means in a naturalistic framework no justice is possible for the victims of crimes where the perpetrators were never caught. This is not the case for the Christian because, “God will repay each person according to what they have done” (Romans 2:6). As Christians, we are assured the plight of the marginalized are never forgotten by God. They will receive justice, either in this life or the next.
So, can a naturalistic worldview answer these questions about justice? This worldview can claim it is just to punish those who cheat, but the foundation of this judgment is unstable at best. A naturalistic worldview cannot claim cheating is objectively wrong nor can it claim it is rational to condemn the act, and it can only say it is just to punish those who cheat if this judgment aligns with a subjectively formed law; however, the justice we desire in life requires the objectivity of moral principles and not biased laws written by the pens of men. A Christian worldview provides answers to these questions which align with what we know to be true. There are objective facts in life which we know but cannot show by reason alone. I cannot prove logic exists though it was employed throughout this entire article. I cannot mathematically show I am loved by my family though I could not be more certain of this statement. Similarly, as Kai Nielson stated, I cannot prove by rational argument it is wrong to harm my neighbor; however, I know these statements are true. This was what the great French mathematician Blaise Pascal meant when he wrote, “We know truth, not only by reason, but also by the heart.” Thus, the next question we should ask ourselves is what worldview supports the vision of justice we know to be true? We say the world ought to be a certain way, but to say it ought to be one way is to say it ought not to be another. This assumes there is a right way for the world to be ordered, but do not correct orderings come from a Mind and not mindless processes?
1. J.P. Moreland, “How Does One Develop a Christian Mind?”
2. For information about retributive justice and a more complete definition and history access the “Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy – Retributive Justice.”
3. See the Oxford English Dictionary for the definitions of naturalism and materialism.
4. Ravi Zacharias, “Questionable Answers.” Let My People Think. Podcast.
5. Richard Dawkins, River Out of Eden: A Darwinian View of Life
6. From William Lane Craig’s “Reasonable Faith.” where he quotes Kai Nielson, “Why Should I Be Moral?’ American Philosophy Quarterly 21 (1984).