Saturday, March 19, 2011

On Cheating

I have been working on getting a course ready for the new quarter so I haven't devoted much time to posting. Nevertheless, I decided to come out of hiding to direct your attention to this post on cheating at Economonomics:
Maybe if I was in the bottom decile in high school, competing with the people around me to not be the one who fails, and everyone else in my decile was cheating, and the risk of getting caught wasn't too high...well it could easily be not just selfishly optimal, but in fact even socially optimal for me to cheat. Is academic honesty about fairness? What could possibly feel less fair than me failing because everyone around me cheated?
I generally like the post as a push-back against the immorality of cheating. As Xan points out in the post, cheating can be morally ambiguous. This also has me wonder. Why do we punish cheating in the first place? What role does it serve? In classrooms and political arenas, cheating/corruption is frowned upon and punished when it is exposed. It also seems to me that this is a persistent fact that this is how cheating is treated. Why is this so?

Let's stick with the classroom example. Punishing cheating is like standing up for the classroom rules. To the extent that these rules are reasonable in promoting good class objectives, it's good to preserve a stable rule of law within the classroom. Thus, the moral ambiguity of cheating arises from the fact that (A) The class objectives may be objectionable, (B) the rules may not point the students in the direction of the objectives, and/or (C) The rules enforcement may be inadequate.

These are problems with the instructor or classroom environment, not necessarily the student. In this model of the world, students are just trying to do the best they can, given the environment they face. If the pressures are too great, the communication and enforcement of the rules too weak, the long-term objectives too muddled and the motivation for the subject is too little, who can blame the student for cheating?

Of course, cheating is the student's decision so the student should bear the responsibility for it. After all, the student violated the rules. Setting this fact aside, there is a lesson for teachers. Given that a student chose to violate one of your rules, you have to wonder why. Maybe it is fully the student's fault, but teachers set up most of the learning environment. It is possible that the student was responding to perverse incentives.

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