Written and Narrated by
Deni Elliott, Ph.D., M.A.
Department of Journalism & Media Studies
College of Arts and Sciences
The University of South Florida at St. Petersburg
“Students know cheating is wrong, and that it’s a violation of school policy to smuggle notes into an exam, or to copy a neighbor’s answers. But what if a friend, who’s failing the class, asks you for answers to a test? Or if you see someone you don’t know cheating? Does it matter if you report it or not?
Systematic Moral Analysis, or SMA for short, is a tool that helps us think through ethically complex situations before taking action. And it can also help us analyze the ethical dimensions of a complex situation after the fact. Consider this scenario: Some people in your class got a copy of last year’s final. You know that at least half the class has already looked at the questions. Now, you’re offered a copy. What should you do?
The first step of SMA is conceptualization, which involves determining who might be harmed and how. If no one is likely to be harmed, then there’s no ethical problem. But how do we really know if we’re about to cause harm? 20th Century Philosopher Bernard Gert developed a list of 10 moral rules that can help us identify ethically questionable acts.
1) Do not kill.
2) Do not cause pain.
3) Do not disable.
4) Do not deprive of freedom or opportunity.
5) Do not deprive of pleasure.
6) Do not deceive.
7) Keep your promises.
8) Do not cheat.
9) Obey the law.
10) Do your duty.
So, if you decide to take a peek at the old exam, then you’re violating Rule #8: Do Not Cheat. According to Gert, cheating causes harm because “the cheater gains an advantage over other participants in the activity, by violating the rules that everyone is expected to follow.”
You’re also violating Rule #10: Do Your Duty. As a student in the class, you have a responsibility to abide by the rules that you agreed to follow that were set out by the professor and the university. You are violating Rule #6: Do Not Deceive. Your professor, and anyone who reviews your transcript, will assume that you earned your grade honestly. You’ve misled them to a false conclusion. That’s deception. You’re also violating Rule #7: Keep Your Promise by breaking the promise you’ve made to the university under the honor code.
And you’re causing harm to students who haven’t seen the old exam by violating Rule #4: Do not deprive of freedom or opportunity. You’re depriving them of the freedom, or, in this case, the opportunity, to have their work evaluated in an honest comparison with others in the class. They’ll be unfairly harmed by grade inflation caused by the cheating. So clearly, looking at last year’s test is ethically questionable.
The second step of SMA is justification, which helps determine whether breaking a moral rule prevents a greater harm from occurring or whether the harm you are causing legitimately addresses a more significant harm that was already caused. The goal of justification is to determine the action that 1) causes the least harm to others 2) can withstand public scrutiny, and 3) would be ethically permissible for anyone in a similar situation.
So what if there were a publicly known rule that students should cheat whenever they are not likely to get caught? Well, this would threaten the integrity of the class and weaken the value of a degree from the university. It would also destroy the university’s ability to certify that students graduate with the knowledge that they need in their field. A general rule that allows academic cheating cannot be justified. And, if you can’t do something without making a secret exception for yourself, SMA tells us, “Don’t do it.”
SMA encourages us to consider alternative courses of action that would minimize harm. For example, you could tip off the professor anonymously and suggest that they consider re-writing the exam. Or you could ask the professor to distribute the old test to everyone in the class. That way, no student would have an unfair advantage and it would give everyone a chance to know what the professor thinks is most important.
Systematic Moral Analysis doesn’t provide one right answer, but it does help us fully evaluate a situation, think through possible courses of action, and avoid negative consequences that might not have occurred to us at the start.”