Who Does Academic Dishonesty Harm?

According to John Stuart Mill, an individual may do anything as long as he or she does not harm others. Mill articulates that one is allowed to harm themselves as much as they want so long as them harming themselves doesn’t harm the people around them. Harming oneself, according to Mill, should result in disapproval but not punishment. This method of reasoning is particularly interesting when taken in the context of academic dishonesty. Academic dishonestly is an issue at every institute of education, but who does academic dishonesty harm? Does it harm just the student cheating? Does it harm others? Is it an act that deserves punishment?

John Stuart Mill

John Stuart Mill

Academic dishonesty can take many forms. According to the University of Michigan, “Academic dishonesty may be understood as any action or attempted action that may result in creating an unfair academic advantage for oneself or an unfair academic advantage or disadvantage for any other member or members of the academic community”. At this University, any conduct seen as violating academic integrity will result in serious consequences and disciplinary action taken agains the violator. Would Mill approve of this? The answer to that is directly correlated with whether or not you believe plagiarism/cheating/academic dishonesty harms more than just the person conducting the academic dishonesty. According to many institutes of higher learning, plagiarism harms more than just the person plagiarizing. John Carroll University’s lists an effect of plagiarism as harming other student,and states that “Those who work hard to complete assignments honestly can feel betrayed by those who do not make the same effort and who may gain an unfair advantage when it comes to course grades”. Additionally, Baylor University states that plagiarism hurts others because turning in plagiarized work is unfair to students who do their own work. But where on the scale does this type of harm fall?

In my opinion, academically dishonest conduct is far more harming to the individual than it is to the people around them. In a college setting, one person cheating on a test isn’t going to effect the curve that much. What it is going to effect is said cheating students ability to perform on subsequent tests and their ability and motivation to study for exams in the future. If a student believes that they can cheat their way through school, they’ll have no motivation to study for exams. When they get to an exam they can’t cheat on, they’ll be screwed. This is harmful to the individual, and according to Mills, warrants disapproval and even argument. What it doesn’t warrant, according to Mills, is punishment. If we’re to state that academic dishonestly doesn’t hurt others, then according to Mills, it shouldn’t be a punishable act. This view is clearly not one shared with Universities.

In class, we discussed the scale of when something is warranted as being considered “harm”, and our results varied greatly.

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Some of us believed simply feeling uncomfortable is when something becomes harmful, while others believed something isn’t harm unless it’s responsible for mild depression. Seeing someone cheat during a test can definitely make the observer uncomfortable, and maybe even sad. Knowing someone is harming themselves isn’t a fun thing to witness, but is it harmful enough to, in Mill’s eyes, warrant punishment? From my point of view, yes, academic dishonesty does warrant punishment. But from Mill’s point of view, I don’t believe he’d feel the same. I believe that Mill would see academic dishonesty (in the form of plagiarizing, cheating, etc) as being a far more self-regarding vice than other-regarding. He’d see academic dishonesty as an act to be disapproved of, but not one to be punished. He’d say that if a student wants to be self-destructive and cheat themselves out of the education they paid for by cheating their way through school, then to go for it. The only time I believe Mill would see academic dishonesty as being more other-regarding than self-regarding is when it’s on a much larger scale.

Weber State University

Weber State University

Recently, a Weber State University math instructor was found in violation of the NCAA ethical conduct rules after she completed coursework for five football student-athletes. She completed quizzes, tests, and assignments for these football players after they gave her access to their student accounts. This resulted in the resignation of the instructor and an NCAA three year probation for the schools football program, in addition to a reduction of 9 football scholarships. In this scenario, I believe Mill would agree that punishment was warranted. Academic dishonesty on this scale caused harm to others because it degraded the reputation of the school as well as the football program. Because of this, this act could be seen as being just as if not more other-regarding than self-regarding, and thus, according to Mill’s logic, warrants punishment. Overall, I don’t believe Mill would agree that punishment is warranted in the situation of academic dishonesty. But as with everything else in life, there are always exceptions, and I believe Mill would see this scenario as being one of those exceptions.



  1. jbaren · November 23, 2014

    In my opinion, academic dishonesty harms the student because they aren’t truly learning AND aren’t going to get smarter, just smarter at being sneaky. If you ask any successful adult if it’s possible to sneak your way into earning sufficient money for a living, I guarantee you they’ll say no. Cheating in school may work, but cheating in life gets you nowhere. At Michigan, there’s really no point in cheating. We have the saying and reputation of being the leaders and the best, and by doing work dishonestly, you’re not being a leader, thus hurting our reputation. I agree with the U of M that consequences are necessary. In terms of JC University’s statement, I wouldn’t necessarily feel betrayed by my classmates since I think betrayal has to do with someone you know on a personal level, however I would hate it if I got a grade less than I had earned if others cheated and did “better.” Not only is trying to cheat your way through college a bad idea because when you get to a test you can’t cheat on you’ll be screwed, but you won’t know how to prepare for events in your future and work hard to get a good job and make money. You won’t be able to make back the money you, your parents, or whoever paid for the education that you’re not taking advantage of; you’d be taking it for granted. Remember, not everyone is lucky enough to get the education you’re getting.


  2. allanmc2014 · November 23, 2014

    This is a great viewpoint and your interpretation of what Mill might say in this situation. Based on what Mill wrote, everything you state is correct. Academic dishonesty affects the violator more than any other person. Because of this, this is viewed as “self-regarding vice”. Mill believes that self-regarding vice deserves no punishment because it is not affecting the general public. Self regarding vice allows another person to argue and even allows someone to talk disapprovingly of that person. But punishment, according to Mill, is unwarranted in this situation.

    In my belief, cheating does not benefit. In the end, you are at a loss in the long term. While you may have taken a shortcut to receive a higher grade, you cheat yourself. You don’t reach a greater understanding of concepts and motivation to study decreases after cheating. Like you said, you’re screwed.

    I was raised when I was young to accept the consequences, whether they might be. My household NEVER allowed cheating and would rather accept a deserving failing grade over a cheating “A”. The deserving failing grade allowed me to reflect on myself and ultimately gave me motivation to study harder for the next exam.

    While I cannot say this is the same with the other 20,000 undergraduates at the University of Michigan, I generally like to hope that cheating is beyond question. But for people who do, they need to be punished. If we were to follow what Mill outlines (not punishing), what good would that do? Cheaters would receive no penalty and have more motivation to cheat again.

    I wholeheartedly agree with your conclusion that an exception must be granted in this situation. Cheaters need to learn that cheating is not a efficient way to learn, and the only way to do that is by enforcing consequences. We have that at the University of Michigan and I am glad we do.


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