A “Professional-Ethical” Rationale for Inculcating Academic Honesty In Our Undergraduate Students

Copyright © 2005 Bruce W. Hauptli

My topic was not defined for me, and it is dangerous to let me wander off wherever I want!  Still, it was clear that I am supposed to talk about the ethical dimension of academic honesty.  Given the focus of the forum, it seems to me, the first question to be asked is:  

“Should we be concerned with our students’ academic honesty?”

Of course, I know the presumptive answer is “yes,” but this means the next question should be “Why?”  When I tried to formulate this question, I got stuck:  

“Why should we _____ academic honesty in our students?”

I don’t know why ‘inculcate’ occurred to me, but the next thing I did was to consult my word-processor’s thesaurus, and I became troubled.  Amongst the long list of alternatives here were:  

‘persuade’, ‘brainwash’, ‘indoctrinate’, ‘preach’, ‘proselytize’, ‘train’, ‘cultivate’, ‘develop’, ‘drill’, ‘edify’, and ‘groom’.

Some of these, it seems clear to me, lead in a direction exactly contrary to the undergraduate educational enterprise—for me education and indoctrination are nearly polar opposites.

     Rather than look for a synonym, or another word altogether, however, I decided to look for good reasons for concerning ourselves with our students’ academic honesty.  Moreover, I decided to forbear from attempting to define the topic (another obvious philosophical conundrum looms on the horizon here—and, after all, and much to your relief, I only have ten minutes).

    I came up with four reasons—three bad, and one good:

1. Consider the first of what I will call the “bad arguments”—and it may well be called a “moral argument:”  

dishonesty is always wrong, academic dishonesty is dishonesty, therefore it is always wrong.  Thus, we can not tolerate it in our students.

Let us not be dishonest ourselves.  This is far too quick and dirty!  Many of you “lie” to your children (at the very least you encourage belief in nonexistent entities such as the Tooth Fairy, Santa Claus, and the Easter Bunny), more seriously you and members of the medical establishment dissemble for viable paternalistic reasons—like physicians who must match their explanations to their patients’ level of knowledge, when we teach we often simplify, and even falsify (since our students are not yet able to receive the “whole truth”).   Moreover, it is clear that in at least some cases of serious moral conflict, a dishonest statement or act may be the lesser of two evils in an unavoidable choice context.  Ever since Plato’s Academy, educators have found it both expeditious and necessary to sometimes be dishonest with their students!  Clearly the first argument fails.

2. The second of the “bad arguments” goes like this:

academic honesty is a presupposition of the academic enterprise, and, thus, academic dishonesty can not be permitted in the academy.  Therefore, we can not tolerate it in our students.

Of course, some of what is implied by what I said above applies here, but I wish to focus our attention on what is especially unique in this argument—the appeal to the particular enterprise in question (the academic enterprise).  What the argument contends is, clearly, true; but students are, for the most part, only temporary participants in this enterprise.  Unlike ourselves, then, our students are generally motivated by other goals, and, in fact, when they are placed in contexts which challenge their academic honesty, they are so placed by requirements which we place upon them.  Honesty requires that we recognize that this argument needs development if it is to provide any real moral imperative for our concern with our students’ academic honesty.

3. I will return to the above argument below, but please first consider the third “bad argument”—what I will call the “Calvin and Hobbes” argument.  In what was the favorite comic strip of both my son and myself, a frequent topic was the fatherly explanation as to why Calvin must engage in irksome, tiresome, or apparently unnecessary behaviors which went against the grain of youthful exuberance, childish preference for pleasure over work, and a desire to avoid doing today what can be put off till....  The fatherly explanation, of course, was that the activity would “build character”—an explanation which Calvin found incomprehensible.  Similarly, we tell our students: “even though you will never have to do another research paper (solve another differential equation, determine the melting point of some smelly organic unknown, etc.), you must do so now (and do so yourself in accord with the highest standards of academic research).  Why?  Of course: because it will “build character.” Calvin likes this answer even less than our students do, and I suspect that you, like me, secretly find yourself on Calvin’s side—at least as long as you are not playing the role of the parent!  Moreover, the argument here runs the danger of emphasizing all the synonyms for ‘inculcate’ which gave me pause above.

4. Finally, consider what I want to maintain is a good reason for inculcating academic honesty in our students—others may have different reasons, but this is mine.  The argument will appeal to our professional responsibilities, and will, thus, be an argument from within what may be called “professional ethics.”  To begin, I must confess, I am not a “moral absolutist”—I can not appeal to transcendent, unchanging, or absolute moral standards, because I believe they do not exist.  At the core I am a Humean, Deweyan naturalist, and the reasons I would find compelling are going to have to arise out of our “existential context.”

As I see it, the context which raises concerns about undergraduate students’ academic honesty is that wherein we are charged with providing our students with an undergraduate education within the broader context of a democratic society.  While some of our students are, truly, only concerned with “credentialing,” they nonetheless (perhaps mistakenly) enrolled in this educational institution (rather than in one of the many credential mini-marts available in our society).  Because they did, we may (indeed, I will argue, must) do our best to try and provide them with such an education.

As I see it, the goal of such an education is the transformation of each student into a “critical thinker”—someone who is, as Harvey Siegel maintains, “appropriately motivated by reasons.  Such an individual has a propensity or disposition to believe and act in accordance with reasons; and she has the ability properly to assess the force of reasons in the many contexts in which reasons play a role.”1  Critical thinkers must not simply understand how to critically assess a position, they must be moved by reason and, as Siegel notes, “when we take it upon ourselves to educate students so as to foster critical thinking, we are committing ourselves to nothing less than the development of a certain sort of person.”2

I believe that it is clear that critical thinking requires academic honesty, but I will not subject you to the argument for this claim.  Instead, I will point out that there is a clear moral imperative here—a hypothetical moral imperative which gains its binding force upon us because of the professional role we have in the existential context in question.  While our students may not “buy into” all the goals of the academic enterprise, by electing to pursue an undergraduate education with us they “willed the necessary means.”  In short, the end—transformation of our students into critical thinkers—justifies (indeed, mandates) our concern with the means—academic honesty.

    I need to elaborate upon the topic of professional ethics a bit here, but will return to our profession and the case of academic honesty after this elaboration.  When I say that this imperative is one which arises because of our professional role, I mean that the imperative is one which arises out of professional ethics.  While some moral imperatives apply generally to all citizens (and are, thus, simply ethical, or moral, imperatives), the imperatives of professional ethics are binding on those within a profession.  In accepting a professional role, I contend, one accepts responsibilities which are not incumbent upon citizens generally.  In accepting the role of “professor,” for example, each of us accepts a portion of the overall responsibility for the undergraduate education of our students.3  This responsibility is not binding upon citizens generally (or, at least, not binding upon them in the same way).4

     Note that I am claiming that our status as professors places an “additional” responsibility upon us here.  Many individuals mistakenly look to professional ethics for relief from moral responsibility. I contend that the opposite is the case.  While the moral considerations codified in our common moral framework generally override any special considerations of a professional, there are some occasions where it may be appropriate to contend that they may be outweighed by particular professional responsibilities.  That is, we may contend that various professionals have special demands placed upon them which may excuse them from certain moral obligations: lawyers sometimes claim that the requirement that they place their clients’ interests first outweighs their general obligation to tell the truth; and doctors sometimes claim that the need to prolong the lives of their patients outweighs their general obligation to consider the patients’ other desires.  In such situations these professionals respond to charges of moral misconduct by appealing to the special goals, norms, and rules of their professions.  They hold that these goals, norms, and rules, at least in some situations, outweigh the moral considerations, interests, and goals which are generally held to be primary.

     The claim that professional goals, norms, and rules outweigh the moral ones can not simply be a matter of personal preference however.  If this were all there were to the claim that professional interests, rules, and norms may override the dictates of morality, we would quickly degenerate into a moral relativism where individuals would not be bound to any values or obligations beyond those of the group they choose to associate with.  This would serve to undercut the professionals’ activities however—for example, the business managers’ unbridled pursuit of profit given a personal preference for profit as opposed to morality serves to undercut the general moral climate which is a prerequisite for business activities in the first place.  I believe this sort of argument may be extended beyond the case of the business profession to include the lawyers’ and doctors’ (and others’) professions—the activities which these professionals engage in are possible and make sense only against the background of a generally accepted moral framework.  Deviations from the constraints imposed by this framework must be justified in some fundamental manner which allows for the moral constraints to be overridden without engendering a relativism which would undercut the professional activities themselves.

     A plausible argument legitimating the claim that certain professional goals, norms, and rules may outweigh those of our general moral framework would allow the assignment of a special status to the professionals’ concerns, interests, and goals if this served more important goals and interests (i.e., some of the goals and interests considered fundamental by our general moral framework).5  Thus one might maintain that lawyers may assign a special weight to their professional relationships with their clients (especially in regard to confidentiality, advocacy, etc.) since this aids us in our efforts to advance the important moral concerns of justice.  Similarly, we might maintain that judges and police officers must place certain professional considerations above the general moral ones if justice is to be served.  If these professionals can justify their deviation from what the general moral framework calls for by claiming that the deviations advance one of the fundamental values which that framework serves to foster and protect, their divergence from what is generally required may be deemed legitimate.6

     I don’t believe our profession provides us with any relief from the general moral constraints.  Like all professions, however, it does engender additional responsibilities.  Note that since the professional responsibility to concern ourselves with our students’ academic honesty which I am discussing is a (hypothetical) moral imperative, the argument which I am advancing doesn’t simply license our concern.  Instead, it mandates it.  Thus the question I take myself to be answering here is:  

“Why must (in the moral sense of must) we inculcate academic honesty in our undergraduate students.”

If my argument is good, it is part of our responsibility, and not merely “an option” which we may exercise at our discretion.  Note, of course, that if our undergraduate education was simply “credentialing” our students (or the production of “credit hours,” or, even worse, the satisfaction of “customer desires”), then such an end might well not provide the requisite justification!  In such cases, of course, we would be talking about a different profession!  Without a concern for our students’ undergraduate education, the expense and time devoted to academic honesty concerns might be considered an unnecessary, and costly, burden (one which actually interferes with, for example, the expeditious processing of FTE’s into credentials).

     In brief, then, my argument is that:  

1. As professors involved in undergraduate education, our primary responsibility is the transformation of our students into critical thinkers.

2. Critical thinking presumes academic honesty.

3. In enrolling with us, our students accepted both the goal, and the “necessary means” for attainment of the goal.

4. Thus it is our professional responsibility to be concerned with the academic honesty of our students.

I contend that those professors who are not so concerned fail to live up to their professional responsibilities.

     Note, finally, though here I will be brief on this point, that the “existential context” I mentioned above has the undergraduate education we are to provide occurring within the context of a democratic society.  The moral argument for our concern is deepened by this additional contextual element.  Just as academic honesty is requisite for critical thinking, so critical thinking is requisite for democracy.  Clearly, when you will the end, you will the means to the means to the end.  Therefore, it is not simply our responsibility to our students and to our profession which mandates our concern with our students’ academic honesty, our responsibility to democratic society generally also mandates this concern.  I will not elaborate upon this component of the argument except to note that this end may be even more “central” to us all, and to emphasize that, again, the sort of obligation I am pointing to is a moral one here—you must be concerned with, and must strive to inculcate academic honesty in your undergraduate students!  


1 Harvey Siegel, Educating Reason (New York: Routledge, 1988), p.23.  I develop this in more detail in “My View of The Nature of a Liberal Arts Education.”   Back

2 Ibid., p. 41.   Back

3 Of course, as professors we have other professional responsibilities; and it is possible that there are some professors who will not have this particular one (professors of law and medicine, and research professors, for example).   Back

4 They might have a responsibility, as citizens, to ensure that such an educational opportunity is available for undergraduates; but they do not have a responsibility to personally participate in the direct educational activities.   Back

5 Cf., Alan Goldman, The Moral Foundations of Professional Ethics (Totowa: Rowman and Littlefield, 1980) pp. 18-26.   Back

6 Goldman develops this argument in detail.  He claims that the legal, judicial, and law enforcement professions provide norms, rules, and goals which may place obligations upon the professionals which can outweigh the demands imposed by our general moral framework.  He also argues that this is not the case with the medical and business professions.   Back  

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Last revised: 07/31/2005