A Strictly Pragmatic Basis for Academic Ethics ECE400F13



Dear Incoming ECE Student:

By now, you have no doubt been decently primed on the basics of professional and academic ethics, and you have probably been faced with at least one salient opportunity to gain an advantage through unethical means, leaving your professors (you’d better hope) none the wiser. If you have been in such a position, I would sincerely hope that like the majority of students in your circumstances, you were able to find it in your heart to resist said temptation.

However, good schools make an effort to instill ethics for one very important reason: not quite everyone follows them. The world would be an even lovelier place than it already is if everyone were to adhere to ethical standards for their own sake rather than out of personal convenience or fear of reprisal. Failing that ideal, it would still be a substantial improvement if the unethical minority were to devote themselves to a functional imitation of ethical behavior. My purpose here is not to give you idealistic reasons to be ethical, but rather to offer purely selfish reasons instead, in order to demonstrate that the most ethical course of action is often also the most practical course of action.

Often, the opportunity to seize immediate gratification is a strong motive for unethical actions. Suppose you have a midterm coming up in one week; you could either study for an hour or so every day, or you could track down a suitably unscrupulous academic fraternity and pay someone for an old copy of the exam. Option A would save you a large amount of time and would virtually guarantee a good score, with little risk of discovery if you can be reasonably cautious. This is a very deceptive and short-sighted portrait of the situation. The purpose of an exam, as well as all other graded assessments, is to contribute to your professor’s general understanding of how competent you are in the subject matter. What might not be immediately obvious is that it is not necessarily in your best interests to end the course with an A. Inflating your grades (and cheating yourself out of good practice) will create a large divide between what you are capable of doing and what your résumé claims you are capable of doing. This may very well land you a better job than you would have been offered otherwise (assuming you somehow manage to survive the technical stage of the interview), but then you would be trapped; your employer’s expectations would almost necessarily exceed your abilities by a wide margin, and you would be faced with the difficult task of quickly picking up the skills you neglected to develop in school, in a setting much less accepting of mistakes.

Earning points the honest way, on the other hand, is the pragmatically superior strategy in the long run. Ceteris paribus, an ethical student will leave college better educated than an unethical student with the same grade, as a result of accumulating points through perseverance and merit. Ceteris paribus, an ethical student will finish with grades more precisely indicative of his/her actual capacities and work habits, leading to job opportunities more closely commensurate with his/her needs and working ability. Additionally, the gap in advertised qualifications between ethical and unethical graduates will generally reverse after college: employment will slowly render your college scores obsolete, replacing them with professional evaluations and hard proof of experience and performance. It is easy to fake an exam score, but good referrals will only come from strong demonstrations of competence in the workplace. In short, you could set all nebulous matters of conscience aside and the ethical course of action would still be the smarter choice, in the long run.

Best of success!



Alumni Liaison

Prof. Math. Ohio State and Associate Dean
Outstanding Alumnus Purdue Math 2008

Jeff McNeal