Plagiarism is not an Ethical Dilemma

There is nothing so defeating than discovering that a student has copied a paragraph, or an entire article, and is trying to pass this work off as his or her own. I have seen this happen on a number of occasions, and this never ends well for the student.

The first time this happened, it was quite a spectacular attempt. It took place in the late 1990s. I was teaching in an internet marketing program. Those were the heady days of the Dotcom Boom, with interesting articles appearing in Business 2.0 and Fast Company. I was quite taken by an article by Seth Godin about the future directions of internet marketing; so much so, that I had saved this article – and the entire magazine that it was published in – in my files.

And so it came to pass that a student presented this article, copied verbatim without a word missing, as her own work for a final assignment. I was surprised and shocked that she would even try to do this. When I took her aside to discuss her result, she explained that “it was such a good article, this is why I presented it”. I spent some time explaining to her that this was plagiarism, that copying is not accepted practice, and that I am in the unfortunate position to fail her in this assignment. She would not have any of it, and eventually the Dean needed to be involved. She failed the course, and would have to do it again another time.

A year or so later, she was back in my class. This time, her work was great – I did check every sentence in Google to make sure that there was no cheating, again – and she passed the course. She had learned her lesson, and she demonstrated that she had good ideas of her own about marketing. It was good to see that this was all behind her.

So it was not a similar story a few years ago, when a student in a distance learning course presented an article from Maclean’s as his own work. Good grief, not this situation again. He explained that he had submitted this assignment because he was overwhelmed at work and did not have time to properly summarize what he had read – or reference any of his material. I explained to him that this assignment was not acceptable, and that he had to resubmit. Regrettably, I found that he was plagiarizing, using different sources, in his second submission. He was given the choice to withdraw or fail the course outright. I also escalated to my program director for resolution with this student.

Rushworth Kidder, in his book How Good People Make Tough Choices: Resolving the Dilemmas of Ethical Living, lists ethical dilemmas and moral temptations. Ethical dilemmas pit “right against right”. Whereas moral temptations, like plagiarism, cause harm and are wrong. Kidder lists moral temptations such as “cheating on taxes, running red lights, and lying on a resume”. These are not ethical dilemmas, they are simply wrong.

Kidder distinguishes between four types of ethical dilemmas: truth vs loyalty, where one’s honesty conflicts with commitment or keeping promises. An example could be a teacher asking a student whether their friend cheated on an assignment. The student has an ethical dilemma: it is right to tell the truth, but it is also right to be loyal to the friend.

The next type of ethical dilemma is the individual vs the community: what is good for one person may not be good for the community. Is it right to provide funding to a small subset of students, when the great majority of students is already underfunded?

The third form of ethical dilemma is short-term vs long-term, and pits immediate needs against long-term needs. If one resolves short-term needs, there may not be resources left for future needs. Should one save for college, or spend money now for piano lessons?

The final form of ethical dilemma matches justice against mercy. Justice is about following the rules, but mercy requires consideration for individual needs and be compassionate.

My plagiators appealed to my sense of mercy and asked me to give them ‘one more chance’ to do well, and not be punished for presenting work that was not theirs. But given the rules and regulations in the educational institutions where I worked, and given how much time we had spent with our students explaining these rules, the issue was never an ethical one for me. I was disappointed that they had done this, and that I caught them. A discussion and a second chance had been effective in one case, but not in the other. I had tools and a process, provided by each educational institution, to address these actions. Oh, these students were otherwise good kids, striving to do well – but in the case of plagiarism the rules are the rules and they are unbendable. No ethical dilemma there.

Vida Morkunas, Vosk Centre for Dialogue, 2015, ARR


(n.a.). (n.d.). PIDP 3260: Ethical Dilemmas in Adult Education. Vancouver Community College.

Kidder, R. (2005). How Good People Make Tough Choices: Resolving the Dilemmas of Ethical Living. Camden, ME: Institute for Global Ethics.

Plagiarism is not an Ethical Dilemma

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