Brian Lande
Philosophy 105-2
Paper #1

"Thou Shalt Not Steal"


When we have an idea or insight, rarely is it the first time it has ever occurred to an individual. Furthermore, what we learn through formal education, dialogue, and reading (for those who pay attention) becomes an integral part of our thought--we assimilate the ideas of others. Thus, what we may think and say is not necessarily of our own origin, but rather it is a conglomeration of the ideas of others in conjunction with our own native thoughts and understanding--such is human nature. However, there is a fundamental difference between this assimilation of idea and thought through socialization/education versus plagiarism. Plagiarism is defined, as the knowing act of stealing another's ideas and passing those ideas on as your own with the intent to deceive. It is theft of intellectual property which is owned and has value. Plagiarism is to steal and lie while assimilation is the process of educating the mind to gain knowledge from a vast variety of sources. Even though there is significant difference between the legal and moral dealings of plagiarism, there is overlap between the is and ought. Socrates and Confucius, we have read, would agree that assimilation is necessary for education and for being moral, but, as I will show, consider that plagiarism is immoral.

To understand Socrates view on plagiarism, we must first understand the basis for what he considers moral. Morality, Socrates believes, is that which induces happiness and is in our best, long-term interest and that to live unpleasantly is immoral or evil (Plato 1956, pg.56). Furthermore, Socrates believes that we only are immoral out of ignorance for what is in our long-term best interest. Hence, immorality is due to a lack of knowledge. Thus, while we may get pleasure (pleasure = good [Plato 1956, pg. 56]) in overindulging in food and drink, we will later pay for it in the form of displeasure (displeasure/pain = equal to evil [Plato 1956, pg. 56]) in the form of nausea, heartburn, obesity and a hangover. But we only overindulge because we are ignorant of what would be better for ourselves in the long run, i.e. moderation in food and drink. Thus, Socrates concludes that what causes pain is evil and what causes pleasure is good; we call pleasure evil if it robs us of greater pleasures than it gives, or causes pains greater than the pleasure, and we can call pain good if it prevents further pain or gives pleasures greater than pain (Plato 1956, pg. 60). Socrates finishes by saying, "the salvation of human life has been found to consist in the right choice of pleasures and pains, in the choice of the more and the fewer (i.e. choosing long term happiness over instant gratification).

Now, we can consider the case of plagiarism from Socrates' point of view. Plagiarism (as was previously said), is the knowing act of stealing an idea and passing it off as one's own. Let us now look at why an individual plagiarizes in an academic setting. An individual plagiarizes, according to Socrates' reasoning, out of ignorance of what is best for him in the long run; he plagiarizes thinking he will receive a better grade on his paper as well as by saving time and face by not creating ideas of his own. While this may be true, the consequences outweigh the immediate gratification (good) in two principal ways: 1) Though saving time, when caught (as often is the case), the plagiarizer will be expelled from his class or possibly the university, thus, making his education (the greater good) suffer which will have future consequences later in his life (a case of immediate good leading to lasting pain). 2) Even if the individual is not caught, by plagiarizing he is not educating himself and will graduate without a proper understanding of how to think (the greater good according to Socrates) and this too will affect the quality and type of life he will live (immediate good causing lasting pain). Thus, if we are to pick the greater good or lesser pain, as Socrates suggests, we should, to be moral, avoid plagiarizing as it is essential to ensuring our long term happiness. Another brief way to look at plagiarism as being immoral is that it doesn't conform to Socrates' "unity of virtues" thesis. If we consider plagiarism a lack of self control and wisdom, and if self control and wisdom are virtues, then the plagiarizer must lack the other virtues of which morality consists of. Thus, the individual is not being moral by plagiarizing.

While Socrates' moral philosophy was based on what induced long-term happiness, Confucius believes that to be moral one must keep the natural order. By this, Confucius means we must obey the family and social obligations (biological basis of morality), follow "The Way" (or goodness) and traditions of the ancients--the result being a gentleman. Confucius said that "He who learns but does not think is lost" (Confucius 1989, pg.91). While plagiarism can come into conflict with family and social obligations as well as the traditions of the ancients, it's immorality can be most emphasized by its violation of "The Way." But, what is "The Way"/goodness? It can best be defined as courtesy (reciprocity: "do not do to others what you would not like yourself" [Confucius 1989, pg.162] ), breadth, good faith (trust), diligence (ability to succeed), and clemency (Confucius 1989, pg.210). The moral individual (gentleman) must not only keep his obligations and follow tradition, but he must also commit to following "The Way"--he may either be moral or immoral--there is no middle ground. Using this understanding, we can know see how plagiarism is immoral. Plagiarism primarily violates the "good faith" or trust found in "The Way", for if one plagiarize he is being deceitful and thus immoral (the professor assigned you to create your own paper). We can also say that it violates the courtesy found in "The Way," since by plagiarizing and violating "good faith," the plagiarizer will be scorned (which the gentleman avoids and also he does not act without "good faith" unless he wants that deceit reciprocated [courtesy]). The plagiarizer also has not been "diligent" in his task (he has been assigned to create his own paper and has not been successful), thus, again violating "The Way." So, to plagiarize with the intent to deceive is to violate "The Way" -- "to see what is right and not do it is cowardice" (Confucius 1989, pg.93) and immoral.

After examining plagiarism, using Socrates' and Confucius' reasoning, I wish to relate why think plagiarism is immoral requires the definition of my own moral philosophy. I believe that plagiarism/lying and stealing is wrong. I believe this because that is how I was brought up. I have been taught since infancy to believe that trust, honesty, diligence, self-interest, tradition, obligation to my family, and following "The Way" of the Lande family is moral. I have been taught that it is wrong to steal. I have not believed all that society and family has taught me but these things I believe with conviction to be moral. Though I may not be able to justify it transcendentally or through pure reason, I find these beliefs work not only for society but for me. These beliefs are also strikingly similar to those of Socrates, Confucius, and Judeo-Christian religion. Does this mean that I am a plagiarizer as I believe it wrong to steal? The eighth commandment is "thall shalt not steal," (Exodus 20:15). It is one of the most basic and influential of moral reasonings in the Western world (does this make everyone who takes this ideal a plagiarizer?). The fact that Confucius' "Way" and the Ten Commandments share a commonality (the last five commandments), does not mean Confucius plagiarized. "Do not do to others what you would not like yourself" (Confucius 1989, pg.162) is very similar to the New Testament's Golden Rule "Do unto others as you would have them do to you," but, I don't think anyone would assume that Jesus plagiarized Confucius' ideas (~600 year difference and small chances Jesus ever heard of Confucius. (He probably got this idea from his father!) Certain ideas are inherent to humanity--they reoccur because they seem to make sense, whether it is due to divine inspiration or the physiological structure of the brain. My beliefs share a commonality with many religions and philosophers, but, I do not consider myself a plagiarizer but, instead, an individual who has sifted through different moral thinking through socialization and my own thought process. I have assimilated the thoughts and ideas of others because those thoughts seem to agree with my thought about the workings of the world and my moral belief. I have mixed these thoughts together with my personal thought and have made it my own--I have gained knowledge. I am going to define my moral reasoning as the rough assimilation of Protagoras and Kant, but I use their reasoning (especially Kant's) because it already coincides with what I believe. My thinking is not limited to their moral reasoning , but includes many, e.g. I also agree with Socrates that it is moral to fulfill my self interest, but I have always believed this, even before hearing of Socrates.

Back to Kant and Protagoras--their basic assumption is that morality is an agreed upon set of constraints on human behavior to protect the species from themselves and ensure survival of the individual (I, in many aspects, agree with this, but I would also include an evolutionary and cultural explanation for the origins of morality--gene-culture co-evolution). I am also going to go with Kant's assumption that morality (as it should be defined) must be objective (universal) or reciprocated (though I still am grappling with whether that this must be true in all cases) and that it doesn't exist outside of the human experience (i.e. it is a human concept). Thus, if there are no humans, there is no morality. There is also a quote of Kant that has been important in how I think about morality: "Act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become universal law" (Kant 1981, pg. 30). With this rough definition of my moral philosophy I shall try to explain or reason why I feel plagiarism is immoral.

Plagiarism, as I see it, is immoral for two main reasons: its violation of a commitment and the principles of intellectual integrity, and its violation of the trust of the professor and classmates. By intellectual integrity I refer to the purpose of the University, not MSU in particular, but the purpose of higher education in general, as being the education of the mind in thought, creativity, science, and "practical wisdom" and the instillment of honor, honesty, virtue, and integrity into the university student. If this is the purpose of the University, it must be applied to all who enter the University, as by their attendance they have made a commitment to the development of intellectual integrity (that this is the actual intention for university attendance we can agree is subject to suspicion). If we are to use Kant's line of reason (which I tend to agree with), commitment must be kept by reason that if everyone else broke their commitments, society would be in shambles and that would be immoral or, rather, not in humanity's best interest. Thus we have a duty to keep our commitments. If an individual plagiarizes, he is breaking his commitment (which is immoral) to intellectual integrity by violating some of its prime principles, while at the same time is harming himself (I can't help but believe that to harm one's self is immoral both in terms of Socrates and as I think about it, as it fits with Kant's reasoning). The plagiarizer, by being deceitful and by stealing, breaks his commitment to intellectual integrity by not being honest, not holding up and developing his honor (a sense of ethical conduct) and integrity (the ability to be reliable). (I should note that even though I will not argue the full case that honor and integrity are moral, it is the mere fact that the commitment to their definitions was violated. It is this, that makes plagiarism immoral.) Plagiarism is immoral as it also is self-inflicted harm by the plagiarizer: if all individuals inflicted harm on themselves, humanity would not fair well and thus it would be immoral. By violating the part of intellectual integrity dealing with thought, creativity, and "practical wisdom" (that which Aristotle describes as being able to achieve what is the end and ranging from the obtaining of life's necessities, being able to relate to others, and obtaining the "good"), the plagiarizer not only breaks his commitment, but inflicts harm on himself. By plagiarizing, the individual does not train himself to think, which is necessary to ones ability to survive both in nature and in industrial society; the plagiarizer does not develop his own creativity which is a disadvantage that can consciously be prevented; by plagiarizing, the individual does not learn "practical wisdom" which will hinder him throughout life by preventing the attainment of his goals. Finally, plagiarism is immoral as it can cause the expulsion of the student from the university which is inherently harmful to the individual and if every student was expelled from the University, society would be harmed. I believe that self harm, by lack of knowledge and thought, is not only immoral because of the consequences if applied universally, but because, I like Socrates, believe that knowledge and thought are virtues. ( I want to comment that even if I were to lie or steal, that would not in fact mean that my actions or the similar actions of others, will in fact impact society or me in any relevant way. Kant's reasoning is just a way to reason one's morality--to know what is right and wrong.)

Honesty is also being sacrificed by plagiarizing, as the plagiarizer is being deceitful to his professor by not creating his own paper but instead by stealing another's. An individual must be honest, as once distrust and deceit become a part of society, it can no longer function healthily and if we define morality as constraints on human behavior in order to preserve society and the individual, dishonesty must be immoral. By plagiarizing, the other students in the class are being deceived too, as they write their papers in the good faith that their papers will be graded on their own insights and understanding of the assigned topic. By being dishonest with the class, the plagiarizer is immoral for the same reasons as above mentioned. I must then conclude, following this reasoning, that whatever is harmful to humanity's existence or that of its individuals (as they make up humanity) must be immoral. Following this reasoning, we can say that within our definition of morality, plagiarism is immoral.

Plagiarism is the knowing act of stealing another's ideas and passing those ideas on as your own with the intent to deceive and I think that it is safe to argue that it is immoral. Depending on ones moral philosophy we can determine the immorality of plagiarism. If we discuss Socrates, we see that his moral philosophy justifies as moral that which induces long term happiness to the individual. Following his reason, plagiarism is immoral, as it will incur harsh and long lasting punishment if the plagiarizer is caught (as dictated by university policy) and it will undermine his happiness if he suffers from lack of education because of his plagiarism (not learning to think). If we are to take Confucius' philosophy, we must call immoral all that undermines the whole or part of the natural order, in other words, violates ones natural obligations to family and state, traditions, and "The Way" /goodness. Thus we can say that plagiarism is immoral for its numerous violations of "The Way"/goodness which is required as part of the whole to be moral. My definition of morality (which is an assimilation of ideas) is that morality does not exist outside the human experience (has no transcendental origins or justifications) and is of biological origin (gene-culture co-evolution), that its purpose is the constraint of human behavior for the benefit of humanity and the individuals it is composed of, and that morality must be objective (though again I am still fuzzy on this part) if it is to function properly. Following this, since plagiarism consist of deceit which is detrimental to society, as well as other damaging effects, it must be, in my view, considered immoral.

Following this conclusion, I also believe that family, society, and especially the institution of education, have in general, let down its scholars. Plagiarism has become so widespread and tolerated, that it is almost too much work to eradicate. The result is sending a message to students that plagiarism is an issue of cleverness (who can avoid being caught) rather than morality. For this, I am saddened that higher standards of thought and morality are not enforced for the good of the scholar and society.




Plato. Translated by Martin Ostwasl, Edited and Introduced by Gregory Vlastos. 1956. Protagoras. Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Prentice Hall

Confucius. Translated by Arthur Waley. 1989. The Analects of Confucius. New York: Vintage Books- Divison of Random House, Inc.

King James Version, The Holy Bible.

Kant, Immanuel. Translated by James W. Ellington. 1993. Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals3rd Edition. Indianapolis, Indiana: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc.


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