Markkula Center of Applied Ethics

Between a Rock and a Hard Place

In your group of friends, you are a natural leader.

You and a group of your friends have been studying for a final exam in the room in which the exam will take place. This is a course you and your friends like, in part because you really like and respect the teacher of the class who has gone all out to make the course a really good one.

You finish studying just a little early and decide that you have time to go have lunch and play a little joke on the teacher. You decide, pretty much jointly, to write a bunch of the formulas that are part of the subject matter for the exam on a side black board in the classroom. You put the formulas down on the board and then surround them with a bunch of other writing. Your idea is to get back to the class before the teacher arrives, wait for her to notice the formulas, laugh a little, and then erase them before the exam starts.

But you get delayed at lunch and by the time you and your friends get back the exam has already started. You are horrified to realize that the teacher hasn't noticed the formulas on the side board and that they are still there while the class takes the test. You panic a little when you realize that the formulas you've written on the board are indeed on the test. You freeze and do nothing.

The exam ends. The teacher collects the exams and you leave the room.

What is the ethical thing for you to do now?

You do not know that as the teacher gets ready to leave the room, she notices all the formulas on the side board. She believes that someone or some group in the class has cheated on the test. She talks to the department chair and sends a letter to all the students in the class that this has happened, that she will not file final grades until those who have been part of this step forward and take responsibility for cheating. You and the group meet together to decide what to do. Three of the five members of the group don't want to step forward. No one else in the class knows who wrote the formulas on the board and the three believe no harm can come if you all hang tough.

What is the ethical thing for you to do now? Do you do it?

This case was written by Thomas Shanks, S.J., Executive Director of the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics.

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