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Markkula Center for Applied Ethics

Rise of ChatGPT Highlights Need for Ethics Curriculum

Students in a classroom taking an exam.

Students in a classroom taking an exam.

Sarah Cabral

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Sarah Cabral is a senior scholar for business ethics with the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University. Views are her own.


ChatGPT, a pre-trained generative chatbot, has raised flags among educators, since the technology can create essays that are difficult to distinguish from what a student would actually write. As a teacher myself, I eagerly took this test created by the New York Times and admittedly was duped. 

What complicates the issue for educators looking to detect ChatGPT text is that students can instruct the chatbot to include spelling and grammatical errors. They can also command that ChatGPT take on a particular voice, such as that of a sophomore in high school, and add more detail and vivid language to earlier iterations. 

How should schools respond?

While some school districts are banning the technology, ChatGPT is not going away and will remain accessible for savvy students. Sam Altman, CEO of ChatGPT-maker OpenAI, has said the company will try to help educators detect AI plagiarism, but he also recognizes that “a determined person will get around [these techniques]." If the content generated by ChatGPT can be flagged or watermarked, then teachers will be able to identify plagiarized material. Turnitin, the company that has been selling software to detect the originality of student work for over twenty years, says it will soon offer a service to schools that will identify ChatGPT text. However, there is no doubt in my mind that students are currently using ChatGPT to cheat and not getting caught. AI technology is also likely to outpace our best investigative efforts.

Not everyone will use ChatGPT to cheat

It is not the case that every student is using ChatGPT, and what interests me the most is the reason students give for not cheating, even when they can get away with it. As an ethics teacher, I provide opening questions for my students to discuss on the first day of class. One of those questions is, “If you knew you were not going to get caught, would you cheat on an exam? Why or why not?” Responses are always split down the middle with half of the class saying “yes” and the other half “no”. Students’ reasons for not cheating are based on the rationale that they would not feel good about being dishonest and, conversely, would feel good about being honest.

Here are some examples:

  • I would not cheat on an exam even when I could because I derive a lot of personal satisfaction from my academic success. At a base level, I feel good when I perform well on an exam or a project, because I get the chance to prove my worth through my skill.
  • I would not cheat. I have told lies before and learned that how it makes me feel is not worth it.
  • I would not. And I am not just saying that. If I got an amazing grade on the exam it just wouldn't feel like I earned it. It would not feel right.
  • I do not think I would. If I cheat then I'm proving to myself I'm not good enough to get a good grade without cheating.
  • No because It wouldn’t feel right to me that I cheated on something that I didn’t work hard for.
  • For me, I would not cheat since it comes from a perspective of doubting my worth and emphasizing the idea of how incapable I am of doing my own thinking…[Cheating] would not feel as rewarding as trying my hardest.
  • Sure, cheating seems convenient at the moment, but I would most likely think of the decision I just made and regret it for some time. Therefore, I'd rather not break my integrity whenever I could. 
  • Even if I determine to cheat and get high scores without being caught, my conscience and moral judgement will torture me to death every night on my bed.
  • I would feel bad and it would eat at me until I had a mental breakdown. 

The impact of moral education

What these student responses show is the impact of moral education. Students will only feel badly about acting dishonestly if they have been taught that dishonesty is wrong. Students become honest people by practicing honesty and feeling good about it. This understanding of moral decision making is known as virtue ethics. Aristotle, the philosopher most closely associated with the virtue ethics framework, wrote in Nicomachean Ethics that “ is no small matter whether one habit or another is cultivated in us from early childhood; on the contrary, it makes a considerable difference, or, rather, all the difference” (Book II.I). Since moral virtues are formed by habit, developing the right habits early on means that one is more likely to become a good person.

Many, but not all, students obtain a moral education from their parents. For those children and young adults that are left to figure it out on their own, they will likely not be skilled at talking and thinking about moral values. Students should receive a moral education at school; after all, they spend the majority of their waking lives at school or school-sponsored activities. Unfortunately, schools are generally no longer prioritizing an education in ethics. I first started caring about this trend around a decade ago after reading David Brooks’ New York Times op-ed, “If It Feels Right.” The article is based on research conducted by Notre Dame sociologist Christian Smith and explains that adults have failed young people by not giving them the language and categories necessary to consider moral obligations that challenge individualism and relativism. We are preparing students for college, but are we preparing them to be honest human beings? With the rise of AI technologies causing schools to revisit academic integrity policies, it is time we start teaching students that and why integrity matters in the first place.


Feb 6, 2023