Lead an ethical debate about accidental guilt

THEOLOGIANS OFTEN DIVIDE sins into two categories: sins of commission (when we do bad things) and sins of omission (when we fail to do good things). Perhaps there’s a third category — call them sins of inadvertence. Or, to paraphrase William Shakespeare, some people are prone to wrongdoing while others have wrongdoing thrust upon them. EthicDilemmaCheating

Imagine, for example, that a clerk at an airport food court gives you too much change, and you don’t notice until you’ve boarded your next flight. You haven’t intentionally done anything wrong and you’re not quite sure how to make the situation right, so you’re caught in an ethical dilemma.

Such dilemmas are as common to young people as they are to adults. As your Boy Scouts and Venturers take halting steps toward adulthood, you can use these situations to explore the intricacies of ethical living. Here’s a story to get you started.

The Dilemma
Rashid Newberry is a solid B student at Washington High School, and he works hard for every good grade he gets. He does all his homework, he actually studies in study hall and he stays after class when he needs extra help. His studiousness has impressed more than one teacher, including Janelle Vivian, who recruited him to be her aide this year. In that role, he copies handouts, helps with attendance, cleans the chalkboard and even assigns students to groups for projects. Sitting at Miss Vivian’s desk during her lunch period, he can see himself becoming a teacher one day.

Unfortunately, one day he also sees a copy of the pop quiz Miss Vivian plans to give his class the following day — answers and all. At first, he only half-realizes what he is looking at, but by the time he realizes what he’s seeing, he has read the whole quiz, which covers a topic he hasn’t mastered. Although he doesn’t memorize the answers, he certainly knows what to study that night. He can’t unsee the quiz, so what should he do?

For Discussion
Begin the discussion with a general exploration of academic dishonesty. Discuss these questions with your Scouts or Venturers:

  • When it comes to schoolwork, how do you define cheating?
  • What rules does your school have about cheating?
  • Are there degrees of cheating? For example, is it worse to cheat on a final exam than on a pop quiz?
  • Where do you draw the line between getting a friend to help you with your homework and having a friend do your homework for you?
  • Are there cases in which cheating is OK? What if the material is too hard? What if you have several major projects due on the Monday after an all-weekend Scout/Venturing trip?

Next, discuss these questions about Rashid’s situation:

  • Rashid didn’t look for the pop quiz; he just came across it. Is that cheating?
  • Does it matter that the paper he found showed both the questions and the answers?
  • Does it matter that he struggles with the topic of the pop quiz?

Rashid’s dilemma has two parts: what to do about studying for and taking the pop quiz, and what to do about confessing to seeing the pop quiz. To keep the discussion focused, talk about each part separately.

Studying for and taking the pop quiz
Rashid has several choices here. He could study for the quiz and try to get a good grade. He could avoid studying for the quiz but still try to get a good grade. He could avoid studying for the quiz and skip over the questions he remembers seeing. He could not take the quiz and accept a zero. He could level the playing field by telling his friends what he saw.

  • Which of these actions would be the fairest to Rashid? Which would be the fairest to the other students?
  • Would any of these actions make the situation worse?
  • Can you think of other actions that Rashid could take? How would they be fair or unfair?

Telling (or Not Telling) Miss Vivian
Again, Rashid has several choices: He could not tell Miss Vivian — after all, he didn’t memorize the quiz answers. He could tell Miss Vivian and face the consequences outlined in the school’s academic code of conduct. Or he could wait until after the pop quiz and tell her only if he gets a good grade (reasoning that, if he gets a bad grade, his inadvertent cheating wouldn’t matter).

  • Which of these actions would be the most ethical? What are the positive and negative aspects of each?
  • Would any of these actions make the situation worse?
  • Can you think of other actions that Rashid could take? How would they be ethical or unethical?


  1. Rashid did not yet cheat. There is no such thing as cheating inadvertently. Cheating is an intentional act of doing something counter to morals and/or rules and/or norms. From the way the story is told, the reader must assume that Rashid did not do anything that the teacher would consider wrong (like looking through desk drawers or folders that are off limits) but that he simply saw the quiz and answers on the desk and was wondering if the paper was something that he needed to copy. Rashid has not yet broken any rules or done something morally wrong or out of the norm for his responsibilities. His status of cheating depends on what he does next.
    The teacher, Miss Vivian, left the pop quiz and answers where it was expected that Rashid or any student would find them and read them. If the teacher did that intentionally then the morally wrong and rule breaking act was performed by the teacher.
    If Miss Vivian’s act and Rashid’s act are not dishonest then things can be fairly repaired. Since Rashid is in a position of trust, Rashid’s first action after he recognizes what has happened, must be to immediately tell Miss Vivian what happened. Any other action, even delaying telling Miss Vivian, leans toward cheating. Miss Vivian is in the position to offer a remedy to the problem that she caused. The remedy she offers must be fair to Rashid and to the other students but is not important to discerning whether Rashid did something wrong or not. If she offers no remedy or it is not fair to all then she causes another problem. If you had continued the story along these lines, after Rashid explained to Miss Vivian what happended, what remedy did Miss Vivian offer Rashid that is fair to Rashid and to the other students?

  2. The last paragraph states Rashid could not tell Miss Vivian. I disagree. If this boy is as honest as the scenario depicts along with what appears to be a good and trusting relationship with his teacher, then he should be able to tell his teacher exactly what happened as soon as possible that day. The teacher, making the mistake of leaving the test and answers out in the open in the first place, should alleviate any perceived accidental cheating on the student’s part by praising his honesty and then creating another test for the student to take.

  3. The teacher shouldn’t have put the test and the answers out in the open like that. That would’ve been the best thing. The next best thing is for Rashid to honestly explain the situation.

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