Utilitarianism: Plagiarism Issues

Catherine Crockett, Whitney Featherston, Morgan Wheeler


Student Materials


Ethics background required: Familiarity with Virtue Ethics and Deontological frameworks are needed.

Subject matter referred to in this lab: plagiarism in a mathematics course

Placement in overall ethics curriculum:

Time required:

Learning objectives:

Ethical dilemma or issue to be considered: professional ethics, intellectual property

The ethical dilemma here continues to be “what constitutes plagiarism?” This lab will consider the use of paid homework solutions in light of the different ethical frameworks discussed so far.

Preparation required:


If you choose to have students review outside of class

In class part

Guide for Instructors

Lesson plan

Pre-discussion assignment

Note: This can also be done along with the rest of the lab in class.

Virtue Ethics

What are some of the challenges of using the virtue ethics framework? (Let students answer, but here are 2 obvious problems)

Could use the follow questions as ethical tests based on the virtue ethics framework:

Deontological Framework

Deontological framework is built on a set of rules or principles. The deontological ethics framework asks the question “does this decision break any of the rules or laws” to determine what is right. The main benefit of this framework is that it is more rigid and avoids some of the subjectivity of other frameworks.

What are some of the challenges of using the deontological framework? (Let students answer, but here are three possible answers)

Could use the follow questions as ethical tests based on the framework:


When we used each of these frameworks, the evaluation was completed by an individual or a small group. Often, a dilemma must be decided for a larger population or the decision may impact a larger group – including some not involved in the decision process. An individual, may disagree with a certain societal belief (or value), but still follow the related rule or decision so that the society will function as well as possible.


The next ethical framework that we will consider, utilitarianism, is useful for considering ethical dilemmas that affect a large group of people.

Activity (To be completed in class)

  1. Introduce the concepts of utilitarianism and stakeholders: (read/summarized by instructor)

    To evaluate a dilemma employing utilitarian ethics, one would look at which solution produces the most amount of utility, which can be measured by happiness, good, benefits, etc. to the stakeholders. Stakeholders are all the parties or individuals that would be affected by the decision. A common example in this age of autonomous vehicles considers whether, if the dilemma arose, a vehicle should be programmed to hit a school bus or a single car. The stakeholders would definitely be those in both vehicles, but also could be extended family, the car manufacturer, the members of the school that the school bus serves etc. The greater good (or lesser evil) would probably be to hit the single car because it would affect fewer people.

    Here is another example that involves a doctor and several patients. There are five ill patients in a hospital who desperately need organ transplants; however, there are no available organs. By chance, a healthy traveler comes in for a check-up and happens to be a match for each of the five patients. Assuming that there would be no legal repercussions, the doctor could kill the traveler and use his organs to save the 5 lives. The stakeholders would be each of the patients and their families. From a strictly utilitarian perspective, the right thing to do could be to kill the one healthy person in order to save the five, because this option brings about the greatest utility (or happiness) despite causing instrumental harm. You can see that utilitarianism also needs to be used cautiously!

  2. Review with the students this set of questions that could be used to evaluate a solution using utilitarianism.

    • Who will be affected by this decision? (who are the stakeholders?)

    • Who benefits from this decision?

    • Who will be harmed by this decision?

    • Do the benefits outweigh the harms?

    • What are all the long-term and short-term consequences? Brox (2014)

    • Does this option do less harm than the alternatives? “Ethics and Statistics” (n.d.)

  3. Ask students about another scenario to ensure they understand utilitarianism before moving forward.

    One example would be this: Imagine that the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency gets wind of a plot to set off a dirty bomb in a major American city. Agents capture a suspect who, they believe, has information about where the bomb is planted. Is it permissible for them to torture the suspect into revealing the bomb’s whereabouts?

    • Students should recognize that the stakeholders are the CIA, the bomber, and the city members. From a utilitarian perspective, students should conclude that yes, this is permissible, because it would result in maximum good (the safety of everyone) despite causing instrumental harm to one person. You should mention that there could be other solutions that bring more happiness. “Calculating Consequences: The Utilitarian Approach” (2014)

    A less violent example would be a family of 10 where most members really want a dog. One member of the family is allergic to dogs. One member of the family believes that he/she will have the burden of responsibility for the dog and doesn’t know if he/she can handle it. Who are the stakeholders? From a utilitarian perspective, should the family get the dog?

    • Students should recognize the stakeholders as the family members and potentially the dog. A utilitarian evaluation would be to get the dog, but perhaps make a plan to divide the work and get allergy shots for the allergic family member.
  4. Have students get into groups to complete the activity and pass out the student handout.

  5. Ask the students to answer question 1.

    • Ask students to discuss in their groups how to complete the assignment in a way that brings about the most happiness for the most people.

    • Note that happiness might be from being able to do no work (so the work goes on one person while the rest can relax) or it can involve getting the best grade (so they all work together, or one group in the classroom does the work and everyone gets credit for it, etc.) Differnt stakeholders may define happiness differently.

  6. Have students share their answers and their rationale with the rest of the class.

  7. Assign different frameworks to different groups (virtues, deontology, and utilitarianism) and ask them to complete question 2 using their assigned framework.

    Have them argue whether the solutions given are ethical or not according to their assigned ethical framework. Discuss the value of using multiple ethical frameworks to evaluate a solution to an ethical dilemma.

Reflection (to be completed as homework if desired)

Possible reflection questions

  1. According to what was said in class, how are ethics different from personal values?

    • Possible answer: Ethics are rules or beliefs that are created based on societal values. Individual persons may have conflicts with them but they help in making a society function smoothly
  2. Why is it helpful to consider multiple ethical frameworks when faced with an ethical dilemma?

    • Possible answer: Sometimes different frameworks encourage different solutions or sometimes a particular framework is more helpful than another. Multiple frameworks help us think more robustly about the issue at hand.


To test students’ understanding of utilitarianism, present a scenario and have them analyze it through utilitarian ethics. You can make your own example, or use one like this:

A company can send an advertising email to millions of recipients. Approximately 1 in 100,000 people buy the product in response to this email, but the company still makes a profit. Evaluate, from a utilitarian perspective, whether it is right or wrong to send spam emails. Be sure to include the stakeholders as well as the positive and negative effects on utility for each party.


Brox, J. 2014. “6 Questions to Ask Yourself When Confronted with Ethical Issues.” Refresh Leadership Blog. http://www.refreshleadership.com/index.php/2014/01/6-questions-confronted-ethical-issues/.

“Calculating Consequences: The Utilitarian Approach.” 2014. Markkula Center for Applied Ethics. https://www.scu.edu/ethics/ethics-resources/ethical-decision-making/calculating-consequences-the-utilitarian-approach/.

“Ethics and Statistics.” n.d. Penn State. https://online.stat.psu.edu/statprogram/book/export/html/580.

“Making Ethical Decisions: Things to Ask Yourself.” 2014. Josephson Institute of Ethics. https://blink.ucsd.edu/finance/accountability/ethics/ask.html.

Quinn, Michael J. 2014. Ethics for the Information Age. Pearson Boston, MA.