Plagiarism & the Seven Deadly Sins

I have been thinking about the relationship between plagiarism and the Seven Deadly Sins. Mainly, I am trying to generate distincly theological ways of speaking about plagiarism, and this was a first crack at it. Let me know your reactions.

Pride – Plagiarism is driven by the refusal of limitation. A student comes up against their own intellectual limits, the time allotted in a busy semester, etc., and, unwilling to accept limitation, compensates by deception.

Acts of plagiarism are little Towers of Babel, constructed and standing coram Deo as refusals of limitation. A healthy doctrine of creation reminds us that limitation is not evil but part and parcel of being made and not maker. In this sense, pride is the refusal to be what I am: created, finite and therefore limited.

There is honor in being God’s creature of course, but what honor we have is the honor given to us by God.  In plagiarizing we refuse God’s honor, and in pride we steal honor for ourselves.  Barth puts it this way: “The modesty about which man is sharply asked whether in his little steps or great, consists in a recognition of the fact that his honour is before God and comes from Him” (CD, III.4, p. 666).

Envy – Plagiarism is fed by desires for the possessions of another, namely the skills, abilities, or understanding that enables someone else to produce work I cannot. As Aquinas describes, “We grieve over a man’s good, in so far as his good surpasses ours; this is envy properly speaking, and is always sinful” (ST, II.2, 158,1). Envying the work of another, the plagiarizer takes the words and creations of another and (in varying degrees) passes it off as their own.

Sloth –  David Naugle describes sloth as

a distinctively spiritual or religious sin that demotes God’s role in our lives and replaces him enthusiastically with other things. It is a sin of spiritual lethargy and dejection. When we are in the throes of spiritual lethargy, God bores us or seems insignificant, whereas other loves capture our interest and attention, excite and energize us. . . . Slothful people forget church, avoid Scripture, refuse repentance, rarely pray, reject fellowship, don’t witness, shun service, deride duty, rebuff suffering, scorn theology, evade thought or meditation, and in general are repulsed by religion and the religious life. . . . Sloth, then, is a sin of omission in that it fails to find God supremely significant and attractive so as to pursue him enthusiastically (Reordered Love, Reordered Lives, p. 71).

The one who plagiarizes finds the academic tasks at hand unworthy of their own creative efforts. More importantly perhaps, they refuse to seek their ultimate good in God through those assignments. They reveal a week doctrine of the Spirit; they fail to appreciate the myriad ways in which the Spirit of God moves and works through what appear to be mundane responsibilities such as completing academic assignments.

Anger – Plagiarism is fed by anger, for the one who plagiarizes comes to believe that their professor has wronged them by creating an assignment they cannot fulfill according to their own abilities and constraints. Rather than work harder, seek help, or admit limitation, a  student deceives their professor and thereby sets themselves against them. As such, plagiarism is fundamentally a breakdown of the trust necessary for a learning community to flourish.

Avarice – Plagiarism, like avarice (greed), is the insatiable craving for more. Like the one whose life is taken over by the disordered desire of greed, the one who plagiarizes cannot be satisfied with the grade their work might deserve. Whatever grade one’s own work may have actually earned is not enough, the plagiarizer steals the work of another in order to grasp a higher grade.

Avarice is a vice that goes beyond the mere love of money. Avaricious people take pleasure in the consideration of themselves as the possessor of riches,” where riches denotes “possessions of which we are the ultimate masters” (Konyndyk, Glittering Vices, p. 112). Likewise, the plagiarizer desires a grade they have not earned in order that others (parents, peers, professors) would see them as possessors of “riches” that were never theirs.

As I have come to understand it (thank you David), the tradition has separated the carnal and spiritual vices, so while  there is something to be said for the relationship between plagiarism, “lust,” and “gluttony” I will keep them separate.

Gluttony – In Glittering Vices, Rebecka Konyndyk explains that gluttony “creeps in and a corrupts” the pleasures of eating until

“these pleasures dominate everything else that’s important. The vice degrades us into being mere pleasure seekers. . . . The main question we should be asking is not, “How much is too much?” but rather, “How dominated by the desire for this pleasure am I” (p. 141)?

The one who plagiarizes is consumed by their desire to spend time elsewhere than what the academic tasks at hand require. We might say that plagiarism is fed by what Aquinas called the “immodest desire” for things other than my academic tasks at hand. One’s gluttony for the pleasure of other pursuits leads to plagiarism.

Lust –  Like plagiarism, lust is secretive, hidden, and self-serving; it takes rather than gives.  St. John Chrysostom describes it as “self-indulgence.”  The one lusting “gathers in lust unto himself” (Homily on Matthew 5.27,28). Academic plagiarism and lust may seem worlds apart, but they serve each other, training the individual in patterns of secrecy, deception, and disordered desire.

12 thoughts on “Plagiarism & the Seven Deadly Sins

  1. Hey Kent,

    I just submitted my grades! It’s late so I want belabor any points.

    I think the most obvious vices to put plagiarism under are sloth and envy.

    In the tradition sloth is about misdirected love. It’s ultimately about our unwillingness to endure the demands of God’s love. When someone plagiarizes they fail to do the work that God has set before them and rely on the work of another. It’s like loving my wife by having you do all the dishes (something I invite you to do anytime, by the way :-).

    Envy has to do with wanting some quality of some other person that I lack and wanting that person to lack that quality. It assumes that the relevant quality is unsharable and that my worth is less than it could be because I lack that quality. Now, I think that envy is rarely present in most cases of plagiarism. Most students who plagiarize are not wishing that the person they are stealing info from did not possess that info. Rather they just hope their theft is not detected. But envy does occur in some plagiarism cases, but my guess is that it most often occurs at higher levels of scholarship.

    Lastly, it is perhaps important to note that the seven deadly sins (or as I prefer, the seven capital vices) are not meant to be exhaustive. That is, there are sins that fall outside the seven. I think plagiarism, in many cases though not all, may be one of these.

  2. One more thing. sorry. It’s also important, to the tradition, to keep the carnal vices and the spiritual vices separate. One reason for this (and I take it that this reason is part of your main point) is diagnostic. The desert fathers and those who continued this tradition were attempting to provide a sort of manual for those in leadership to help them provide the relevant diagnoses and remedies. One of the upshots of the tradition is that our moral life is as complicated as our physical life. Medical doctors do us a disservice when they misdiagnose our physical maladies and so do spiritual doctors. It’s one of the hallmarks of those enamored with the fact-value distinction to flatten-out the value realm while leaving the fact realm as robust as possible. But the tradition in which the seven finds its home will have nothing of this. Our moral lives our rich and multi-textured. Hence, it’s important to keep the vices like gluttony and lust on the carnal side while of course noting that they all spring from the mother of all vices-pride.

    • Very helpful comments David. I was hoping you would stop in and contribute from your expertise in this area.

      I am curious, what do you think it would it look like for a Christian University to talk about these issues with its students? In what settings would it be most effective? When? Etc.

  3. Plagiarism is also “bearing false witness.” Or simply, “lying.” As well as theft.

    By the way, plagiarism is almost impossible to prevent, in take-home papers, in the age of the Internet.

    One of the reasons I stopped teaching at universities.

  4. Kent,

    Those are great questions. I am not at all sure how to answer them. Part of the problem is that there are so many different models of the good life–even at xian universities–that a discussion of the seven won’t make as much sense as we would like.

    After teaching a lengthy section this past semester on the tradition of the seven I had to remind the students over and over again that we are talking about vices and virtues and not discrete unrepeated actions. They had a hard time seeing how itty-bitty sins could really lead to big sins (they act like they understand it for a time but their papers and comments seem to reveal that they do not).

    So perhaps the best venue is an ethics course where the different ways of understanding ethics are explicitly considered. I am partial to McIntyre and Anscombe’s claim that the foundations of ethics have been removed (by the way, for an amazing new book on this same theme see Talbot Brewer’s _The Retrieval of Ethics_), that the virtue tradition is where to look to reestablish those foundations, and that a lot of work in other areas needs to be done to even begin to complete the job.

    What are your thoughts here? I have a feeling that you’ve thought about this a bit and have some interesting ideas.

    Your post, Kent, is a very interesting one, and I apologize for not saying so at the start.

  5. Kent invited me to share a few comments. I think Kent’s analysis is rather unique and provides an excellent perspective. I am not sure how it fits, but I wonder if there isn’t a more pragmatic reason as to why students plagiarize and that is out of ignorance. I wonder if we do an adequate job of teaching how to use resources appropriately. Students often find a good source which says what they want to say and don’t know how to paraphrase it, so they stitch it into the paper and don’t quote it. This is emphasized in Academic Research and Writing, but it is hard to break these habits. I realize that many students often procrastinate and as a result, try to find a quick way to finish the project and hope they can fly under the radar, so to speak. It is definitely a problem and with access to so many resources on the internet, it will continue to be a challenge. I wonder if a chapel series or something on the seven sins might be a way to bring the discussion to a more visible level. Thanks again for engaging the discussion.


  6. What I finally began considering, just before I quit? Tentatively accepting that student’s papers were going to be a cut-and-paste job; but accepting that in the Internet age, that was going to be inevitable. And then … turning this to good use.

    Mere paraphrase would help; but would not change the essential borrowing. So I began entertaining the hypothesis that most of us are living on the accumlated knowledge of others in any case; why not accept this? And find creativity in the new post-modern genre: what was known in Modern Art, by French terms like “Pastiche.” Or “assemblage.” Assembling old parts … but in new ways?

    If you’re not willing to do this: many universities now have programs, or even a staffer, whose job it is to take a suspect paper, and then search the internet for the source. But I doubt these are very successful. I never used these services myself; and my own efforts to do this on my own, were not too successful.

    So: “post modern pastiche”? Even ask them to use five sources; with attributions. Then assemble them in their own original way?

    Postmodern Pastiche.

    [Teaching the Deadly Sins is good too though. What America needs more than anything, particularly, are millions of sermons on … Gluttony. Which can be generalized, by examining gluttony, excessive consumption, of all sorts of different consumables.]

  7. Pingback: Flotsam and jetsam (12/27) « scientia et sapientia

  8. Pingback: 2 Links on Pastoral Ministry and Plagiarism « A Chorus of Echoes

  9. Interesting analysis of plagiarism. In one sense, any complex sins can probably be rooted in the seven deadly sins. Your analysis would apply to “pure” plagiarism–that is, where a student truly copies another source and chooses not to reference it.

    As Norris Friesen noted though, there are other more pragmatic, or even more innocent reasons for plagiarism. Sometimes, students who are caught “plagiarizing” might have been caught because they:

    1. have not been sufficiently taught how to footnote or reference a source;
    2. do not understand what is considered sufficient paraphrasing;
    3. come from cultures that have a broader understanding of ownership of knowledge.

    Perhaps it would be helpful to distinguish between intentional and unintentional plagiarism?

    • Felix –

      Yes, you are certainly right that there exist various levels or kinds of plagiarism. I typically see them as either (1) plagiarism of ignorance or laziness (I either didn’t know what counted as plagiarism or didn’t cite diligently enough – what you call “unintentional” plagiarism) or (2) plagiarism of deception (I am taking the work of another and intentionally passing it off as my own – what you call “intentional” plagiarism). The later form is what I was trying to reflect upon in this experiment. I like you terminology of “intentional” and “unintentional”. Thanks for your thoughts.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s