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.