We’ve heard a lot about ChatGPT and its wonders and gaping pitfalls. Among the dangers it poses is academic cheating and corner-cutting. It’s no secret that the new bot makes Comp 1 a whole lot easier for a typical incoming freshman. Some universities and schools are banning the AI system outright. Teachers wonder how they will be able to discern plagiarism. Other voices chide the alarmists and call for students and teachers to use ChatGPT as a classroom aid.
But one area that has gone a bit underdiscussed in the conversation is ethics. Dr. Anthony Bradley of The King’s College tweeted this a few days ago,
Students are writing papers using AI. Colleges are scrambling to combat it. We should also talk about moral issues: what type of moral values does a student have who would use AI to produce a paper, and turn it in as their own work, without their conscience being seared?”
ChatGPT raises logistical challenges for teachers and institutions, but what will it mean for students’ integrity and virtue formation? This isn’t something that gets asked as much.
Wisdom From Socrates
The ancient philosopher Socrates thought that the practice of writing would come with consequences. This sounds strange to us. Today, older generations lament Gen-Z’s aversion to the written word. If only we could get the youth to read at all! But Socrates knew that with every new technology, something is either compromised or lost entirely. In his generation, in which the oral culture reigned, you had to remember and store your knowledge in your own mind. Access to the written word was scarce. Jesus and the early church also lived in an oral culture where communal storytelling and shared history was everything. Writing allows us to store our knowledge on the page or in the ledger, diminishing our need mentally package everything. We can reference our knowledge in an external locale. This leads to more information at our fingertips, but less of an ability to store it internally if we aren’t wary. (I think this is way truer for digital technology than reading words on a page.)
I for one love the technology of the written word, but Socrates’ insight applies to a range of technological developments. When you get cars, you lose horse-drawn wagons. Is that it? Well, you also lose a sense of locality. You don’t have to limit yourself to the neighborhood block. A luxury, certainly, but it makes it easy to avoid your neighbor and harder to feel oriented by place and community. When you get email, you lose the personal touch of a handwritten letter. When you get cell phones, you lose a chunk of in person communication. When you get Google Maps, you lose the freedom to get to Wal-Mart by yourself. If all this tech were to get stripped away, many of us would be reduced to helpless infants!
When you get AI and ChatGPT, you don’t only lose the capacity to memorize, but to articulate, argue, express, and think. It also offers students a shortcut that bypasses honesty and maturity.
Prohibiting access to ChatGPT will be tough for educators. So perhaps they need to refocus the issue in terms of morals and excellence. Do you want to be the kind of person who depends so much on AI that you can’t think for yourself? What’s the point of a college education if a bot does your homework for you? And how will these choices affect your future habits as a spouse, employee, boss, and friend?
Honesty matters in academia, largely because academic conduct says a lot about character and who a person will grow into over time. Handing yourself over to technological ease might feel like power and progress, but it is weakening minds and diminishing freedom—freedom to be the kind of people who can learn, know, and love without the aid of the machine.