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Analyzing Grade Inflators: Some Metaethical Issues


I start with a detailed but partial analysis of a case regarding grade inflation. The case is inspired by the discussion in Crumbley et al. (2010) and its elaboration in Roberts (2016). I supplement the case description by introducing certain facts that are not in the original discussion. The subsequent analysis is based on this enriched case description. I then raise a number of objections against my analysis. An important metaethical, methodological question emerges while responding to these objections. To what extent are characterizations of moral situations and their descriptions independent from moral commitments? Is there a neutral concept of moral relevance? I argue that we do not have a theory-neutral concept of moral relevance, and that case descriptions essentially presuppose moral commitments. From my moral perspective, as this perspective is reflected in the enriched case description I utilize, the original case description of grade inflation already involves utilizing the wrong moral perspective or theory.

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  1. “Student evaluations of teaching do not measure teaching effectiveness. Furthermore, they are influenced by several factors unrelated to teaching quality such as minority status, foreign accent and gender of instructors, and the discipline they are teaching. This makes their use by university administrators in decisions about hiring, salary increases, and promotions unfair and potentially illegal.” (p. 283).

  2. “One way that we might expect to see students following this consumerist approach would be by enrolling in easier courses in order to obtain high grades, while expending minimal effort. While our own estimates cannot test all components of the consumerist framework, the positive impact of Easy in the fixed effects results suggests that sections taught by instructors perceived as easier fill more quickly, as proposed in our second hypothesis.” (Brown & Kosovich 2015, p. 506).

  3. “… after the addition of weekly objective, rigorously developed MC tests and more precise grading rubrics, the distribution of final course grades revealed a downward shift. Whereas A was the original modal grade, now, A- is the modal grade, followed by B + , and the percentage of C grades has more than doubled. Bickes and Schim…found that adding objective grading rubrics to their nursing course decreased the percentage of A grades from 88 to 49% but more than doubled the percentage of C grades (7%-15%). Findings from this study suggest that the addition of precise rubrics and valid quality MC test in this graduate research course may have led to the downward shift in grades. Such distributions may be less inflated and more commensurate with student knowledge acquisition.” (White & Heitzler 2018, p. 76).

  4. (

  5. In discussion.

  6. The existence of genuine moral dilemmas is subject of ongoing debate. De Haan (2001) gives a good and concise presentation of this debate, ultimately reaching a conclusion with which I disagree. See also Norcross (1995).

  7. There is a further complication here I will not pursue beyond this brief note. What one should further discuss is whether these are cases of concealment that cause harm, even if they are cases of concealment. There is no doubt that there are instances of concealment which are not considered to cause harm (or perhaps cause more benefit than harm). I have not seen articles in applied ethics journals about the immorality of espionage or data security engineering, although both professions practice concealment. If concealment is not seen as causing harm and thus being morally questionable in all its instantiations, we then need an argument that concealment in a particular case causes harm (or more harm than benefit) before we can conclude that practicing it is morally problematic. The move from concealment to harm is not justifiable without further argumentation.

  8. Rescher (2015) is a very stimulating discussion of the concept of excellence.

  9. I cannot refrain from pointing out that the analysis of the concept of harm, characterizing interests without appealing to preconceived moral assumptions, and the epistemology of detecting the interests of others are some very important issues we are bypassing. There is prima facie evidence that students do not consider inflated grades as harming their interests. (Shaughnessy et al., 2004) The belief that we know others’ interest better than they do is a prime instance of paternalistic ethics, instances of which are widely discussed in the Ethics literature. Of course this problem also arises for other stakeholders in the case, such as parents and administrators.

  10. “The policy change followed the determination of a university committee that "it is desirable for Cornell University to provide more information to the reader of a transcript and produce more meaningful letter grades." Curbing grade inflation was not explicitly stated as a goal of this policy. Instead, the stated rationale was that "students will get a more accurate idea of their performance, and they will be assured that users of the transcript will also have this knowledge.” (Bar et al. 2009, p. 93–94 [italics mine]).

  11. Additional reasons for sidestepping ethics codes in moral evaluation is discussed in Schwartz (2000).

  12. Please keep in mind that John does not have to share the moral perspective from which I am performing this analysis. He can have moral beliefs based on, say, some deontological perspective, while Roberts and I execute our analyses from within a utilitarian framework. Or John might be miscalculating and consequently might have false beliefs about the moral properties of his potential actions.

  13. Please see the quotation from Swift et al. (2013) in Case 1*, Part C, (c) above.

  14. A more precise term in discussions of rule-based utilitarian approaches might be the notion of “conformance utility” developed in Feldman (1978).

  15. For the deontological-consequentialist distinction in Ethics, see Fidelity, roughly the duty to keep one’s promises, is one of the five fundamental moral duties according to Ross (1930).

  16. Feldman (1978) concisely discusses a number of these putative shortcomings.

  17. Is it possible that “does an act hurtful to others” is about action types rather than tokens? Since this is really not the main point of my essay, I will leave the answer to Mill scholars.

  18. See Frazier (1995) for why I consider the concept of making a moral difference more fundamental than the concept of moral relevance. I take facts as the instantiation of simple or complex properties and/or relations by individuals as in Armstrong (1978).

  19. I emphasize that this does not make me a moral subjectivist. One can consistently assert that what one considers to be morally relevant is determined by one’s moral theory while maintaining that only one of these theories is correct whether we know which one, or not.

  20. What I say here is about metaphysical constitution: what is constitutive of the fact that a given action instantiates a moral property like being obligatory in a specific situation.

  21. I say only “quite probable” because it is possible that Roberts will embrace the additional morally relevant facts in my description as morally relevant factors he missed. Alternatively I might discover, after all, that what I thought was morally relevant is not morally relevant. Given these epistemic possibilities, it could be that we are utilizing the same moral theory after all.

  22. Please keep in mind that what I call “my perspective or theory” need not be my theory. It is a theory which emulates certain aspects of Roberts approach (emphasis on doing harm) while departing from it with respect to the moral relevance of certain harms. I am not committed to this moral approach.

  23. This objection is based on the comments of an anonymous referee.

  24. I do wonder what the results of research focusing on the latter question would have been 150 years ago.

  25. Kauppinen (2014) is an interesting discussion of experimental philosophy.

  26. Chowning and Campbel (2009) has a concise definition of entitlement and proposes a metric for measuring it.

  27. Casanova et al. (1797, pp. 93–95) presents pertinent evidence as a participant-observer.


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Correspondence to Ümit D. Yalçın.

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Yalçın, Ü.D. Analyzing Grade Inflators: Some Metaethical Issues. J Acad Ethics (2023).

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