It was my first year as a college professor, and I (Kent) was halfway through a large stack of essays when I thought, “This one doesn’t sound quite right.” It was not that the essay was terrible but that it was way too good, and inconsistently so—I noted that the quality of the prose subtly shifted between the introduction and the middle part of the essay. My idealistic vision of my students was keeping it at bay, but a thought was nagging at me, “Could this paper be plagiarized?”1

Two weeks later I sat across from that student to discuss his paper. When given the opportunity he quickly confessed: 90 percent of the paper was plagiarized from various websites and he concealed the plagiarism by changing a few words here and there. He failed the course, but as we sat across from each other, his academic progress was not my chief concern. A more delicate conversation pressed for attention, a conversation not unlike one between physicians and their sick patients. Plagiarism was merely the symptom. We needed to talk about the underlying sickness: the disordered desires of his heart.2

When our students plagiarize, we are shown a unique window into their lives and hearts. Plagiarism provides teachers at Christian institutions with an opportunity (one among many) to help our students mature and grow in their relationship with Christ. As we shall illustrate, because the root cause of plagiarism may differ from case to case and student to student, we must be aware that plagiarism has no simple and uncomplicated source.

I. Plagiarism on the Rise

In a recent poll by the Pew Research Center in conjunction with the Chronicle of Higher Education, college presidents report a 55 percent increase in plagiarism in the last ten years. Some people even make a decent living out of this stat. Writing under a pseudonym, Ed Dante claims he makes $66,000 a year writing papers for undergraduate and graduate students. He writes on everything from literature to public administration, history to theology. Dante says, “I live well on the desperation, misery, and incompetence that your educational system has created.”3

But is the problem really the system? Perhaps the problem is not primarily or most importantly the educational system but the disordered desires in the hearts of students.4 Simply said, many students love wrongly; they suffer—as humans always have—from disordered hearts. Plagiarism is not the only symptom of a disordered heart, but it is a distinctly academic one that provides us, as professors, a unique angle to address the more fundamental issues of the heart. Thus, we suggest that while addressing the problem of plagiarism will likely include reforms to the educational system, a distinctly Christian response will also focus (maybe primarily) on the heart of the student. Doing so requires that we name plagiarism for what it really is: a specifically academic instance of desiring something in the wrong way.

Of all the evils we could talk about, why focus on plagiarism? Someone might say that plagiarism is like a gateway drug because it leads to more addictive and destructive actions—“Don’t plagiarize because you might eventually find yourself addicted to pornography, fudging on your taxes, cheating on your wife, et cetera,” they might claim. This is not our argument. Instead, we suggest that plagiarism is not so much a gateway drug as a window for the professor and student to access the various beliefs, desires, and loves that give rise to plagiarism. Plagiarism is merely a symptom of a disordered heart; the patterns of desiring wrongly which gave rise to plagiarism are the real issue. If we focus only on the symptom–plagiarism–the student misses the opportunity for becoming attentive to the power of those desires to surface in non-academic matters: relationships, finances, sexuality, civic participation, et cetera. It is not that this “small” sin leads to “greater” sins (as the gateway drug theory might suggest) but that plagiarism hints at the destructive potential of a disordered heart.

Plagiarism thus provides a unique opportunity for professors to speak into the lives of students. We engage our students in one of the many roles they occupy: sons and daughters, sisters and brothers, friends, employees, boyfriends and girlfriends. We encounter them as students, so our relationship with them is unique and thereby offers unique windows into their lives and hearts. Every role in our students’ lives presents them with daily opportunities to act well or poorly, virtuously or viciously. Being a student is no exception. The issue of plagiarism, although not the most heinous crime a person can commit, is a wrong that is tailor-made for students. As Christian professors, we have a crucial part to play in assisting them to virtuously fulfill their role as students, to flourish. Such flourishing, we suggest, begins with a rightly ordered heart.

II. Heart’s Desires

It has been our experience that Christians generally care about their heart because Jesus said they should (e.g., Matt. 5:27–29, 6:21, 12:33–35, 13:14–16, 15:17–19, 19:7–9). However, the heart is often overlooked in Christian morality. Instead, we manage outward behavior and generate rules to regulate problematic actions. In other words, we treat symptoms while the underlying sickness goes unaddressed. And there is another reason that Christian morality will sometimes shift its focus away from the heart: we lack helpful ways to name what is going on in the heart. In other words, we don’t know how to shed light on the real problems that give rise to destructive, sinful behaviors, especially in classroom matters. What does the heart have to do with writing papers and taking tests? Here is what we need: nuanced ways of diagnosing the conditions of the human heart that give rise to academic evil.

There is a long—often neglected in Protestant circles—tradition of doing just that: the Seven Deadly Sins or Seven Capital Vices. The Seven Capital Vices identify habits of the heart that ultimately destroy us, and this rich tradition can be used to generate a distinctly Christian angle from which to address the issue of plagiarism and, more deeply and significantly, the heart of the Christian student. This approach assumes a theology of education and a theological understanding of our role as Christian educators; Christian education is formational and we, as educators, are therefore in the formation business. Rightly fulfilling that vocation requires us to take on different roles, one of which is the role of spiritual physician.5 Specifically related to plagiarism, we must be aware of the possible causes lest we misdiagnose our patients/students.

The key is wise diagnosis: as physicians we do our students a disservice if we treat each instance of plagiarism in the exact same way. If our goal is formation in the image of Christ—that is, human flourishing and spiritual maturity—then we must carefully discern the roots from which each individual case of plagiarism springs. Wise diagnosis requires a language for naming the conditions of our students’ hearts, and the Seven Capital Vices offers us that language so we can carry out that task with the nuance and skill of good physicians.

In this approach, the focus is not on the observable act, the plagiarism itself, but on the desire (or love) of the heart from which the act arises. For example, sloth is one of the Seven Capital Vices, but you don’t go around slothing. Instead, sloth names a habit of the heart that gives rise to any number of seriously destructive acts. And the same could be said for the other vices. Rightly identifying the cause of plagiarism is the first step toward rightly providing the appropriate, fitting remedy.6

Surely not everyone that plagiarizes does so because they fall prey to every vice. Instead, by examining plagiarism from the perspective of each vice we hope to reveal the myriad ways in which a student’s heart has the potential to become disordered and how that disordered heart finds plagiarism to be an act that comes naturally. By exploring plagiarism in terms of each vice we hope that educators and students are better equipped to diagnose the issues of the heart that underlie this academic evil.

III. Capital Vices

First, plagiarism can be fueled by vainglory, a twisted desire for recognition.7 Vainglory, like all the vices, has its roots in pride. A vainglorious heart seeks praise from others without meriting that praise. We have both experienced it: students come up against their intellectual limits, an onslaught of deadlines in a busy semester, or the ability to stay awake long enough to finish an assignment, and because they are unwilling to accept those limitations and their desire for recognition is great, they compensate by deception.

For example, consider the student I (Kent) mentioned at the beginning. When we talked about his paper, he said that he couldn’t keep up with the challenges and demands of his life. For him, plagiarism seemed to be the only way to maintain his reputation and self-esteem in the face of time and energy limitations. The limitations experienced by this student were seen as an obstacle to his heart’s desire. The thing sought—praise of others—became so important that he saw his limitations of energy, time, and knowledge as bad. What he wanted was the recognition that comes with good grades without having what good grades signify: actual knowledge or understanding. He might well have said, “Just give me the approval, even though I do not have the features that merit it.”

My student sought to overcome his limitations by deception rather than allowing his limitations to direct his gaze to the One who is without limit. A healthy theology of creation reminds us that limitation is not evil but part of being made and not maker. As finite creatures, we experience limitation in ways God does not. God calls these limitations “good” (Gen. 1). We come to the limit of our energy, but God experiences no such limits; we come to the limit of our time, but God experiences no such limit; we come to the limit of our knowledge, but God experiences no such limit. You get the idea.

Our limitations mean that we—and the rest of creation—are fundamentally dependent upon our creator. Every time Christians pray, they remind themselves of that fact. Praying, “Give us this day our daily bread” is to live within the space of my limitation; it is not to rebel against it but to move toward the Father with it. In other words, my beliefs about the dependency of creation upon its creator should lead me to pray. Any growing sense in me of my own independence and refusal of limitation will, in the end, make it harder and harder for me to pray.

In this sense, vainglory is the refusal to be what we are: created, finite, and therefore, limited. I want to be praised for what I am not. On this way of thinking we might describe acts of plagiarism as little Towers of Babel. The Tower of Babel narrative functions in Scripture to dramatically picture the total refusal of limitation (Gen. 11:1-9). What may seem like a small thing—cutting and pasting something from the Internet without citing your source—is actually a stubborn and idolatrous denial of my limitation that stands (like Babel) defiantly before the face of God.

But plagiarism does not always arise out of the vice of vainglory. Plagiarism may also be the result of envy. We desire what someone else possesses and desire them not to possess it. Thomas Aquinas describes envy this way: “We grieve over a man’s good, in so far as his good surpasses ours; this is envy properly speaking, and is always sinful.”8 On Aquinas’s definition, we grieve over the skills or understanding that someone else has because their having them is the obstacle to our having them. Plagiarism may arise from envy because stealing the work of another allows us to share in their skill and understanding and simultaneously diminishes their accomplishment. We get the credit and they don’t.9

Envy may give rise to plagiarism in another way. We may not envy someone else’s skills or abilities but the status and approval that the other person receives as a result of those skills or abilities. We envy the recognition someone else possesses because of their abilities and skills, and we grieve our failure to grasp the same (closely related to vainglory). For example, in a casual setting with friends we might want to one-up our friend who is in the spotlight, so we pass off a bit of information as if it were our own. And the same can happen in the classroom. Students envy the grades and accomplishments of their peers and plagiarize because they cannot accomplish the same. Their hearts have become disordered for they grieve over another person’s good; the other person’s good is the accomplishments they are unable to win on their own efforts and within their own limitations.

Plagiarizing of this sort signals an envious heart that can no longer desire the good of neighbor. We love ourselves and seek our own gain in such a way that we cannot celebrate and rejoice with our neighbors over their good as a gift from God: we want it for ourselves. An envious heart finds plagiarism natural for it has become accustomed to seeking its own good to the exclusion of seeking the good of others.

Although vainglory and envy describe what might seem like active dispositions, the capital vice of sloth may feel rather inactive. Indeed, how can a vice that is popularly associated with sitting on the couch give rise to plagiarism? But sloth is not simply a matter of laziness; it is more than not wanting to do the work. Sloth is a spiritual vice that considers the ways of following and loving God burdensome. Our students commonly raise their eyebrows at this point because they rarely consider how sloth might be related to their spiritual health, much less how it might be related to their heart in such a way that it would lead to plagiarism. David Naugle’s description of sloth as “spiritual lethargy” is helpful for grasping sloth’s spiritual element:

[Sloth is the] 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.10

One way for sloth to lead to plagiarism is through disobedience to God’s call to live a pure life in all respects. Students may see God’s call to purity as a burden when applied to all aspects of their lives. For example, although they may think being called to purity makes sense with respect to their sex lives, they may think it does not make sense with respect to their studies. They may see God’s desires for them to abstain from intellectual theft as onerous and not worth the effort. Indeed, they may never have considered that being called to purity is even applicable to their studies.

By not considering how God’s call to holiness affects all of our life, we discern yet another way for sloth to result in plagiarism: through a general apathy for finding God in what might seem like mundane tasks. We have discussed earlier versions of this essay with our students and have often received the following response on this point: “Wow! I had never thought ‘schoolwork’ had that kind of potential for my spiritual life.” They had cordoned off their academic work from any expectation that God would use it in forming them into the image of Christ. When sloth takes root in students’ hearts, they decide that the tasks assigned to them are unable to be used by the Spirit as avenues through which they may be formed into the image of Christ. Said differently, they refuse to seek their ultimate good in God through those assignments. For example, do our students really think that God could use a Western Civilization paper to form them into the image of Christ? If not, then they need to consider that God’s Spirit is capable of working in and through all creation to bring the Christian to maturity in Christ. Sloth causes all of us to ignore the myriad ways in which the Spirit of God moves and works through what appear to be mundane responsibilities like completing academic assignments.11

It is important to notice that sloth is not the same thing as physical laziness. The slothful student may be physically active. Indeed, our physical activity may be a symptom of spiritual inactivity: we distract ourselves from the things of God by plunging ourselves into other activities. Ignoring God’s way for spiritual growth, the student may attempt shortcuts to the same goal.

When sloth gives rise to plagiarism it signals a disordered heart, but not because we seek undeserved or shallow praise (as in vainglory). Nor is slothful plagiarism carried out to gain something that rightly belongs to another (as in envy). Instead, slothful plagiarism springs from a heart that fails to see how the ways of God are ways to real and deep joy—even in unexpected places like a Western Civilization paper.12

What about wrath? The vainglorious heart seeks acknowledgement for its unaccomplished accomplishments (shallow praise), the envious heart desires to grasp the work of another as their own, the slothful heart despairs to find God in the mundane, but can excessive and misdirected anger nourish plagiarism? We believe it can. For example, if students have acquired the vice of wrath, or even if they are on their way to acquiring it, they may believe that their professor has wronged them by creating an assignment they cannot fulfill according to their own abilities and constraints (time or otherwise). In this case, anger is directed toward some object, person, or situation that is perceived to be unjust. We are justifiably angered by child abuse, low performing schools, and outrageous health care fees. Along similar lines, wrath gives rise to plagiarism when students see the assignment (or the course) as an injustice. Because the assignment itself is perceived in a wrathful heart as unjust, students might determine that it is acceptable not to complete it in the obligatory way. Plagiarism is permissible, according to this distorted way of thinking, because the assignment is unjust and therefore its demands are unjustifiable and unreasonable.

Rather than work harder, seek help, or admit limitations, a disordered and wrathful heart leads to deception. Students set themselves against their professors, all the while justifying their behavior by telling themselves that the tasks assigned are unfair. As such, plagiarism is fundamentally a breakdown of that most important ingredient of a flourishing learning community: trust.

Plagiarism may also arise from the insatiable craving for more. Avarice (a.k.a. greed) is a vice that goes beyond the mere love of money. As Rebecca Konyndyk DeYoung suggests, “Avaricious people take pleasure in the consideration of themselves as the possessor of riches,” where riches denote “possessions of which we are the ultimate masters.”13 When students’ hearts are disordered by greed, they cannot be satisfied with the grade their work might deserve. Their greedy hearts desire a grade they have not earned in order that others (parents, peers, professors) would see them as possessors of “riches” that were never theirs. Whatever grade their own work may have actually earned is not enough; they steal the work of another in order to grasp a higher grade.

Here is the deeper problem: the student suffering with a greedy heart overvalues possessions, and once this vice has its grip, the good of possessing things rules over the good of possessing things rightly. The student ceases to desire a good grade or a passing grade for the right reasons, and instead simply desires to possess the grade for the possession itself. We see this type of plagiarism in students who have always received good grades. They feel entitled to the grade irrespective of their effort or their level of understanding. If possession of a good grade is threatened, these students may see plagiarism as a perfectly appropriate means to acquiring what they see as rightfully theirs to begin with.

The Seven Capital Vices tradition has typically separated the spiritual vices from the carnal vices, gluttony and lust. We, however, still think there is something to be said about lust and gluttony and how these disordered desires are tied to plagiarism, even if it requires broadening the scope of each vice beyond their obvious relationships to food and sexuality.14 As far as gluttony is concerned, DeYoung explains that it “creeps in and 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?’”15 Staying with this line of thought, we might say that a gluttonous heart gives rise to plagiarism by corrupting student enjoyment of “pleasurable” activities until they dominate everything else that might be important—especially those less enjoyable or pleasurable (like that Western Civ paper).

When plagiarism results from a gluttonous heart, students are not after mere praise (vainglory), possession of another’s gifts (envy), or possessions for their own sake (greed). Rather, plagiarism fueled by gluttony is the offspring of a heart dominated by its desire for pleasure. Left unattended, my desire for pleasure swamps my desire for all else, leaving me without the motivation, time, or energy to rightly pursue whatever tasks I might find less pleasurable. Students have always had reasons to distract themselves with fun activities, but it is hard to imagine another place with more distraction than a college dorm.

I (Kent) once met with a college freshman who was failing every class because of an online role-playing game. His situation was probably best classified as an addiction, but we can think of many other students who regularly stay up half the night playing video games, going out with friends, watching movies, or doing anything but focus on their academic responsibilities. Any student who regularly gives academic work the dregs of their attention and energy may, in fact, be led by a gluttonous heart.

In many ways, lust is similar to gluttony, but lust is most importantly self-serving; it takes rather than gives. St. John Chrysostom describes it as “self-indulgence”: the one lusting “gathers in lust unto himself.”16 Like the vice of gluttony, a lustful heart “reduces something designed for more than pleasure to mere self-gratification. . . . Just as the glutton sees in food only a useful means for filling herself with comfort and pleasure, so the lustful one sees in sex and sexual objects only their usefulness in giving pleasure to herself.”17

Academic plagiarism and lust may seem worlds apart, but the two serve each other by training the heart in patterns of self-indulgence and self-absorption. Sexual lust treats the object of desire as the means to our own ends, namely our physical pleasure and satisfaction. Like the lustful heart, which seeks its own satisfaction by taking from another, plagiarism objectifies and separates. It treats the object, such as a paper or test, as the means to some other end than wisdom or formation; the object is now directed toward self-serving ends like approval from others, an inflated reputation, or self-satisfaction. Such objectification and theft are the normal tracks upon which the lustful heart habitually and “naturally” runs.

IV. Students, Educators, and the Ultimate Physician

For the Christian educator who understands their craft along the lines we have described here—as a spiritual physician—diagnosing the hearts of their students will not be peripheral to their task but central. Christian educators participate in the work of the Holy Spirit who forms (sanctifies) the Christian student in the likeness of Christ. Losing this larger frame of reference risks minimizing the professor’s role with their students as they progressively grow into their true selves as adopted children of God.

As we said before, diagnosing the causes of plagiarism requires the Christian educator to be attentive to the various causes that underlie plagiarism, causes that arise from the heart. If our goal is formation in the image of Christ—human flourishing and spiritual maturity—then we must carefully and wisely discern the roots from which plagiarism springs. The capital vices tradition serves that end by furnishing language to name the heart’s disordered desires that may give rise to acts of plagiarism. Like a good physician, if we cannot rightly identify the cause of plagiarism, we cannot rightly provide the appropriate and fitting remedy (the same goes for students as they attend to their hearts).

Perhaps not every act of plagiarism will be the offspring of some vice deeply rooted in our students’ hearts. But surely every act of plagiarism will either arise from one of the vices or the habits that lead to their firm possession. Through spiritual examination and careful diagnosis we can help our students learn to identify the tendencies of their hearts that lead them away from Christ, their only true Hope and Good. Indeed, without Christ–the Ultimate Physician–vice is truly untouchable at its core.


1. We are deeply indebted to all our students who have discussed this essay and given their creative and invaluable feedback. We are also grateful to Kyle Strobel, Jonathan Sands Wise, and Lewis Pearson for their insightful comments on earlier drafts.

2. We could just as easily say “loves” as “desires.”

3. Kim Parker, Amanda Lenhart, Kathleen Moore, “The Digital Revolution and Higher Education,” Pew Internet & American Life Project, August 28, 2011,; and Dante, “The Shadow Scholar,” The Chronicle of Higher Education, November 12, 2010,

4. This is not to say educational reform is unnecessary. In fact, a virtue formation perspective would suggest that people change by way of habituation which is always carried out in a broader societal/systematic level. Thus, Aristotle’s Nichomachean Ethics is merely the prolegomena to the Politics. We are grateful to Lewis Pearson for this observation.

5. We are using the physician-patient metaphor as an imaginative angle from which to view the professor-student relationship, not to link ourselves to a particular stream of the Christian tradition (such as Evagrius Ponticus and the eight deadly thoughts tradition). Other metaphors are certainly available and would enable us to explore this relationship from further angles and thereby consider additional facets of the relationship that might not otherwise have been as clear or accessible. “Guide,” “director,” “gardener,” “midwife,” “sage,” and “empathizer” each offers fresh possibilities and as metaphors carry their own limitations. On the subject of the imagination and metaphors specifically related to education see Craig Dykstra, “Reconceiving Practice in Theological Inquiry and Education,” in Virtues and Practices in the Christian Tradition, eds. Nancy Murphy, Brad J. Kallenberg, and Mark Thiessen Nation (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1997), 161–82; Anna E. McEwan, “Do Metaphors Matter in Higher Education?,” Journal of College and Character 8, no. 2 (2007): 1–7; David I. Smith, “Recruiting Students’ Imaginations: Prospects and Pitfalls of Practices,” in Teaching and Christian Practices: Reshaping Faith and Learning, ed. David I. Smith and James K. A. Smith (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2011), 211–23; and Etienne Wenger, Communities of Practice: Learning, Meaning, and Identity (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1998), 175–79, 217–18, and 227. On the human imagination more generally and its role in helping us interpret reality see David J. Bryant, Faith and the Play of Imagination: On the Role of Imagination in Religion (Macon, GA: Mercer, 1989); Charles Taylor, Modern Social Imaginaries (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2004), 23–31; and Taylor, A Secular Age (Cambridge, MA: Belknap, 2007), 171–76.

6. Our focus is almost exclusively on diagnosis here and not on paths toward deeper communion with God that would lead toward the virtues and dispositions in opposition to the vices.

7. Prior to Pope Gregory I, there were eight deadly sins, including pride. What Gregory, and later Thomas Aquinas, did was suggest that pride is the root of the other seven vices. Also, both Gregory and Aquinas were motivated by the seven virtues (three theological—faith, hope, love—and four cardinal—wisdom, temperance, courage, and justice) and sought to have the seven vices parallel them.

8. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, II.2, 158,1

9. Wanting or desiring skills, is not itself vicious. It becomes vicious, in the case of envy, when I want them for the wrong reasons and I want someone else not to have them. Envy sees the possession of such gifts as something that cannot be shared. If you have them and I do not, then the only way for me to get them is for you to cease having them. That is why the envious person can be partially satisfied if the person they envy ceases to have the relevant gifts even if the envious person never gets them.

10. Naugle, Reordered Love, Reordered Lives: Learning the Deep Meaning of Happiness (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2008), 70–71, emphasis ours. See also Jeffrey Vogel, “The Speed of Sloth: Reconsidering the Sin of Acedia,” in Pro Ecclesia 18, no. 1 (2009): 50–68.

11. Simone Weil develops a similar point in “Reflections on the Right Use of School Studies with a View to the Love of God,” in Waiting for God, trans. Emma Craufurd (New York, NY: Harper and Row, 1951), 57–66.

12. This one is tricky. Technically, the vice of sloth is a vice that can only befall the religious. It is a distinctly religious vice. It is a shunning of the ordinary means of grace, and that is why some lists of shunned things include, for example, church, Scripture, and repentance. But it is possible, we think, to generalize from the religious nature of the vice to nonreligious modes. There may be some objectionable assumption in the traditional rendering of this vice, but we think we should heed the tradition when addressing plagiarism from the perspective of this tradition.

13. DeYoung, Glittering Vices: A New Look at the Seven Deadly Sins and Their Remedies (Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2009), 112.

14. Our approach to the carnal vices is similar to St. John of the Cross in Dark Night of the Soul, book 1, chapters 4 and 6.

15. DeYoung, Glittering Vices, 141.

16. Chrysostom, John. “Homily on Matthew 5.27, 28,” NPNF1 Vol. 10: Homilies on the Gospel of St. Matthew. Philip Schaff ed. (London/Grand Rapids: T&T Clark/Eerdmans).

17. DeYoung, Glittering Vices, 165-66.