I'm having trouble reconciling common sense self-interest with the mainstream systems in ethics.

Say I'm taking a life-changing exam, and I've studied and am super prepared; yet, the guy behind me keeps wanting me to help him and share answers because he didn't study. Is the right thing to do to help him and get a worse grade but improve his?

I feel as though the common sense answer to this would be "no", but, for example, utilitarians would say "yes", if I improve his grade more than mine suffers.

Its just one example, but the principle is one I have trouble reconciling with other ethical systems.

  • But your example poses different ethical dilemmas ("should the guy behind you learn from his mistakes and fail the test?"). Your title also seems strange: self-interest already insinuates not helping others (whenever it doesn't help oneself). Wouldn't "Is self-interest ethical if it means not helping others?" better?
    – Joachim
    Commented Mar 16, 2020 at 14:45
  • As for the title, the "even" was more in relation to it being ethical and not in relation to the nature of self-interest but your title would be fine. I assume self interest is of course ethical when it also serves others and just wondered if it is ethically justifiable (as it is when others benefit too) "even" when it doesnt benefit others. Commented Mar 16, 2020 at 14:52
  • @Joachim As for the dilemma, I suppose thats another layer of the problem "will he learn", as it is in "should we give to charity or will it have long term detriments for the developing country in terms of overpopulation, learning to take care of itself etc", I dont think that takes away from the initial question of do i have a duty to help a child from contacting polio by donating a vaccine. Commented Mar 16, 2020 at 15:00
  • 1
    The common person may confuse moral obligation & ethics. This maybe what you are struggling with. There are many types of ETHICS. Philosophy is concerned with one main branch of ethics: NORMATIVE ETHICS. The other kinds of alleged ethics are more into PSYCHOLOGY by definition. Those are the self interest views such as utilitarianism, hedonism, etc. Notice those OTHER kinds of ethics are generally the reason ordinary people say morality & ethics are SUBJECTIVE TOPICS. This is not usually the case for the field of PHILOSOPHY. Morals & Ethics are not the same. There are differences.
    – Logikal
    Commented Mar 16, 2020 at 15:43
  • @Logikal Thanks a lot, I am more of a lay person in this and wasnt aware there was such a clear cut difference. Will definitely look into it more. Commented Mar 16, 2020 at 15:56

3 Answers 3


Many people make a mistake when they think about ethics: they believe ethics is a simple rule system for evaluating what is right and wrong in any given context, when ethics is actually a system of reasoning about questions that can be applied to different contexts. For instance, in your example you start by asserting that this is a question of self-interest vs altruism, but have you really reflected on that presumption?

If I started reasoning about this question ethically I'd note that your presumption rests on the idea that a grade has an intrinsic value of its own — if you have a higher grade it improves your standing and marketability — but helping others also has an intrinsic value. You might decide that it's good to help your friend if he's on the verge of flunking out (when he is no threat to your standing), but not if he's getting a decent grade already. But then I'd go deeper, and think about how a grade is actually a reflection of a different value — actual knowledge — and that helping your friend get a better grade comes at the expense your friend actually achieving that knowledge. In that sense, your friend's request amounts to a kind of self-harm, because he is depriving himself of the knowledge that is being tested and leaning on you to cover that deficit. Further, what happens because he hasn't learned that knowledge? If he goes on to become a engineer or architect, but lacks the knowledge that exam was testing for, would the buildings he designs or constructs have fatal weaknesses that lead them to collapse? One of the purposes of exams is to weed out people who lack the knowledge necessary to work in a field. Is it ethical to help him pass into incompetence?

As I said, there's no cookie-cutter right/wrong answers to these questions, but the point is to lay out the various personal and social values that come into play so that you can weigh them properly against each other.


I am not really sure how selfishness is relevant. Helping him is unethical because it is cheating, and for the utilitarianism you brought up has much farther reaching implications than someone is happy because they passed a test.

Since you describe the exam as "life changing", I would assume the exam is "important". Perhaps it lets a person enter a career they should not have. Think of the damage that can be done by an unqualified doctor, airline pilot, computer programmer, police officer, fireman, factory line worker, food handler, etc...

Even in non-critical fields, think of the impact on that person's potential coworkers. In some ways, helping a person cheat is quite similar to aiding a person in committing fraud.


This selfishness is ethical.

Every Exam has its purpose. You said it is a life changing exam. In this question you considered only that guy. But there may be others (innocent guys) who have similar issues. If they had told you the same thing earlier, you would have helped them (if you had a tendency to do so). Here you have forgotten the examiner/invigilator also. If you had helped the candidate that would be cheat. If he was caught for his irresponsibility whom would you say sorry to? Is cheating ethical?

By helping other candidates in the exam hall your act becomes an act against the examiner's wishes/hopes/responsibilities. So, since helping is unethical here, in the exam room, don't share your answers with other candidates. The candidate may have qualities/qualification. But by sharing the answers, both of you are cheating the examiner/invigilator. And this is a big disqualification. If he was selected/qualified, both of your action becomes an act for eliminating some other candidate. So never do this even though it may give happiness to that guy.

To confirm, you may think this way:

Let your act be ethical. But that guy wouldn't ask your help if he follows ethics. So his act is non-ethical. This act (ethical + non-ethical) is done by both of you jointly. Then how would you get an ethical act?

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