Perplexing Oxymoron of the Month: the Unethical Ethics Fellow

You may want to fine tune that ethics program, guys....

From news reports: “A former Harvard University fellow studying ethics has been charged with hacking into the computer network at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology  to steal more than five million academic articles….Aaron Swartz, 24, was indicted on six counts including wire fraud and faces up to 35 years in prison and a million dollar fine if convicted.”


Questions abound:

What do they teach in Harvard ethics classes?

What kind of grades did Swartz get?

Does this prove that the course of study was junk, or does it prove that he was studying the right subject, since he obviously has a lot to learn?

Is it reasonable to say, “Imagine how unethical he would have been if he wasn’t an Ethics fellow”?

Does this prove that one can be an Ethics Fellow and an Unethical Fellow at the same time?

Should an Ethics Fellow who proves himself to be unethical  be allowed to cite his credentials as an ethics fellow?

If those who can’t do, teach, is he still qualified to teach ethics?

Finally, if becoming an Ethics Fellow at Harvard can’t be relied upon to set the “stealing 5 million academic articles is wrong” alarm, what’s the point?

7 thoughts on “Perplexing Oxymoron of the Month: the Unethical Ethics Fellow

  1. Since I took a few Ethics courses at Harvard, I would say that it’s like anything. On the one hand, you have book learning and on the other, you have real-life learning.

    Of course, I should add that the crime here wasn’t exactly out of the blue. I mean the guy wasn’t stealing money or a great work of art. Not sure what he was going to do with his five million articles, but I’m pretty sure he wasn’t doing this for personal profit.

    So, what do they teach at Harvard? I guess if you’re reading this, you’re probably thinking they failed with me, as well.

    • Well, since we share the same alma mater, I feel entitled to give Harvard some crap.

      I’m not sure what distinction you are making, though. 5 million articles are still property; they are still under copyright; it is still theft. What difference does it make why he stole them? The news articles say he intended to give them to file sharing websites, a la WikiLeaks. That’s better than if he was going to sell them? Not to MIT; not to the authors.

      I’m sure you didn’t get THAT idea from Harvard.

    • Excellent work, Rick, as usual. The “X should be free” issue needs a lot of thought and discussion. I confess, the fact that the mass theft of a database of scholarly work is unethical seems so obvious to me that I didn’t even deal with the underlying motive. This just isn’t an act that any formal ethical analysis will justify: if those who take the trouble to create, gather,organize and distribute information can’t be controlled to some extent by those who do the work, there will be free information, but less of it, and of lesser quality. I also would like to explore how one can distinguish between the aspirational “information wants to be free” and the self-serving “I don’t want to pay for something if I can get it for free”, finally ending with “I’ll just take what I want, because it’s easier that way.”

  2. Plenty of people study the law — and break the law.

    Do you have any data to substantiate that studying ethics makes one more ethical?

    • One of the great and perplexing questions of the field. There is plenty of behavioral research that has been interpreted to show that studying, or thinking about ethics can help people react more ethically, or less UNethically.. But there is no direct data, just assumptions,observations and theories.

  3. For some, learning the law is the necessary predecessor for learning how to break or avoid it with alacrity and for profitability. Apparently this young man saw similar opportunities in the ethics field! I guess all you need is an utter lack of ethics from the beginning.

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