“The Ethicist” Gets Lost: Bad Advice, Worse Defense, In The Case Of The Self-Plagiarizing Student

Oh, Chuck, Chuck, Chuck...

Oh, Chuck, Chuck, Chuck…

Chuck Klosterman,The New York Times’ third “Ethicist,” ruffled ethics feathers last week when he decreed that submitting the same paper to multiple college courses was ethical. (You can read his advice to a guilty-feeling student here.) Essentially, his argument in the column came down to three rationalizations, The Compliance Dodge (No rules were broken!), the Trivial Trap (It’s no big deal, and nobody was hurt ) and my least favorite of all, The Comparative Virtue Excuse ( “You’re not betraying the public’s trust,” Klosterman says—in other words, “At least you didn’t kill someone.”),with nods to several more. On the first, which is a close relative of Marion Barry’s Excuse, so you know what I think of it, Klosterman essentially argues that following formal rules constitutes sufficient ethics, which is the hallmark of the unethical. On the second, he himself cheats: he says no one was harmed, yet he ignores the fact that the student intentionally kept the fact that he used one paper for two assignments from the professors involved. Why was that? The student didn’t tell the professors because he knew they wouldn’t approve. Thus the student withheld information that was material, that would have resulted in negative consequences, and that the professors making the assignment had a right to know. That’s a failure of candor and a breach of the duty of honesty in communications. That’s unethical.

And there was harm. The professors, it can be safely assumed, wanted students to consider the topic of the assignment, give it quality thought, and devote the necessary time to creating a written product for each of their courses so they would learn something. They didn’t just want to read a paper on the topic, no matter what produced it. The double-dealing student was creating a precedent that if accepted and adopted, would undermine scholarly integrity—moreover, he knew it. That’s why he didn’t tell his instructors. That’s why he felt so guilty that he wrote to Chuck.

Harm is subjective in many cases. A teacher has a right to run his or her own course the way he wants to, according to his standards. If that instructor would legitimately reject conduct related to the class if she knew about it, it is fair to say that the conduct would be perceived as harm by the person harmed—the professor.

Klosterman airily dismisses the idea that “self-plagiarism” is unethical, apparently not pausing to, well, think. Self-plagiarism is dishonesty, and obviously so. When one is being paid for original and exclusive written output and surrepticiously recycles work created for another paying client, that’s dishonest. In the case of “The Ethicist’s” cheating student, the payment is in grades, not money—and so what? For students, grades are the coin of the realm.

Finally—and for some one making his living in ethics, this is a cardinal sin—Klosterman discards the famous “ethics alarms” universally cited as handy ways to test whether conduct deserved further ethical scrutiny. He writes,

“In the abstract, the notion of using the same paper twice feels wrong — and if you contacted your old school and told them this anecdote, it would most likely cite some rule of conduct you unknowingly broke. But fuzzy personal feelings and institutional rules do not dictate ethics.”

Huh, Chuck? The notion of using the same paper twice doesn’t just feel wrong to this student in the abstract–it felt wrong in reality. That’s the Gut Test, the first of the classic ethics checks. Would the student be confident telling his mother or father about how he was using their tuition money—to game the system rather than to do the assigned work in the spirit in which it was intended? I think not. I think that’s why he’s asking, anonymously, a bogus newspaper ethics advice columnist instead of Mom. That’s ethics test #2, the Mom Test, and this conduct flunks it. Finally, there is the ironically named New York Times Test: Would you be ashamed if your conduct was revealed to the world in your home town newspaper? Well, as I just mentioned, the inquiry is anonymous. Three strikes and you’re unethical, in most cases. Yet Chuck Klosterman, “The Ethicist,” gave his blessing.

That botched answer was last week. Chuck botches a lot of answers, but this one apparently bothered more readers than just me; the outcry was so vociferous that the Times’ “public editor,” who is typically even more ethically-challenged than Chuck, devoted her weekly column to it. There she gave Klosterman an opportunity to deal with several arguments against his published shrug, including the valid point that using the same paper for multiple courses probably violated academic rules and honor codes. His answer:

“Many of the people responding to this column are working from the position that this is unethical because it goes against whatever the university policy or honor code specifies. However, those specific policies don’t factor into this determination. The honor code at Brigham Young University outlaws homosexual behavior — does this mean having a homosexual relationship at B.Y.U. is unethical, simply because a rule exists? Does it mean that it’s not unethical to have a homosexual relationship at Utah State, but it somehow IS unethical the moment you transfer to Provo? There is a difference between something being unethical in a natural sense and something being unethical because an arbitrary ethics policy states that this is the case. I don’t care what the University of Houston has decreed. Moreover, would the writer of that letter agree with my response if — for whatever reason — the University of Houston suddenly amended their policy? I don’t think he/she would. This kind of contradiction happens all the time with this column. Legislation does not define ethical behavior. For example (as one commenter noted), it’s illegal for a United States citizen to visit Cuba — but it’s not remotely unethical. It’s unlawful to drive 56 mph on a deserted state highway, but it’s clearly not an unethical practice.”

This reads like something the original “Ethicist”, Randy Cohen, would have written. Cohen, you may recall, wrote a defense of his routinely running red lights on his bicycle because he didn’t think that the law should apply to smart, careful people like him. I called him on it, and so did everyone else who can spell E-T-H-I-C-S, a select group that apparently doesn’t include Klosterman.

When you accept the benefits of a society, an employer, a nation, a state, a college, a family, a church or any organization, you implicitly agree to abide by its rules. Knowingly violating those rules, unless it is done openly as a protest and as civil disobedience, with the intention of accepting the expected punishment and challenging the validity of the rule is unethical. It is obviously unethicalKlosterman’s jaw-dropping argument above simply gives everyone leave to follow or not follow rules, regulations, codes and laws that they have implicitly agreed to follow provided that the violator can rationalization an argument against them. On the contrary, if you don’t like the rules in Provo, don’t go to Provo—if you do go, your choice is to follow the declared standards of conduct there, or violate them openly to prompt a change. It isn’t that the ethics of the gay relationship changes when you move, Chuck, and you can’t possibly not understand this, but that violating a rule that you have agreed to follow is unethical.  Brigham Young University is a Mormon institution, governed by a religious, and therefore a moral, code. The school has every right to insist that its religious principles be followed, and to hold that students violating those principles are not welcome there. Chuck also appears not to appreciate the distinction between conduct formally banned on moral grounds and conduct banned on ethical principle, like double-submitting a paper, though it is unethical to secretly violate either for personal gain, in defiance of a system one has agreed to honor.

Indeed, Klosterman thinks it’s fine to break laws and rules when you think nobody is watching. That’s “The Ethicist” for you: “Ethics is what you can get away with when nobody’s looking.”

Hmmm... something about that doesn’t sound quite right…


Facts: New York Times 1, 2


6 thoughts on ““The Ethicist” Gets Lost: Bad Advice, Worse Defense, In The Case Of The Self-Plagiarizing Student

  1. Uh oh.

    During my second to last year in Landscape Architecture, one o our classes was Recreational Parks and Tourism services (from a whole separate school and department at Texas A&M, then our Junior year design project was focused on community parks.

    The final project for each class that semester was almost identical.

    We discussed it with both professors and both professors were cool with us submitting the same project for both classes. Of course they caveats that they would evaluate twice as hard since we theoretically had twice as much time to devote to one project.

  2. I have encountered this phenomenon numerous times. I had a student ask me if he could write a report on a topic that was really stretching the guidelines. When I asked him why, he told me “so then I can submit it as a paper in my philosophy class too”. He never really understood why I wouldn’t let him. In his mind, he was required to submit a report in two classes and if I would just go along with his topic, he could do just that with half the effort. Why wasn’t I trying to help him. The easy answer is that it is Sep-plagiarism and it isn’t allowed. I hate rules that are there for rules sake, so here are some reasons the rule exists.

    (1). One reason for disallowing such a practice is that the students are unlikely to produce a paper that fulfils the purpose of both classes well. As my student who needed the subject guidelines severely bent, there aren’t that many instances where the same paper works. From stylistic points like referencing format and the basic structure of the report to the emphasis, different fields are different. This is one of the points of such assignments is to learn how to adapt your writing to such constraints.

    (2). Good writing takes practice. To allow self-plagiarism and take it to the logical extreme, all college freshmen will write one report and submit it any time a report is called for. You can think that the outcome would be terrible and the student would all just fail, but look at our public schools. If everyone turns in failing work, we don’t fail the students. We just redefine failing as acceptable. This is why only 2 of my 40 freshmen last fall knew what a paragraph was or how to write one.

  3. I don’t see the problem. If the student was able to write one paper that satisfied the requirements of both courses and doing so was not against the rules of the university in general or the teachers specifically, I see no ethical dillema. Not knowing those sets of rules, I cannot determine if the action was in violation of them or not.

    We are often told that it is a good thing if you are able to “kill two birds with one stone”. To me, the student sounds efficient. And efficiency, in and of itself, is not unethical.

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