1. A Whistle-blowing dilemma.The Ethicist in the New York Times Magazine is no fun anymore, now that a competent, real ethicist is answering queries rather than the previous motley assortment of Hollywood screenwriters and others of dubious qualifications. Even when I disagree with
- “Given how little cheating is caught, reporting them would have meant that they paid a penalty that lots of others ought to — but won’t — pay.” Ugh! A Barry Bonds excuse! So because all guilty parties aren’t apprehended, everyone should get away with wrongdoing?
- “Because many people in your generation don’t take cheating very seriously, your friends would most likely have ended up focusing on the unfairness of being singled out, not on their wrongdoing.” That’s their problem. The attitude the Ethicist identifies is 39. The Pioneer’s Lament, or “Why should I be the first?” He’s correct that this will be the likely attitude of the busted cheaters, but since when did how wrongdoers rationalize their wrongdoing become mitigation?
- “The intervention you were considering was likely, therefore, to be very costly to you.” Yes, doing the right thing often is.
- “The burden of dealing with cheating in your school shouldn’t fall on you.” Boy, I really hate this one. It’s #18. Hamm’s Excuse: “It wasn’t my fault.”
This popular rationalization confuses blame with responsibility. Carried to it worst extreme, Hamm’s Excuse would eliminate all charity and much heroism, since it stands for the proposition that human beings are only responsible for alleviating problems that they were personally responsible for. In fact, the opposite is the case: human beings are responsible for each other, and the ethical obligation to help someone, even at personal cost, arises with the opportunity to do so, not with blame for causing the original problem. When those who have caused injustice or calamity either cannot, will not or do not step up to address the wrongs their actions have caused (as is too often the case), the responsibility passes to whichever of us has the opportunity and the means to make things right, or at least better.
This rationalization is named after American gymnast Paul Hamm, who adamantly refused to voluntarily surrender the Olympic gold metal he admittedly had been awarded because of an official scoring error. His justification for this consisted of repeating that it was the erring officials, not him, who were responsible for the fact that the real winner of the competition was relegated to a bronze medal when he really deserved the gold. The ethical rule to counter Hamm’s Excuse is a simple one: if there is a wrong and you are in a position to fix it, fix it.
Appiah doesn’t feel the full force of my fury because the case involves middle-school, and the questioner is a child. This is what makes it a toss-up. If this were college or grad school, I think reporting cheaters is mandatory. Appiah also says that he doesn’t care for honor codes because they are usually not followed.
Maybe I was wrong about him… Continue reading