“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. Continue reading

Joke Ethics: The Obama Dog Jokes Dilemma and The Gut Test

The question: how should fair and ethical people regard the viral “the President eats dogs” jokes? This depends on the standards we choose to apply—and remember, double standards are banned.

  • Is it a humor standard? Political jokes don’t have to be fair; most of them aren’t. They have to be funny. If they are funny, they don’t have to be especially tasteful, either.
  • Is it a motive standard? If the real motive for the flood of jokes is to undermine the President in an election year by using absurd images to make him look ridiculous, should that be condemned? Continue reading

Mother’s Day Reflections On A Wonderful Mother With Flawed Ethics

My mom and Ma Barker had some things in common.

I am spending this Mothers Day in mourning, as today is the first time I have had to experience the holiday without a mother. My mom died earlier this year, as I mentioned here at the time, and she has been buried for less than a month. My mother used to be a regular feature of my ethics seminars, as I would reference her whenever I talked about the so-called “Mom Test,” one of the three famous ethics tests that are useful to set off sluggish ethics alarms, the other two being the Gut Test (“Does this feel wrong?”) and the New York Times Test (“Would I be willing to see my conduct on the front page of the New York Times?”). The “Mom Test” is whether you could tell your mother about your ethically-dubious conduct without hesitation or shame, and I often told my classes that with some mothers, like my own, this test didn’t work very well. “My mother,” I would explain, “has the ethics of Ma Barker.” I was only partially kidding. Continue reading

Ten Lessons from the “Dog Wars” Debate

Wait! Calm down! This is a CARTOON dog.

The “Dog Wars” Android phone app is apparently down for the count, the victim of too many complaints, threats and accusations that it was evil and irresponsible and promotes real, live dog-fighting, even though almost nobody sane makes similar claims about other video games. As with the subject of most posts on Ethics Alarms, however, the ethics issue lingers on, whether or not the specific incident that sparked the commentary has been resolved.

The comments, often passionate, that this post elicited have been fascinating, and had much to teach, even when the comments themselves were dubious. Here are ten lessons from the debate over the game and the Ethics Alarms commentary about it.

1. Ethics alarms aren’t always right. So many comments about “Dog Wars”, here and around the web, consist of various versions of, “That’s just wrong!” Well, why is it “just wrong”? Continue reading