Sense and Sensibility (book)
Ask the Academic Ethicist
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Ask the Academic Ethicist

A selection of the best questions and our worst answers.

Send us your problem. And don't worry: we have as expansive a sense of "problem" as we do of "ethics."

Dear Academic Ethicist,

I am the Chief Development Officer for a small, financially strapped liberal arts college.  A wealthy alumnus recently informed me that he would like to present the college with a $60 million gift.  Needless to say, I was flabbergasted.  Immediately I pictured how we could use the gift to help our faculty off foodstamps, to renovate those buildings on campus currently without heat and running water, and to raise our endowment’s S&P rating from junk bond status.  But then our would-be patron began explaining how he wanted his gift “to promote the spirit of inquiry and wonder best exemplified by Harry Potter.”  Specifically, he wants us to use the $60 million to convert our existing Humanities Center into an Institute of Wizardry and the Dark Arts (with endowed “Dumbledore” and “Voldemort” professorships).  What am I to do?  We desperately need the money, but such an Institute would make us the laughing stock of higher education.

—Caught (Williamstown, MA)

Dear Caught:

This is a classic False Dilemma.  While you assume that the ends for which the gift is intended make it impossible to satisfy your college’s needs, we see no incompatibility.  Certainly, the intellectual endeavors contemplated by such an institute would probably be no more outlandish than those currently sponsored by your Humanities Center.  And they might also prove to be more useful!  Post-colonial criticism never built any buildings and we can’t see the eco-feminist reëvaluation of science heating any water any time soon.  The Muggles have seen your institution into the red; time to give the Wizards a go!  

Dear AE,

In the last year before my tenure decision, I found myself in the grips of a terrible case of writer’s block.  I tried St. John’s wort and echinacea, but nothing worked.  Desperate to finish my “tenure book,” I began scanning an on-line data base of dissertation abstracts on roughly the same topic as my manuscript.  To my amazement, I found an excellent, unpublished dissertation from the mid-nineteen seventies that made much the same argument that I was trying (less ably) to defend.  To cut a long story short, I plagiarized the entire dissertation (though I did make a number of stylistic improvements).  My colleagues loved the work, I received tenure, and the book was recently accepted for publication at a leading university press.  But now, for reasons I cannot entirely explain, I’ve started to feel guilty. I’ve even toyed with the idea of donating my royalties to the Copyright Defense Fund — what should I do?

Guilt Ridden (Chicago, IL)

Dear Ridden,

We find your pangs of conscience touching, but misplaced.  From your own account, it sounds like the dissertation you borrowed from was destined to collect dust on the shelf of some research library.  In this regard, your actions have helped breathe new life into a long-neglected work.  Remember what we’re taught in academia: it’s the ideas that count.  As for your guilt toward the author of the dissertation, save it: he no doubt left academia for law school years ago, and is now happily making megabucks as a corporate litigator.  Finally, you must bear in mind that “plagiarism” has become a largely outmoded concept.  More than a century ago, Emerson observed that “even the originals are not original,” an aphorism that recognizes the indebtedness of all thinkers to their intellectual forebears.  What was true in Emerson’s time is all the more true in our age of hyper-connectivity.  There is no such thing as an intellectual debt; it was a socially constructed category designed to serve the interests of those who had become intellectually sterile, which is to say the tenured class.  In fact, the whole distinction between your ideas and the Other’s ideas has been eroded beyond repair.  So relax—especially if you can discreetly remove all (seven?) copies of the dissertation from libraries around the country.

Dear Ac. Eth.:

I am a physics professor who has recently turned to writing popular books on science.  My last few books have met with great success, and my next one—on quantum computing and the prospects for a universal currency—promises to be something of a blockbuster.  I have recently heard from some large corporations that want me to plug their products in the book in return for significant sums.  I am tempted, of course, but overall hesitant because it seems it would compromise my scholarly independence.  Any advice?

—Fairly Welcoming

Dear FW:

The technical name for your concern is Super Scrupulosum.  What, are you crazy?  If you can get paid extra for writing about Cheerios rolling down inclined planes, there is no reason to hesitate.  In fact, such examples are far more likely to resonate with your consumer-reader than more abstract ones.  Famous brands are so much a part of contemporary culture that arguably you should have to pay them for permission to spice up your physics presentation.   So bring on the Dove soap bubbles and Absolut random motion.  Just do it.

Dear AE:

As a professor at one of America’s most prestigious universities, I recently uncovered a very disturbing instance of plagiarism in one of my courses.  After carefully studying all the relevant material, I confronted the student, who brazenly denied the allegation despite overwhelming proof to the contrary.  Scrupulously following procedure, I referred the case to our university’s disciplinary committee, which, after diligent review, found the student guilty and expelled him.  In retrospect, however, I wonder if my conduct was appropriate in light of the fact that throughout my long and successful scholarly career I have routinely lifted whole chapters from other sources without attribution. Have I been hypocritical?

—Strangely Ambivalent

Dear SA:

A fundamental maxim of justice counsels one to treat like cases alike.  By this standard, your behavior might seem problematic.  Nevertheless, a careful analysis reveals that your actions and those of your student are not really of a kind.  Your student, no doubt, plagiarized because he had little or no understanding of the material, and thus intentionally substituted another’s knowledge for his own ignorance.  In your case, we expect that the hectic and pressured pace of scholarly life inadvertently interfered with your normally rigorous research methods.  So we applaud your vigorous response to your student’s execrable actions: standards have to be upheld!  And we suggest you hire some trusted research assistants to help you maintain the scholarly virtues so important to all of us.

Dear Academic Ethicist,

I have become entangled in a dilemma, a veritable quagmire. Two former professors of mine have written a book, supposedly having something to do with humor (though I find this hard to believe given my stifling classroom experiences with them). One of the aforementioned professors has mass e-mailed me, spammed me even, insisting that I must buy a copy of his book. He writes:

"Anyone I ever wrote a recommendation for is legally bound to buy multiple copies; anyone I gave a decent grade to must buy at least one."

Fortunately, I never received a recommendation from this professor. Actually, this is doubly fortunate, as it means both that I still have a chance to make something of myself, and that I am not legally bound to buy multiple copies of their surely plebeian work. I did, however, receive a decent grade from this professor. Does this mean I am ethically, but not legally, bound to buy at least one copy of the book? If I don't buy a copy of the book, will my decent grade be retroactively lowered to the prestigious liberal art college's grade-inflated B+ minimum? Should I just dismiss these as the desperate pleadings of a frustrated academic and failed badminton player? Further complicating the matter . . . the other professor in this fetid duo did in fact write me several recommendations. Is a legal compulsion to buy their book somehow transferred to me by transitivity? And if so, must I buy multiple copies? Surely some 8th Amendment case law explicitly forbids this.

—A wiseass former student (Chicago, IL)

Dear WA:

You write well and reason cogently. Obviously you have been well trained. We infer that your ex-professors are highly successful teachers, clearly very talented and no doubt proportionately powerful. It's quite likely that there are many people out there who will at one point have power over your life and who have found your ex-teachers persuasive and forces to be reckoned with. Consequently, we think there is nothing for it but for you to buy multiple, not books, but cartons of their book. Anything short of that courts your complete professional ruin. "How will they know if I don't?" you might be wondering. That's simple: we've posted your letter and all its identifying characteristics on the very useful website (We've got to make a buck too, you know.)