Critically About Ethical Issues
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Ethics is the study of the choices people make regarding right and wrong. Each of us makes dozens of moral choices daily. Will we go to work or call in sick? Follow the research protocol or violate it? Put quotes around borrowed phrasing or pretend the words are our own? Answer a colleague’s question truthfully or lie? Obey the speed laws or drive as fast as our vehicles will go? Pay our bills or spend our money on entertainment? Keep our marriage vows or break them? Meet our children’s emotional needs or ignore them? Pet the cat or kick it? In most times and places, people have acknowledged the existence of an objective moral standard binding on all people regardless of their personal desires and preferences. (Of course, there was not always complete agreement on what that standard was.) Over the past several decades, however, that need for a standard has been called into question.
It is fashionable today to believe that decisions about right and wrong are purely personal and subjective. This belief is known as moral relativism. According to it, whatever anyone claims to be morally acceptable is morally acceptable, at least for that person. Supposedly, there is only one exception to this rule: Judging other people’s conduct is considered intolerant. (To this author’s knowledge, no moral relativist has ever explained why, if any view of honesty, faithfulness, fairness, and justice is considered valid, only one view of tolerance is permitted.)
In the 1960s moral relativists challenged the traditional view that fornication and adultery are immoral. “Only the individual can decide what sexual behavior is right for him or her,” they said, “and the individual’s decision should be respected.” Given the mood of the time (and the strength of the sex drive), it was not surprising that many people were disposed to accept this view. Critics raised serious objections, of course. They argued that even the wisest among us are capable of error and selfdeception, especially where the emotions are involved. They predicted that the idea that everyone creates his or her own sexual morality would spill over into other areas of morality and provide an excuse for everything from petty pilfering, plagiarism, and perjury to child molesting, rape, spouse abuse, and murder.
More important for our purposes, the critics of relativism warned that “anything goes” thinking would undermine the subject of ethics. “If morality is merely a matter of preference, and no one view is better than any other,” they reasoned, “then there is no way to distinguish good from evil or civilized behavior from uncivilized, and any attempt at meaningful discussion of moral issues is futile.” Centuries earlier, Dr. Samuel Johnson saw the more personal implications in relativism and remarked, “If he does really think that there is no distinction between virtue and vice, why, sir, when he leaves our houses let us count our spoons.”
At the time, relativists dismissed the predictions of the critics as irresponsible. Now, however, four decades later, we can see that those predictions were at least in part accurate. Evidence that civility has declined and human life has become cheapened can be found any day in the news. (To what extent relativism is responsible for this development is, of course, debatable.) Equally significant, many people are so possessed by the “Who can say?” mentality that they find it difficult to pass moral judgment on even the most heinous deeds. One professor of philosophy estimates that between 10 and 20 percent of his students can’t bring themselves to say that the killing of millions of people in the Holocaust was wrong. He calls this phenomenon “absolutophobia,” the fear of saying unequivocally that certain behavior is unethical. Another professor reports that her students are reluctant to judge even so obvious a moral issue as human sacrifice! Speaking of one student who refused to say such sacrifice was wrong, the professor writes, “I was stunned. This was the [same] woman who wrote so passionately of saving the whales, of concern for the rain forests, of her rescue and tender care of a stray dog.”
As almost any ethics instructor will confirm, when it comes to more subtle issues—such as unauthorized copying of computer programs or plagiarism—the number of people who cannot bring themselves to make a moral judgment increases significantly. Such individuals may regard ethics as intrusive.
WHY DOWE NEED ETHICS IF WE HAVE LAWS?
Many people reason that we don’t need ethics because our system of laws, when consistently enforced, provides sufficient protection of our rights. In order to assess this idea we must understand who makes laws and how they make them. Who makes them is easy to answer: local, state, and national legislators. How they are made is somewhat more difficult. We know that legislators must get together to talk about a particular behavior and then vote on whether they want to criminalize it. But what do they say to one another? On what basis do they conclude that one act deserves to be classified criminal and another one doesn’t? What kinds of reasons do they offer to support their views? How can they be sure those reasons are good ones?
What, for example, did legislators say before they decided that sexual harassment is illegal? Certainly something more than “I wouldn’t commit such an act.” The fact that two or ten or five hundred legislators expressed that personal view would not be sufficient reason to conclude that a law should be passed preventing other people from committing the act. Remember that according to relativism no one has any business criticizing other people’s moral decisions. If that principle is valid, then the sexual harasser should be free to follow his or her preference. The only rational basis for a law against sexual harassment is that the act is wrong, not just for those who think so but for everyone. The proper focus for lawmakers is not on their subjective preferences but on the nature of the actions in question.
Why do we need ethics if we have laws? Because law is not possible without ethics. The only way for a law to be enacted or repealed is for one or more people to make a decision about right and wrong. That has always been true, whether the lawmaker was the chieftain of a nomadic band or tribe, a king or queen, or a group of elected officials. If human beings were wise enough to create one set of laws that would last for all time, we might say that ethical judgment was once important but no longer is. Alas, humans are not that wise. New circumstances arise and laws must be revised to fit them. In addition, new insights sometimes reveal that a law punishes behavior that does not deserve punishment or makes unreasonable demands on people. The Eighteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution made Prohibition the law of the land—until the Twenty-first Amendment repealed it in the name of justice. Members of the Amish religious community, whose way of life called for less formal schooling than the law prescribed, were judged criminals for withdrawing their children from school—until the U.S. Supreme Court declared the application of the law to them unjust. In New York State, rape victims were required to prove they had given “earnest resistance” to the rapist—until the state legislature removed that unreasonable provision from the law.
Ethics, as we noted, is the study of right and wrong conduct. Let us expand on that definition. In the scientific sense, ethics is a descriptive discipline, involving the collection and interpretation of data on what people from various cultures believe, without any consideration for the appropriateness or reasonableness of those beliefs. In the philosophical sense, the sense that concerns us, ethics is a two-sided discipline. One side, normative ethics, answers specific moral questions, determining what is reasonable and therefore what people should believe. (The term normative means setting norms, or guidelines.) The other side of philosophical ethics, metaethics, examines ethical systems to appraise their logical foundations and internal consistency.
The focus of ethics is moral situations—that is, those situations in which there is a choice of behavior involving human values (those qualities that are regarded as good and desirable). Thus, whether we watch TV at a friend’s house or at our own is not a moral issue. But whether we watch TV at a friend’s house without his or her knowledge and approval is a moral issue. Similarly, filling out an application for a job is a morally neutral act. But deciding whether to tell the truth on the application is a moral issue. An ethicist observes the choices people make in various moral situations and draws conclusions about those choices. An ethical system is a set of coherent ideas that result from those conclusions and form an overall moral perspective.
Ethicists are not lawmakers. They are neither elected nor appointed. Their only authority is the force of reasonableness in their judgments. Their words, unlike those of lawmakers, do not prescribe what must or must not be done. They merely suggest what ought to be done. If people violate their own or their society’s moral code, no ethics enforcement officer will try to apprehend them—though if their action also violates a law, a law enforcement agency may do so. Law enforcement, of course, extends beyond apprehension of alleged criminals. It includes the formal trial and judgment of guilt or innocence. There are, as well, degrees of guilt. A person who carries out a carefully planned murder is charged with a more serious crime than is a person who strikes and kills another in spontaneous, blind rage. In fact, if the individual in the latter case is judged to have been insane, he or she may go entirely unpunished.
The idea of varying degrees of responsibility for one’s actions is applied in ethics, too. Although there are no courts of ethics as there are courts of law, and no formal pronouncements of guilt or innocence in moral matters, the ethicist nevertheless is interested in the question “Under what circumstances is a person to be considered culpable?” The conclusions ethicists reach in these matters provide guidance to lawmakers and law enforcers.
ETHICS AND RELIGIOUS BELIEF
Somehow the idea has arisen that ethics and religion are unrelated and incompatible. Thus, when religious thinkers discuss ethical issues—especially in the context of political policy—they are thought to be exceeding their reach and perhaps even committing an offense against the principle of separation of church and state. This notion is without historical basis. In fact, an interesting case can be made for ethics having originated in religion. G. K. Chesterton, for example, argued as follows: Morality did not begin by one man saying to another, “I will not hit you if you do not hit me”; there is no trace of such a transaction. There is a trace of both men having said, “We must not hit each other in the holy place.” They gained their morality by guarding their religion. They did not cultivate courage. They fought for the shrine, and found they had become courageous. They did not cultivate cleanliness. They purified themselves for the altar, and found that they were clean.
Throughout our civilization’s history, religious thinkers have spoken to the larger society on moral issues, and society has generally profited from their guidance. Problems arise only when religious leaders go beyond speaking to society and begin speaking for it on the basis of their particular doctrines. To be productive, ethical discourse must take place on common ground, that is, using understandings and intellectual procedures and judgment criteria that all participants—Christians, Jews, Muslims, atheists, and others—affirm. Because theological doctrine depends to a great extent on faith, it does not provide that common ground. To say this is not to disparage theology but merely to acknowledge that it is not the tool for the job in question.
A focus on faith rather than reason can also prevent us from presenting the most persuasive ethical argument. A case in point is the controversy that arose some years ago over a National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) grant. It was awarded to artist Andres Serrano, who produced a work titled “Piss Christ,” which consisted of a crucifix in a bucket of urine. Christians, believing that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, would understandably think Serrano guilty of blasphemy and the NEA guilty of supporting and approving the offense. But that charge would be ineffective as a moral argument offered to the general public. No matter how tasteless Jews, Muslims, atheists, and agnostics may have found Serrano’s work, they are not likely to be persuaded that ridiculing a religious belief constitutes an ethical violation. A more persuasive argument is that the use of tax dollars for such work is immoral because it requires. Christian citizens to contribute to the blatant disparagement of their religion. Similarly, when speaking with those who do not share our religious views, it is not very helpful to judge actions by the criterion of whether they “please or offend God.”
The question that naturally arises is “How do you know whether they do or not?” And the two most common answers serve more to close off ethical inquiry than to promote it: One is “Because the Bible (or Koran, and so forth) says so.” The other is “This is my religious belief.” If we wish to pursue the matter further, we are placed in the position of having to challenge the Bible or to invade the very private domain of the other person’s religious belief. In addition, both answers are based on erroneous notions. Saying “the Bible says so” suggests that the Bible is a simple book that has a single interpretation. Yet biblical scholarship clearly demonstrates that it is complex and open to numerous interpretations. Saying “this is my religious belief” implies that no aspect of a person’s belief can be shallow or mistaken, that in religious matters there is no room for growth and development. The lives of the saints and holy men and women of the world’s religions disprove any such notion.
Some ethical questions cannot be adequately answered by reference to religious beliefs alone. Take, for example, the case of a person’s wrestling with this question: “Since I no longer accept some of the major teachings of the church I was raised in, is it morally right for me to remain a member? What should I do?” The question is by no means an easy one. Whatever approaches the individual might use in answering it, the teachings of his or her religion would hardly be the definitive measure, for they are an integral part of the question. Using those teachings would be equivalent to affirming them and closing the issue.
Most religious thinkers recognize the error of judging moral issues merely by religious belief. They realize the importance of discussing such issues in a way that is meaningful and appealing to all people of goodwill and honest concern. For this reason, they distinguish carefully between religious belief and religious ethics. Religious ethics is the examination of moral situations from a particular religious perspective. In it, the religious doctrine is not a substitute for inquiry. It is a starting point, a guide to inquiry and to organizing the findings of inquiry. Fortunately, there is an easy, practical way to avoid confusion about the relationship between religion and ethics: When you are evaluating someone else’s ethical judgment, focus on the reasonableness of the person’s argument and the quality and weight of the evidence that supports it, rather than on the religious perspective that might underlie it. If the argument is reasonable and the evidence is persuasive, affirm the judgment. (Note that doing so in no way constitutes affirming the religious belief of the person making the argument.)
When you are expressing your own ethical judgment to a mixed audience, including people who do not share your religious perspective, make your appeal to reason rather than to faith or, at the very least, in addition to faith. (Note that appealing to reason in no way compromises your religious belief—it merely presents your judgment in a manner that is meaningful to your audience.)
THE NEED FOR ETHICS
To summarize, some people believe that we don’t need ethics because we have laws and religious beliefs. In reality, it is because of ethics (moral reasoning) that we have laws in the first place, and we continue to need ethics to refine and perfect our legal system. We also need ethics in order to discuss the practical implications of our religious beliefs with others who do not share those beliefs. In addition, in situations where the reasonableness of a particular belief is at issue, we need ethics to help us reach a sound decision. Three actual cases will further document the need for ethics.
The religion known as Voodoo, which originated thousands of years ago in Africa, is still practiced in some parts of the world by as many as 275 million people. It has a number of adherents in the United States, mainly in New York City, Miami, and New Orleans. Most of these adherents are black and Hispanic; some are white. Religious practices of Voodoo, known as Santeria in the United States, no longer include human sacrifice, but they do include animal sacrifice and the casting of spells with the aid of dolls or figurines. Some years ago, a farmer’s field in upstate New York was the site of such a ritual. Four Voodoo dolls were found mutilated, and the area was littered with the bloody remains of a number of chickens, pigeons, lambs, and goats. Some of the animals and birds appeared to have had their heads bitten off.3 because the ritual was religious, it cannot effectively be objected to on religious grounds (except by saying, “My religious views make me deplore that religious practice”). And it may have broken no law, so the only legal objection may be “There ought to be a law.” But on what basis ought there to be (or not be) a law? On the basis of moral judgment Ethics.
The second case occurred in Minden, Louisiana. Because of their religious belief that God heals illness, a couple sought no medical help for their infant granddaughter, who was suffering from meningitis. When she died, they were arrested and charged with negligent homicide. A jury found them guilty.4 In this case, the law and religious belief directly clash. If the law were the final arbiter of right and wrong, it would be impossible (or at least pointless) to discuss the case further. Yet we can discuss it further, can dispute whether the law is defensible and whether the decision in this case served justice. Whatever our position may be, it will be a product of ethical judgment.
The third case concerns a Santa Cruz, California, street clown known as Mr. Twister, who got into trouble with the law. As he walked about the downtown area in his clown costume, complete with painted face, a brightly colored wig, and a bulbous red nose, he would look for parking meters with time expired. When he found one, he would insert a quarter, often just before the meter maid arrived to issue a citation. Alas, his “random acts of kindness” violated a city ordinance against putting coins in the meter for another person. When the case was publicized, however, not only was the charge dismissed, but the city council also decided that the ordinance criminalized the virtue of kindness and so repealed it.
Ethics fills a basic intellectual need in helping us interpret every day human actions and decide what actions we approve in others and want to emulate ourselves. It is a guide for living honorably.
Later chapters will develop the guidelines necessary to reach thorough, thoughtful ethical judgments. But you may find it useful to have a preliminary approach to use in the meantime. The basic problem you will encounter is the tendency to judge issues on the basis of preconception and bias rather than careful analysis. Few people are completely free from the inclination to prejudgment on at least some issues. Some people may have their answer ready for any question concerning war; others, for questions concerning private property; still others, for issues involving alcohol or drugs. And many will have answers ready for questions of sexual morality. The reasons for prejudging will vary—from traumatic experience to personal preference to simple opinion. The underlying attitudes may range from distrust of all regulations, all laws, or even all thoughts to an uncritical endorsement of all traditions. But in each case the effect is the same: to avoid thinking about the particular case at all and merely to call forth a prefabricated, all-purpose answer.
The alternative to the closed mind is not the empty mind, however. Even if we wished to set aside completely all our prior conclusions about human behavior and right and wrong, we could not do so. The mind cannot be manhandled that way. Nor should it be. We can expect, then, that a flood of impressions and reactions will rush in on our thoughts when we consider a moral issue. It is not the fact of that flood that matters, nor its force. It is what we do to avoid having our judgment swept away by it.
Here are some guidelines:
1. Be aware of your first impressions. Note them carefully. Knowing the way your thinking inclines is the first step toward balancing it (if it needs balancing).
2. Check to be sure you have all the relevant facts. If you do not have them, get them. An encyclopedia is usually a good place to start. Almanacs also provide a wealth of information. For books and articles on the issue in question, check your library’s online catalog. Also, ask your librarian what indexes, abstracts, and computer databases would be appropriate to consult. (A section on using the Internet follows these guidelines.) Occasionally, you may be unsure whether a particular statement is a fact or an opinion. In such cases, ask whether knowledgeable people generally accept the statement. If it is, consider it a fact; if knowledgeable people disagree about it, consider it an opinion. By checking several sources, you can get a good idea of whether agreement exists.
3. Consider the various opinions on the issue and the arguments that have been (or could be) used to support them. The position that directly opposes your first impression is often the most helpful one to consider. If your impression is wrong, this step will help you find out. If it is not, then you can return to it with confidence and present it more effectively for having considered alternatives to it. Do not make the mistake, common today, of ignoring what religious thinkers have to say about moral issues. As long as they are presenting the reasoning of their ethical tradition (as opposed to simply stating their theological doctrines), their contributions to moral discussion are entirely relevant and should be welcomed. If you refuse to consider those contributions, you will be denying yourself the insights that historically enriched the subject of ethics and helped form the foundation of our system of laws.
4. Keep your thinking flexible. Do not feel obligated to your early ideas. The process of ethical thinking entails entertaining many ideas, some of which you will accept, some of which you will discard as inferior. No judgment is your official judgment until you endorse it publicly in speaking or writing, and even then you may choose to revise it. So change your mind as often as you like as you analyze an issue. The more fully and unprejudicially you explore the issue, the better your judgment is likely to be.
5. Express your judgment precisely and explain the reasoning that underlies it. It is all too easy to say something you don’t quite mean, especially when the issue is both complex and controversial. The best way to avoid this problem is to experiment with several different ways of expressing your judgment instead of accepting the first version you produce. If your judgment is not a simple “yes” or “no” but a form of “it depends,” be sure to specify what it depends on and exactly how your judgment would vary in different circumstances. Finally, no statement of your judgment is sufficient by itself. Be sure to explain, in as much detail as necessary for understanding, what line of reasoning led you to that conclusion rather than to some other one.
DOING RESEARCH ON THE INTERNET
The Internet has become the research tool of choice. It provides access to a variety of sites. The general categories are designated in suffixes attached to the web addresses: commercial sites, by “com”; organizational sites, by “org”; government sites, by “gov”; and educational sites, by “edu.” If you have a topic in mind but don’t know which site to consult, you can use a search engine. One of the best is Google—the address is http://www.google.com. Once connected to the Internet, just type in that address and Google’s main page will appear. The subject box is provided for you to enter the topic you wish to research. (Note: For information on Google’s various features, just click on one of the departments presented in blue.) Suppose you wanted to research the ethical aspects of human cloning.
You would type ethics human cloning in the subject box and click on “Google Search.” Google would respond with a page that lists the results. Then you could scan the results and click on the titles that seem most relevant to your search. When you have finished checking the results on that page, you would click on the number 2 at the bottom to proceed to the next page. Use Google when you don’t know which Web site is likely to provide the information you are seeking or when you wish to expand your search. On the other hand, if you do know the most likely Web site, start your search there. Here are some Web sites that may be helpful in researching issues in ethics.
At its best, discussion deepens understanding and promotes problem solving and decision-making. At its worst, it frays nerves, creates animosity, and leaves important issues unresolved. Unfortunately, the most prominent models for discussion in contemporary culture—radio and TV talk shows—often produce the latter effects. Many hosts demand that their guests answer complex questions with simple yes or no answers. If the guests respond that way, they are attacked for oversimplifying. If, instead, they try to offer a balanced answer, the host shouts, “You’re not answering the question,” and proceeds to answer it himself. Guests who agree with the host are treated warmly; others are dismissed as ignorant or dishonest. Often as not, when two guests are debating, each takes a turn interrupting while the other shouts, “Let me finish.” Neither shows any desire to learn from the other. Typically, as the show draws to a close, the host thanks the participants
for a “vigorous debate” and promises the audience more of the same next time.
Here are some simple guidelines for ensuring that the discussions you engage in—in the classroom, on the job, or at home—are more civil, meaningful, and productive than what you see on TV. By following these guidelines, you will set a good example for the people around you.
WHENEVER POSSIBLE, PREPARE IN ADVANCE
Not every discussion can be prepared for in advance, but many can. Anagenda is usually circulated several days before a business or committeemeeting. And in college courses, the assignment schedule provides a reliable indication of what will be discussed in class on a given day. Use this advance information to prepare for discussion. Begin by reflecting on what you already know about the topic. Then decide how you can expand your knowledge and devote some time to doing so. (Fifteen or twenty minutes of focused searching on the Internet can produce a significant amount of information on almost any subject.) Finally, try to anticipate the different points of view that might be expressed in the discussion and consider the relative merits of each. Keep your conclusions tentative at this point, so that you will be open to the facts and interpretations others will present.
SET REASONABLE EXPECTATIONS
Have you ever left a discussion disappointed that others hadn’t abandoned their views and embraced yours? Have you ever felt offended when someone disagreed with you or asked you what evidence you had to support your opinion? If the answer to either question is yes, you probably expect too much of others. People seldom change their minds easily or quickly, particularly in the case of long-held convictions. And when they encounter ideas that differ from their own, they naturally want to know what evidence supports those ideas. Expect to have your ideas questioned, and be cheerful and gracious in responding.
LEAVE EGOTISM AND PERSONAL AGENDAS AT THE DOOR
To be productive, discussion requires an atmosphere of mutual respect and civility. Egotism produces disrespectful attitudes toward others— notably, “I’m more important than other people,” “My ideas are better than anyone else’s,” and “Rules don’t apply to me.” Personal agendas, such as dislike for another participant or excessive zeal for a point of view, can lead to personal attacks and unwillingness to listen to others’ views.
CONTRIBUTE BUT DON’T DOMINATE
If you are the kind of person who loves to talk and has a lot to say, you probably contribute more to discussions than other participants. On the other hand, if you are more reserved, you may seldom say anything. There is nothing wrong with being either kind of person. However, discussions tend to be most productive when everyone contributes ideas. For this to happen, loquacious people need to exercise a little restraint, and more reserved people need to accept responsibility for sharing their thoughts.
AVOID DISTRACTING SPEECH MANNERISMS
Such mannerisms include starting one sentence and then abruptly switching to another, mumbling or slurring your words, and punctuating every phrase or clause with audible pauses (“um,” “ah”) or meaningless expressions (“like,” “you know,” “man”). These annoying mannerisms distract people from your message. To overcome them, listen to yourself when you speak. Even better, tape your conversations with friends and family (with their permission), then play the tape back and listen to yourself. And whenever you are engaged in a discussion, aim for clarity, directness, and economy of expression.
When the participants don’t listen to one another, discussion becomes little more than serial monologue—each person taking a turn at speaking while the rest ignore what is being said. This can happen quite unintentionally because the mind can process ideas faster than the fastest speaker can deliver them. Your mind may get tired of waiting and wander about aimlessly like a dog off its leash. In such cases, instead of listening to the speaker’s words, you may think about her clothing or hairstyle or look outside the window and observe what is happening there. Even when you are making a serious effort to listen, it is easy to lose focus. If the speaker’s words trigger an unrelated memory, you may slip away to that earlier time and place. If the speaker says something you disagree with, you may begin framing a reply. The best way to maintain your attention is to be alert for such distractions and to resist them. Strive to enter the speaker’s frame of mind, understanding each sentence as it is spoken and connecting it with previous sentences. Whenever you realize your mind is wandering, drag it back to the task.
JUDGE IDEAS RESPONSIBLY
Ideas range in quality from profound to ridiculous, helpful to harmful, ennobling to degrading. It is therefore appropriate to pass judgment on them. However, fairness demands that you base your judgment on thoughtful consideration of the overall strengths and weaknesses of the ideas, not on your initial impressions or feelings. Be especially careful with ideas that are unfamiliar or different from your own because those are the ones you will be most inclined to deny a fair hearing. RESIST THE URGE TO SHOUT OR INTERRUPT
No doubt you understand that shouting and interrupting are rude and disrespectful behaviors, but do you realize that in many cases they are also a sign of intellectual insecurity? It’s true. If you really believe your ideas are sound, you will have no need to raise your voice or to silence the other person. Even if the other person resorts to such behavior, the best way to demonstrate confidence and character is by refusing to reciprocate. Make it your rule to disagree without being disagreeable.
Once ideas are put into words and published, they become intellectual property, and the author has the same rights over them as he or she has over material property such as a house or a car. The only real difference is that intellectual property is purchased with mental effort rather than money. Anyone who has ever wracked his or her brain trying to solve a problem or trying to put an idea into clear and meaningful words can appreciate how difficult mental effort can be.
Plagiarism is passing off other people’s ideas or words as one’s own. It is doubly offensive in that it both steals and deceives. In the academic world, plagiarism is considered an ethical violation and is punished by a failing grade for a paper or a course or even by dismissal from the institution. Outside the academy, it is a crime that can be prosecuted if the person to whom the ideas and words belong wishes to bring charges. Either way, the offender suffers dishonor and disgrace, as the following examples illustrate:
• When a university in South Africa learned that professor Marks Chabel had plagiarized most of his doctoral dissertation from Kimberly Lanegran of the University of Florida, the university fired Chabel. Moreover, the university that had awarded him his Ph.D. revoked it.
• When U.S. Senator Joseph Biden was seeking the 1988 Democratic presidential nomination, it was revealed that he had plagiarized passages from speeches by British politician Neil Kinnock and by Robert Kennedy. It was also learned that, while in law school, he had plagiarized a number of pages from a legal article. The ensuing scandal led Biden to withdraw his candidacy and has continued to stain his reputation.
• The reputation of historian Stephen Ambrose was tarnished by allegations that over the years he had plagiarized the work of several authors. Doris Kearns Goodwin, historian and advisor to President Lyndon Johnson, suffered a similar embarrassment when she was discovered to have plagiarized from more than one source in one of her books.
• When James A. Mackay, a Scottish historian, published a biography of Alexander Graham Bell in 1998, Robert Bruce presented evidence that the book was largely plagiarized from his own 1973 biography, which had won a Pulitzer Prize. Mackay was forced to withdraw his book from the market. (Incredibly, he did not learn from the experience because he then published a biography of John Paul Jones, which was plagiarized from a 1942 book by
Samuel Eliot Morison.)
• When New York Times reporter Jason Blair was discovered to have plagiarized stories from other reporters and fabricated quotations and details in his own stories, he resigned his position in disgrace. Soon afterward, the two senior editors who had been his closest mentors also resigned, reportedly because of their irresponsible handling of Blair’s reportage and the subsequent scandal.
Some cases of plagiarism are attributable to intentional dishonesty, others to carelessness. But many—perhaps most—are due to misunderstanding. The instructions “Base your paper on research rather than on your own unfounded opinions” and “Don’t present other people’s ideas as your own” seem contradictory and may confuse students, especially if no clarification is offered. Fortunately, there is a way to honor both instructions and, in the process, to avoid plagiarism.
Step 1: When you are researching a topic, keep your sources’ ideas separate from your own. Begin by keeping a record of each source of information you consult. For an Internet source, record the Web site address, the author and title of the item, and the date you visited the site. For a book, record the author, title, place of publication, publisher, and date of publication. For a magazine or journal article, record the author, title, the name of the publication, and its date of issue. For a TV or radio broadcast, record the program title, station, and date of transmission. Step 2: As you read each source, note the ideas you want to refer to in your writing. If the author’s words are unusually clear and concise, copy them exactly and put quotation marks around them. Otherwise, paraphrase— that is, restate the author’s ideas in your own words. Write down the number(s) of the page(s) on which the author’s passage appears. If the author’s idea triggers a response in your mind—such as a question, a connection between this idea and something else you’ve read, or an experience of your own that supports or challenges what the author says—write it down and put brackets (not parentheses) around it so that you will be able to identify it as your own when you review your notes.
Here is a sample research record illustrating these two steps:
Adler, Mortimer J. The Great Ideas: A Lexicon of Western Thought (New York: Macmillan, 1992) Says that throughout the ages, from ancient Greece, philosophers have argued about whether various ideas are true. Says it’s remarkable that most renowned thinkers have agreed about what truth is—”a correspondence between thought and reality.” 867 Also says that Freud saw this as the scientific view of truth. Quotes Freud: “This correspondence with the real external world we call truth. It is the aim of scientific work, even when the practical value of that work does not interest us.” 869 [I say true statements fit the facts; false statements do not.]
Whenever you look back on this record, even a year from now, you will be able to tell at a glance which ideas and words are the author’s and which are yours. The first three sentences are, with the exception of the directly quoted part, paraphrases of the author’s ideas. The next is a direct quotation. The final sentence, in brackets, is your own idea. Step 3: When you compose your paper, work borrowed ideas and words into your writing by judicious use of quoting and paraphrasing. In addition, give credit to the various authors. Your goal here is to eliminate all doubt about which ideas and words belong to whom. In formal presentations, this crediting is done in footnotes; in informal ones, it is done simply by mentioning the author’s name.
Here is an example of how the material from Mortimer Adler might be worked into a composition. (Note where the footnote is placed and the form that is used for it.) The second paragraph illustrates how your own idea might be expanded:
Mortimer J. Adler explains that throughout the ages, from the time of the ancient Greeks, philosophers have argued about whether various ideas are true. But to Adler the remarkable thing is that, even as they argued, most renowned thinkers have agreed about what truth is. They saw it as “a correspondence between thought and reality.” Adler points out that Sigmund Freud believed this was also the scientific view of truth. He quotes Freud as follows: “This correspondence with the real external world we call truth. It is the aim of scientific work, even when the practical value of that work does not interest us.”*
This correspondence view of truth is consistent with the commonsense rule that a statement is true if it fits the facts and false if it does not. For example, the statement “The twin towers of New York’s World Trade Center were destroyed on September 11, 2002” is false because they were destroyed the previous year. I may sincerely believe that it is true, but my believing in no way affects the truth of the matter. In much the same way, if an innocent man is convicted of a crime, neither the court’s decision nor the world’s acceptance of it will make him any less innocent. We may be free to think what we wish, but our thinking can’t alter reality.
*Mortimer J. Adler, The Great Ideas: A Lexicon of Western Thought (New York: Macmillan, 1992), 867, 869.
SAMPLE RESPONSES TO INQUIRIES
Here are two sample responses to help you understand the kind of analysis and the form of response appropriate for the inquiries that follow. (You need not agree with the particular viewpoints expressed.) Note that the responses express not just the writers’ moral judgments but also the reasoning that underlies those judgments.
Inquiry: A Vestal, New York, resident unwittingly paid sewer bills for more than $1300 over an eighteen-year period and then discovered there was no sewer line connected to his home. Since the statute of limitations on civil suits of this kind is six years, the town attorney suggested that the man be reimbursed for six years of payments only.7 Was this suggestion ethical?
Sample Response: Having a time limit for filing may be reasonable in disputes about the quality or punctuality of a service. In such cases, the passing of time could make the merits of the claim difficult to determine. A time limit might also make sense where each side was partly at fault. But this case is different. No service was provided, and the town was completely at fault for the improper billing. The man should have received full reimbursement.
Inquiry: Some coaches of nationally ranked college athletic teams are paid large sums of money by athletic shoe manufacturers for having their teams wear a particular brand of shoe. Is this practice ethical? Why or why not?
Sample Response: It is my understanding that coaches of nationally ranked teams receive generous salaries from their institutions, so they can’t be accepting the money because of economic need. They’re using their positions to make a quick buck in the form of a bribe. Given that fact, it is likely that the shoe contract will go to the highest bidder, regardless of the quality of that company’s shoes. I believe it is unethical for payment to be offered or accepted in this case.
If you need assistance composing your response, read “Writing About Moral Issues” in the Appendix.
1. Over the past few decades, a sizable industry has arisen to serve the demand for ready-made and even customized compositions and term papers. Many students presumably believe there is nothing morally wrong with the practice of buying one of these papers and turning it in to fulfill a course requirement. Review what you read about plagiarism in this chapter. Then write a several-paragraph explanation of its message for a friend who doesn’t get it. (Be sure to follow the approach explained in that section so you avoid committing plagiarism yourself.)
2. The Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution states that private property shall not be “taken for public use, without just compensation.” Up until fairly recently, the words “public use” generally have been interpreted narrowly to mean that the state could take someone’s private residence or place of business so that a highway could be expanded or a public park constructed but not so that a shopping mall, a condominium, or a golf course could be built. Then, in a 2005 case (Kelo v. City of New London), the U.S. Supreme Court decided by a vote of 5 to 4 that the redevelopment of a blighted inner-city area by building new upscale housing and shops qualifies as public use. Does what you read in this chapter have any application to this case? Explain. (You might want to do a Google search and explore the case more fully before answering.)
3. Canada’s government proposed that color photographs of diseased hearts and cancerous lungs and lips be printed on the front and back panels of every pack of cigarettes sold in that country. Canada’s tobacco industry claimed the practice would be illegal.8 Is there an ethical issue in this case? If you believe there is, explain why. If not, explain why not.
4. When a Michigan man was arrested for soliciting a prostitute, the car he was driving was confiscated by the police in accordance with a local ordinance. His wife, who was co-owner of the vehicle, took the matter to court, claiming that the government’s action was improper because it punished not only her husband but also her, even though she had no part in, or knowledge of, the crime he committed.9 Was her argument morally sound? Explain. 5. The National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) has no rule against colleges and universities making hundreds of thousands of dollars from the sale of tickets and television rights to games. Yet the NCAA does not permit colleges and universities to pay student athletes. Is the NCAA’s position morally justifiable? Explain.
6. Although Maude is not physically handicapped, whenever she is in a hurry she parks her car in spaces reserved for the handicapped. Is she behaving unethically?
7. A village on the seacoast places restrictions on the use of its beaches. Residents of the village are issued beach passes for themselves and their guests. All others are barred. Is such a restriction a moral issue? That is, is it debatable in terms of right and wrong? Explain.
8. There is no legal obligation for an eligible voter to vote in an election in the United States. Is the decision to vote or not to vote a moral decision? Explain. 9. Certain people have spoken out against the American government’s foreign and domestic policies. They have broken no laws. Their protests have been fully within the guarantees of free speech. Yet the FBI is directed to investigate each individual thoroughly. The FBI conducts background studies, including interviews with relatives, friends, and acquaintances. Are these investigations ethically justifiable? Explain.
10. A married couple, both addicted to drugs, are unable to care for their infant daughter. She is taken from them by court order and placed in a foster home. The years pass. She comes to regard her foster parents as her real parents. They love her as they would their own daughter. When the child is 9 years old, her natural parents, rehabilitated from drugs, begin court action to regain custody. The case is decided in their favor. The child is returned to them, against her will. Does ethics support the law in this case? Discuss. 11. A sociology professor spots a magazine article that will fit in well with the textbook chapter he has assigned his students. However, copyright law forbids his making copies of it without obtaining the publisher’s or author’s permission (usually given for a small fee). Since he cannot use college funds for this purpose, and since there isn’t sufficient time to go through the process of obtaining permission, he decides to break the law and make the copies. Does he act rightly? Explain.
12. Zoo officials in Eureka, California, could not afford to house two healthy adult bears while a new bear grotto was being built, and the only zoo that would take the bears was in South Dakota. Since the zoo could not afford the $500 it would have cost to transport the bears, officials decided to destroy them. As their two 3-month-old cubs looked on, the bears were given lethal shots of sodium phenobarbital.10 Was the bears’ destruction a moral issue? If so, was the action morally wrong?
13. Lawrence Steubig stole six candy bars in 1941. He was judged incompetent to stand trial and was sent to a mental institution. He was freed in 1975, thirty-four years later, whereupon he sued officials at the institution for “loss of liberty and loss of enjoyment of life.” The institution could produce no
records to show that he had ever received therapy or a chance to prove his competency. The judge ruled that Steubig’s Fourteenth Amendment rights had been violated, but that he was not entitled to collect damages because the officials of the institution had acted in good faith.11 Was this verdict defensible on moral grounds?
14. A Milpitas, California, boy raped and then killed his girlfriend and dumped her body in a lovers’ lane gully. Over the next few days, the killer boasted to his high school friends and the word quickly spread that the girl was dead and that her body was in the gully. Carload after carload of high school students visited the gully to see the body. Some students prodded it with sticks or kicked it; one girl ripped a decal from the dead girl’s jeans. Only one boy reported the murder to the high school principal, and even after the police investigation was well under way, only two students would identify the killer or volunteer any information. Since failure to report a body or to volunteer to testify is not a crime, the students could not be charged legally. But was the behavior of any of the students morally objectionable?