Relationships and Principles

Yesterday, I was having a beer after work with a friend and the conversation turned to our unhappy PhD student in an ethical dilemma. He said that one of the great problems with contemporary ethics research and teaching is that it’s too focused on abstract principles, at the expense of concrete relationships. So this morning I did some quick Googling and it looks like the discussion dates back at least as far as a disagreement between Carol Gillian and Lawrence Kohlberg about moral development in boys and girls. I may return to this larger issue in later posts, for now I just wanted to point out that we left our PhD student in a tricky spot on Tuesday, not because there’s any doubt “in principle”, but because her relationships to the plagiarist, his source, her supervisor, and her friend are being transformed by the ethical violation of a respected member of her field. We know that plagiarism is wrong and we know that the truth is valuable. And yet we’re not quite sure what our PhD student should do.

Let me state my opinion about one thing very clearly. I do not think she is obligated to do anything that might harm her career. The power asymmetry in this case makes exposing the transgression less important than building her status in her field. To be sure, her new found knowledge does give her new ethical responsibilities, but they do not require her to sacrifice her own career prospects, since this would just leave the field to more cynical folks. What I am saying, of course, is precisely that she should not ruin her relationships for the sake of a principle. Rather, she should use the principle to maintain her relationships as best as she can.

To see how her discovery of plagiarism has transformed her ethical situation, let’s examine one of the first decisions she made (or I made on her behalf): don’t contact the plagiarist directly. Why would this be unwise? After all, people who go public with their accusations of plagiarism are sometimes told by the plagiarist’s defenders that they should have just taken it directly to the plagiarist, who would certainly have done the right thing. But I’ve never liked that argument. It’s very difficult to imagine the email that says, “I’ve discovered three instances of plagiarism in your work,” that doesn’t come off as a threat of some kind, a soft attempt at extortion. (Indeed, there are examples–in my opinion, these are scandals–of authors who, after discovering that another scholar has plagiarised them, simply accept a payment for the “copyright infringement” and otherwise remain silent.)

In this case, the plagiarist might conclude that the PhD student just wants a leg up in her career and that she’s offering to remain silent if he opens some doors for her. This is of course one of the things she should not do. The power asymmetry does not* entitle her to use her discovery to gain a career advantage. But even if he’s wrong about her intentions, he might significantly worsen the situation by in fact making this kind of offer. Or he might just ignore the mail. Or deny the facts. He might even, as has been known to happen in real life, threaten to sue for defamation. It’s because she can’t know how he will react that I would recommend against, and certainly not demand, that she take the issue directly to the plagiarist.

After all, whether he dismisses her accusation or digs himself an even deeper hole with threats or bribes, our PhD student’s ethical situation would only get more complicated. Her life would get harder. She now has to expose both the crime and the first stages of a cover-up. Let’s not forget that she also has a dissertation to write! I hope the point of all this is becoming clear. The reason that plagiarism is wrong is not just that it violates an important principle but that it severely complicates the relationships that scholars must cultivate with each other. In this case, it has brought what should have been a fruitful conversation between an established and an apprentice member of the field to a halt, and it is difficult for the latter to know how to proceed.

More on Tuesday.

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*Update (27-04-2015): The original version of this post left out the “not” in this sentence, which of course got things exactly wrong.

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