Another Klosterfuck

Lindsay Beyerstein

Chuck Klosterman's most recent Ethicist column incited more controversy than usual. (Stephanie & Sean Ware / Flickr / Creative Commons)

Ah, the New York Times’ Ethicist, the advice columnist who exists to make Dear Prudence look rigorous. Last week, Ethicist Chuck Klosterman blithely gave a college student permission to hand in the same paper for two classes without getting the permission of either professor, even if his school’s honor code forbids it:

The more I think this over, the more I find myself agreeing with your position. I don’t think this is cheating. I wouldn’t say it qualifies as genius,” and it might get you expelled from some universities. Yet I can’t isolate anything about this practice that harms other people, provides you with an unfair advantage or engenders an unjustified reward.

Of course a student who breaks the rules and hands in the same paper twice is getting an unjustified reward and harming others in the process. By writing one paper instead of two, he cuts his workload in half, which gives him an academic edge. A student who followed the rules might only be able to produce two B papers in the time allotted. Whereas, the dishonest student can devote all his time to writing one A paper, to be graded twice. It’s not fair that the honest student gets two B’s while the underhanded student gets two A’s for doing half the work. If the dishonest student’s inflated GPA gets him a spot in medical school, the honest student he beat out has been harmed. 

Klosterman’s answer generated such an outcry that the paper’s ombudsman gave him a chance to walk it back. Instead, he doubled down, insisting that it’s okay to flout honor code rules against double dipping because they’re arbitrary:”

There is a difference between something being unethical in a natural sense and something being unethical because an arbitrary ethics policy states that this is the case. I don’t care what the University of Houston has decreed. Moreover, would the writer of that letter agree with my response if — for whatever reason — the University of Houston suddenly amended their policy? I don’t think he/​she would. This kind of contradiction happens all the time with this column. Legislation does not define ethical behavior. For example (as one commenter noted), it’s illegal for a United States citizen to visit Cuba — but it’s not remotely unethical. It’s unlawful to drive 56 mph on a deserted state highway, but it’s clearly not an unethical practice. This column is not titled How to Avoid Jail” or Is This Sanctioned?” It Is about how things ought to be — considered in a vacuum, but applied to practical living.

An action that’s not wrong in itself can be wrong in a particular context if it constitutes cheating. In competitive situations, seemingly arbitrary rules may be necessary in order to keep the contest meaningful and fair. Disregarding those rules can be unethical.

Higher education is, amongst other things, a competition. Students are competing for grades and scarce opportunities. The rules for this academic contest are like the rules of a sport. Some of these rules are arbitrary, insofar as different rules could be equally fair in the abstract. However, in school, as in sports, participants must agree to a shared framework. Some of the rules may be arbitrary in their particulars, but the need for consistent standards is not. If you’re going to keep score, you owe it to everyone involved to do so consistently.

Using a corked bat in a Major League Baseball game is cheating. Corked bats aren’t sinful, per se. As a matter of ethics, MLB had much right to require corked bats as to ban them. However, under the current rules, it’s cheating, and therefore wrong, for a major league slugger to sneak in a corked bat when everyone else is playing with a solid one.

I shouldn’t have to explain to the Ethicist why cheating is wrong, but evidently someone needs to break it down for him: Cheating is promise-breaking because everyone agreed to play by a certain set of rules when they joined the game or enrolled in the school. Cheating is deception because the cheater pretends to follow the rules as he breaks them. Finally, cheating gives the cheater an unfair advantage.

If the honor code says you can’t submit the same paper twice, and you do it anyway, that’s cheating.

Some contest rules are completely arbitrary, like the number of minutes in a hockey game, or the number of weeks in a semester. By contrast, the rule against double submissions is defensible on its own terms. Universities structure degree requirements carefully. Everyone who earns a degree has to show that they’ve mastered a minimum body of knowledge and logged enough practice in core skills of their discipline. If you want a degree in English, you have to produce a certain amount of expository writing. The goal is not merely to give a correct answer to the essay prompt, but also to practice writing. A student who produces half the expected number of papers is shirking the practice requirement even if his paper shows enough subject knowledge to pass two courses.

Ombudsman Margaret Sullivan’s response to reader complaints about Klosterman’s lack of relevant expertise is delicious. Instead of defending him, she cheerfully acknowledges that the former pop culture critic has no qualifications and cheekily suggests that his column carry a disclaimer to avoid reader confusion:

[C]alling him the Ethicist,” with no other explanation, certainly does imply that he has some special expertise.

Granted, renaming the column Just a Guy Considering Problems” is probably not quite catchy enough. But, as usual, I think transparency with the reader points the way. Some explanation each week — even a single line, in a light tone — of who Mr. Klosterman is and the intentions of the column would help readers know that this isn’t the word from Mount Olympus. Nor is it intended to be. It’s just one man’s opinion. 

The larger question is why this man’s admittedly uninformed opinion deserves a weekly platform in the national newspaper of record.

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Lindsay Beyerstein is an award-winning investigative journalist and In These Times staff writer who writes the blog Duly Noted. Her stories have appeared in Newsweek, Salon, Slate, The Nation, Ms. Magazine, and other publications. Her photographs have been published in the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times’ City Room. She also blogs at The Hillman Blog (http://​www​.hill​man​foun​da​tion​.org/​h​i​l​l​m​a​nblog), a publication of the Sidney Hillman Foundation, a non-profit that honors journalism in the public interest.
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