The Ethicist: Should My Daughter Speak Up About a Classmate’s Plagiarized Poem?

April 7, 2019 by Joshua
in Ethicist

My series answering the New York Times’ Ethicist column with an active, leadership approach instead of an analytical, philosophical perspective continues with “Should My Daughter Speak Up About a Classmate’s Plagiarized Poem?”.

My daughter spends half her school day in an arts high school, the other half in a traditional high school. Recently, she shared with me instances in which one of her peers had plagiarized in the arts school and cheated on exams in the regular high school. She told me that her peer is considered, by teachers in the art school, to be a superior writer.

One afternoon she came home from the arts school upset because the cheater read aloud a supposedly original poem that my daughter recognized as having been written by a former student. She quietly pointed out to the cheater that she recognized the work. The cheater shrugged.

I think my daughter has an obligation to stop the cheating by informing the teacher. I suggested that she photocopy the original poem and give it to the teacher and allow the teacher to reach her own conclusions. I think that my daughter is loath to do anything because in part she is upset about being upstaged by a cheater. I think this emotional sidebar is secondary to the fact that the cheater is stealing from the whole class: Writing from the cheater is not a good sample for others to workshop because it is not original and taints the learning opportunities of the other students. At the traditional high school, the cheater’s test scores may also wrongly modify the grading curve, which affects the grades of all other students in the class.

My daughter’s friends independently became aware that this student is a cheater and plagiarizer. They urged my daughter to “rat” on the cheater. I wish these friends had informed teachers before now. It seems unlikely that the friends are willing or able to join together to talk to a teacher. But I really want my daughter to take a stand here. Am I wrong? Name Withheld

My response: You want to believe your daughter has an obligation. There is no book in the sky or other measure of obligation that 7.6 billion people will agree to. If there were, you would have consulted it, gotten your answer and wouldn’t have had to write here. There isn’t, so you did.

Calling your course of action an obligation removes your sense of responsibility, but your daughter would bear the brunt of something backfiring, not you. You think her friends should act, but you don’t.

I think you’re wrong to unilaterally want your daughter to take the brunt of something you consider an obligation. Why don’t you talk to the teacher?

With all the people involved, plus parents, I recommend my solution to all ethics problems: create more options.

The New York Times response: Young people belong to a world of group norms, and a central one favors loyalty to their peer group over the authority of their elders. In ordinary circumstances, “ratting out” a peer violates that norm. A member of the group can get away with it if others regard the wrong in question as itself a betrayal of the group and as a serious violation. They aren’t likely to be impressed by your specific objections — your point about its effects on the grading curve or your claim (which I don’t quite get) that a good poem is a bad sample if it’s stolen. The norm violation that will register, oddly, is the cheater’s showing off, the effort to make himself or herself look better than the rest. The cheater’s classmates will have resented what your daughter resented: being upstaged.

The real reason this young person should be reported is that what he or she has done is wrong. Yes, cheating of this sort does slightly damage other people, by misrepresenting their relative capacities. It may also be bad for this young person if it brings him or her to a place where expectations of his or her performance are higher than they should be: The cheater may have to keep cheating to maintain appearances, thereby increasing the likelihood of being found out and discredited. But the heart of the wrong here is that the cheater is deceiving teachers, taking advantage of their good will and the unearned respect they have for him or her. Honesty, like all virtues, entails a whole complex of attitudes and behavior.

You, like some of her classmates, want your daughter to take sole responsibility for seeing that this wrong is recognized and punished. Upholding the value of honesty, in this way, would make sense if she were the only person who was in a position to do so. But she isn’t. And it would be cowardly of her friends to have her bear all the social risk here. A better solution is at hand: A group of those who know what’s going on should come forward together. You doubt that they’ll do this. But has anyone asked them to? And isn’t that the first thing for your daughter to work toward?

She could, of course, just slip the evidence to the teacher anonymously, or she could inform the teacher along with a request for confidentiality, assuming she thinks the teacher would respect that request. Why am I suggesting the other approach, then? Because the collective affirmation of honesty would be a better outcome for her peer group. They could think of themselves as having chosen to speak out against cheating. And that might help them keep to that norm in subsequent years. Nothing fixes a value in your mind better than having stood up for it together with your friends.

Recently I learned from my nanny that another nanny she knows is being exploited. From what I have been told, the nanny is here from another country, and her employers have not abided by the contract put in place before she came. My nanny told me that they are paying her a rate far below minimum wage, which they justify because she lives with them; however, she does not have her own room and is expected to work long hours up to seven days a week. They do not provide her any sick or vacation days. They are not even coming close to compliance with New York state law for domestic workers from what I understand.

The situation is further complicated for our nanny’s friend by the fact that her employer, who is from the same country, has a diplomatic position here.

I told my husband that I don’t want to interact with the couple who employ her socially anymore, because I don’t want any appearance that we condone what is happening. I am torn on what else to do, though. I don’t want to ask my nanny to distance herself and further isolate the woman who is potentially being exploited, because that feels like the last thing she needs in this situation. I thought continuing to let the children play was probably O.K.

Our nanny’s friend did not confide directly in me, nor was I specifically asked for help; I was told about it in more of a “this is a terrible situation” way. What should I do? I don’t feel as if I can sit by and do nothing, but I don’t know if I could forgive myself if my intervention had a negative impact for our nanny’s friend. I don’t want to intervene in a way that ultimately does more harm than good. Name Withheld

My response: “What should I do?” … Asking what you should do makes sense for children asking their parents. For an adult, it looks like asking someone else to take responsibility, which I call juvenile. Asking for options or views you might have missed makes sense, but you didn’t ask that.

What should you do? I recommend:

  1. Figuring out what resources you have—relationships, time, etc
  2. Figuring what skills you have and can create
  3. Creating as many options as you can
  4. Considering what outcomes each option will result in
  5. Choosing which option to act on based on those outcomes, evaluating them using empathy
  6. Implement the option you like most
  7. Do the best you can, knowing that problems will arise

I would start by talking the the employers.

The New York Times response: When you hear of someone being exploited, you naturally want to intervene to make things better. But one thing that makes this a terrible situation is that there may be no improving intervention available. That’s because the nanny is almost certainly in the United States on an A-3 visa connected with her work with the diplomatic family. The visa requires her to leave the country (at the employer’s expense) when her employment ceases. If she were to complain, then, she would very likely just be sent back home. The reason the couple can exploit her is that she may well feel that, though she’s being badly treated here, she would be worse off at home. Unlike someone whose legal residence is not dependent on employment, she can’t just decide to go work somewhere else in the United States.

True, the working conditions your nanny describes violate the terms of the A-3 visa, which requires compliance with minimum-wage laws, the payment of overtime, at least one day a week off and so forth. But the State Department, which oversees these rules, does little to enforce them. In theory, a domestic worker could sue, but diplomatic immunity complicates litigation; even if a court ordered her employers to pay, collecting on it would be arduous.

Everyone knows there’s a problem here. There have been a handful of successful prosecutions of diplomats for violations of labor laws that included restitution, but these are the exception. To ensure that workers are protected, the State Department ideally would create a mechanism for systematic oversight of compliance with the contracts required for an A-3 visa, perhaps “naming and shaming” those diplomats who abuse the system. It could even close off the A-3 option for countries whose violations are egregious. But so far, this hasn’t been a priority. In the absence of such reform — or a few more high-profile scandals — your worries about doing the nanny more harm than good are, alas, well founded.

That you’re moved to act is commendable. But so is your recognition that good consequences, not merely good intentions, are what matters. In this case, nothing good may be in your power.

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