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Partners and Senior Advisors use the firm's blog to write on current ethics and leadership topics.

Fuzzy Personal Feelings and Institutional Rules

Is it unethical to submit the same paper for credit in two separate, unrelated college courses, without either instructor being aware that you were doing so? This June 2, 2013, inquiry to the New York Times “Ethicist,” Chuck Klosterman, received an interesting reply. At first, The Ethicist thought it was unethical because every teacher operates “from the position that any assignment she makes is exclusive to that class, even if she doesn’t say so at the outset.” He went on: “It’s as if you were breaking a rule that was so over-the-top obvious it may not have been overtly outlined.” Then, Klosterman said that his initial reaction was wrong. Upon reflection, he found the act to be one of “genius,” since it did not harm others nor provide the “clever, lazy person” with “an unfair advantage” or “unjustified reward.”  He concluded that “fuzzy personal feelings and institutional rules do not dictate ethics.” He was right the first time.

Klosterman himself acknowledges that the rule that “work done for a specific class will be used only for that specific class” is “assumed” by every professor, and is “over-the-top obvious.” If this is so, then the issue does come down to the ethical right of every student to choose which “institutional rules” he or she will violate with impunity. Oddly, both the person making the inquiry and The Ethicist agreed that “it might get you expelled from some universities.” But, why? If it isn’t unethical? Is it a question of explicit versus implicit rules? Klosterman does not say so. For him, it then does seem to come down to a question of “institutional rules,” which, along with “fuzzy personal feelings” are not grounds for determining moral acts. Let me look at both grounds, beginning with the ethical claim “institutional rules” have on members of those institutions.

Institutions have rules for many reasons, all, theoretically, to advance the purposes of the institution itself. Some of those rules seem to one or another of its members as being wrong-headed or trivial or just plain silly. Nevertheless, members agree implicitly to abide by those rules, so the institution can run efficiently and purposefully. It is a social contract, if you will, quite similar to the one citizens have with each other in dealing with their government. I put to one side for purposes of this discussion, whether every member of every institution is bound by every rule all the time. Of course not. Some rules are immoral and may – or even must – be challenged or disobeyed by morally appropriate means. So, something like civil disobedience is often morally justified. Nor am I talking about emergencies, when rules sometimes have to be adumbrated by the demands of the moment. Neither of these “exceptions” could be seriously argued for in the case at hand.

What might be argued is the fact that since the rule wasn’t stated as a rule in so many words, it has no binding force. That overly “legalistic” way of thinking is the bane of every serious-minded ethical person. The rule in this case is “obvious,” so obvious, in fact, that the person making the inquiry states he did not tell either professor he was submitting the same paper in the two separate courses. Why? Because he knew perfectly well what both professors would say. “You are not allowed to do that.” Such conduct warrants expulsion in some schools, and at least a disqualified paper for credit in one of those courses, probably everywhere. Would this discussion arise if the rule were explicitly stated? Klosterman slides right over that one. But his statement that “institutional rules” do not warrant ethical obedience is troublesome indeed. No, not just troublesome, just plain wrong.

Now, I want to add a comment on the statement The Ethicist makes about “fuzzy personal feelings.” No, I will not argue that he is wrong-headed here. But he isn’t exactly right either. Here’s why. An ethical tradition, articulated by Aristotle, but clearly pre-dating him, is called virtue ethics. It partly says that if we educate students properly, they will develop good habits and act more or less instinctively to do the right thing. Reflection may change a person’s mind, but hard thinking does not normally precede most human acts. If we were habituated not to lie, cheat or steal, we simply, mostly, instinctively, do not lie, cheat or steal. And often some “fuzzy personal feeling” alerts us to potential bad acts, even if we do not quite know exactly why our moral memory muscle is telling us not to cross a particular line. Oddly, The Ethicist did experience that “fuzzy” feeling; but dismissed it by thinking through the matter to what, sadly, I think is the wrong answer. He should, perhaps, pay better attention to his ethically trained instincts – and to the value of and the necessity for binding institutional rules.

Posted in Ethics
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