plagiarism, etiquette, and morality

Plagiarism by college students has gotten some attention in the New York Times lately, and it occurs to me that I have dropped the ball on a series of posts about plagiarism that I started earlier this summer. Although I had planned to write other stuff next, I’m instead going to allow myself to be sidetracked by Stanley Fish’s Opinionator post, “Plagiarism is Not a Big Moral Deal,” which I found perplexing.

Fish makes two main claims:

  1. Plagiarism is a learned sin
  2. Plagiarism is not a philosophical issue (more specifically, I think he means it’s not a moral issue)

Regarding point 1, Fish writes:

The concept of plagiarism, however,  is learned in more specialized contexts of practice entered into only by a  few; it’s hard to get from the notion that you shouldn’t appropriate your neighbor’s car to the notion that you should not repeat his words without citing him. The rule that you not use words that were first uttered or written by another without due attribution is less like the rule against stealing, which is at least culturally universal, than it is like  the rules of golf.

Regarding point 2:

Now if plagiarism is an idea that makes sense only in the precincts of certain specialized practices and is not a normative philosophical notion, inquiries into its philosophical underpinnings  are of no practical interest or import… Everyday disciplinary practices do not rest on a foundation of philosophy or theory; they rest on a foundation of themselves;  no theory or philosophy can either prop them up or topple them. As long as the practice is ongoing and flourishing its conventions will command respect and allegiance and flouting them will have negative consequences.

It seems to me that point 1 doesn’t have any important implications for understanding plagiarism. While Fish admits that, in some sense, every sin is learned, he implies that what’s interesting in the plagiarism case is that rules regarding attribution of work to others are not “culturally universal.” That is, while some rules are shared across all cultures (for example, rules against gratuitous harms to others, presumably), other rules, like those against plagiarism, are not. Rather, plagiarism rules belong to specific sub-cultures (journalism, philosophy, science), and not to others.

Fair enough. But Fish seems to take the non-universality of plagiarism rules as evidence that they are not a moral matter. However, a rule’s not being shared across cultures is insufficient to show that it is not a moral rule, and must instead be one of professional etiquette (or whatever else). A rule’s non-universality is in fact perfectly consistent with a variety of moral theories, even besides cultural relativism. That’s because many moral philosophers hold that morality is sensitive to circumstances. An act that is permissible for a culture living in a very harsh environment might not be permissible for a culture living in a more favorable environment, for instance.

Plagiarism rules can be understood as a response to the circumstances of people working in particular professions. They seem to be a moral response, and not merely one of etiquette or prudence, because plagiarism rules are about limiting harms and facilitating collaboration amongst community members. Are these not the hallmarks of other moral rules, such as those against shooting your neighbors and stealing their stuff?

So, notice that point 2 doesn’t follow from point 1, and seems false besides. Plagiarism rules do not “rest on a foundation of themselves,” as perhaps do silly etiquette matters such as using one’s forks in a particular order so as to signal classiness to one’s dining companions. Rather, plagiarism rules originate from, and are justified by, the circumstances of certain professionals that make plagiarism potentially harmful to individuals and deleterious to communities of inquiry. As moral practices, they are indeed a proper subject of philosophical scrutiny. If the plagiarism rules adopted by professional communities were somehow unfair in principle or in their effects, then philosophers might indict them on moral grounds.

What then of college students who plagiarize? It’s true that they are not full-fledged members of the ingroup to which plagiarism rules apply. Yet, even plagiarism by students has significant potential to harm individuals and damage communities. So, plagiarism by students is wrong for the same types of reasons as plagiarism by professionals is wrong – although not necessarily to the same extent, because the stakes in the former case are lower. However, as in many other moral cases, students’ lack of knowledge of the wrongness of plagiarism, their failure to understand what constitutes it, and/or their lack of intent to commit it may go some ways towards mitigating their blameworthiness.


  • Amen to that!
    Having recently run into a bad case of plagiarism by a non-western friend of mine who copied and pasted 60% 0f his master thesis from the web, I do wonder about the cultural attitudes to this practice though.
    Friend was extremely offended that I got livid about it.

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