The Ethicist, with a twist

I like Randy Cohen, the former writer for the NY Times ethicist column, and I especially enjoyed his weekly podcast when it aired. A friend once asked if something he was planning to do was ethical, and unintentionally, my response sounded a lot like one that Randy Cohen would write. My friend, also a listener to Cohen’s podcast, noticed this immediately and pointed it out to me.

He was right. So I got wondering how I might supplant Cohen and take over the Times Ethicist column myself.

Launch a shock-and-awe air attack while his defenses are down?

Publish a spurious rumor about he and Tiger Woods?

Wait for him to die?

Then it occurred to me that I could do one better than Cohen. Rather than simply answer the questions in terms of what is ethical, I could also include my opinion on what is reasonable and advisable, because in my mind, the two rarely match.

I doubt goody-two-shoes Randy Cohen would ever think about offering advice contrary to his ethical reasoning, and therein lies my potential niche.

So here’s my first version of The Not-So Ethical Ethicist. Below is the word-for-word email exchange between me and my friend, including my unethical suggestion.

THE QUESTION: I have an assignment due for a class but I am permitted to pick a topic under a fairly general category. I have already written a paper for another class that conforms to the assignment. Ethical?

ANSWER: No. The assignment is not simply an expectation of final product but an expectation that you will complete the work required for a final product. It's an issue of time-on-task in order to promote learning. In fact, the paper is merely a representation of the time and effort that you will spend reading, researching and writing. It serves as evidence of your academic pursuit. In order for you to learn, this professor expects you to complete a specific amount of research and writing, as did the previous professor who assigned the paper that you are thinking of submitting. To submit a paper that you have already written takes the work that you did for one class and piggybacks it onto another, circumventing the amount of time that each professor expected you to spend in an academic endeavor.

Stretched to its extreme, would it be ethical for a student to peddle the same paper throughout his entire college career if possible, submitting it to a dozen or more professors, or would doing so undermine the purpose of writing the paper?

The question of whether it is ethical can be easily solved by answering this question: Would you be willing to submit the paper along with a note explaining that you wrote the paper previously for another class? If you are, then submit. If not, then you know the professor would not approve and are therefore being deceitful.

MY SUGGESTION: Submit the paper anyway. Having participated in an online Masters program similar to the one that you are currently enrolled, I am aware of how much of the work amounts to little more than busy work, requiring little by way of mental fortitude. When professors fail to honor your time with worthy and meaningful assignments, you are not required to honor them with original work. The work must be your own, of course,and you must be certain that you will not be caught, but if this is a one-time opportunity to submit a paper twice and spend a little more time with your family, I say do it and call it even with that time-wasting professor. Your family will appreciate you for it in the long run, and you will be doing no one any harm.

UPDATE: My friend chose to utilize sections of the original paper as a starting point, further researching and expanding upon them in order to write a relatively new paper.

So what do you think? Does a column like this have possibilities?

If you have an ethical dilemma that you would like me to weigh in on, please submit it to