Tuesday, August 10, 2010


Pace Stanley Fish, who is always worth reading, even when he's wrong, plagiarism is a big moral deal.

Fish offers several cogent arguments to the contrary in his recent "Opinionator" piece, "Plagiarism Is Not a Big Moral Deal," the most insightful of which is that professional standards are not the same as moral imperatives.

This resembles the principle that appears in legal theory as the difference between mala prohibita and mala in se: that is, the difference between merely procedural crimes (e.g., driving down the wrong side of the road) and crimes that are morally objectionable in themselves (e.g., murder).

In the latter case, the law recognizes acts of moral significance. In the former case, moral significance (if there is any) is the creation of the law--if there were no traffic law, there would be no moral significance in choosing which side of the road to drive down. This is part of why traffic violations that result in no harm to person or property are minimally punished. They're not a big deal. We punish them only because having a system of traffic regulation is, overall, a good thing, not because there is an eternal moral imperative to drive on the right side of the road.

Fish wants us to view plagiarism as something like a malum prohibitum: something that violates the merely procedural dictates of a self-contained community.

But my language begins to betray me already.

Fish does not use the word "community" in reference to academia--only in reference to golfers. Academia is "our house," a "guild," a "context of practice," a language game which students must learn to play.

It is no accident that Fish does not call academia a community. A community is more morally weighty than a guild or a "context of practice."

Fish's overall point, by the way, is not that plagiarism shouldn't be punished--it is that there is no philosophical warrant for valuing originality. And in this, he is correct.

But codes against plagiarism are not about protecting original work. Standards of proper citation do not exist to protect the originator of an idea. That's the difference between plagiarism codes and copyright law.

Standards of proper citation exist to cultivate habits of worthy discourse within the academic community. (And, yes, I am just silly enough to pretend that something called "the academic community" exists, or at least could.) They exist to train us to participate in the tradition of academic discussion.

Proper citation trains us in courtesy--we acknowledge our intellectual debts both for the sake of our intellectual parents and for the sake of our current conversation partners. In the former sense, our intellectual parents may have a stake in the conversation in which we are quoting them; proper citation courteously invites them into that conversation, as it were. In the latter sense, citing our sources allows our current conversation partners to understand most fully what we are saying. We do our conversation partners the courtesy of aiding their investigation into our arguments.

Proper citation trains us in truth-telling. As the previous point suggests, when we acknowledge our intellectual debts, we allow for the fullest possible understanding of our claims and arguments. This transparency may make our arguments vulnerable; perhaps the scholar whose phrasing we found so felicitous was known for eliding fact and assertion, or perhaps the "varied" studies we are marshaling to prove our points were all funded by the same super-conglomerate. Proper citation is a kind of full disclosure, the kind of openness that is necessary for excellent discourse.

Proper citation trains us in respect. Acknowledging our intellectual debts is a kind of justice--giving someone her due, as Thomas Aquinas put it (more or less, somewhere-or-other). If we have been taught, our teacher has earned something from us--not the recognition of his originality, but the recognition of his generosity in teaching us (however remote or impersonal the mode of teaching).

And proper citation trains us in diligence. Students and scholars who plagiarize are not, in general, trying to claim false credit for original thoughts--they are trying to get out of doing hard work. Charitable description, thoughtful analysis, and persuasive rhetoric are difficult practices to master; proper citation is itself, as Fish acknowledges, a kind of skill that one must master. Anti-plagiarism codes are designed to identify and, yes, even weed out those who do not care to do that work, to learn those skills.

Respect, truth-telling, courtesy, diligence--these are all morally weighty terms. If Fish is right that originality is not a terribly interesting or valuable thing, he misses that it is the least of the things proper citation is designed to cultivate.

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