Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Plagiarism is a Big Moral Deal

But not according to Stanley Fish today in a NYT post titled "Plagiarism is Not a Big Moral Deal". Now a lot depends on Fish's use of the words "big" and "moral".

First, on the claim that plagiarism is an issue in the small world of academia. Fish notes:

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.
So, plagiarism is not like stealing apparently. But is that right? Is it really more like breaking the rules of a game? This is what Fish suggests with the several paragraphs long discussion of various sports and their rules. A rule, in that context, is simply an agreement on the procedures that should be followed. No big moral deal - as he says.

Second, on defining plagiarism, it is found to lack a philosophical basis, and therefore has no moral claim on which its proscription can stand:

the ground plagiarism stands on is more mundane and firm; it is the ground of disciplinary practices and of the histories that have conferred on those practices a strong, even undoubted (though revisable) sense of what kind of work can be appropriately done and what kind of behavior cannot be tolerated.
So disciplinary practice and moral proscription are two parallel universes? Fish says that originality, which is what plagiarism is intended to protect is not such a big deal:

If it is wrong to plagiarize in some context of practice, it is not because the idea of originality has been affirmed by deep philosophical reasoning, but because the ensemble of activities that take place in the practice would be unintelligible if the possibility of being original were not presupposed.
But originality does not need to be philosophically based in order for the literal copying of a text to be wrong. Taking something without asking is wrong. Period. That is a moral claim, and there are numerous contexts to which it applies. Some are professional, others are not. Why is this so complicated? Stealing is morally and professionally proscribed and no philosophical justification or that philosophy's denial (Fish) adds anything to this proscription.

Fish ends with the following, which is where he is most tellingly wrong:

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.
No, Professor Fish. Everyday disciplinary practices rest on the foundation of human art and science, the conventions of which are possible on the basis of human nature, a nature capable of virtue and vice and much else besides.

That is the ultimate moral foundation by which the rising problem of plagiarism ought to be judged. Plagiarism is stealing or lying and usually both if done intentionally. (The plagiarism which I've encountered as a teacher is the unintentional sort - people who literally did not know that they were stealing/lying!)

But here's the point: the person who plagiarized Professor Fish undoubtedly still feels guilt over what he/she did. And guilt is a sure sign of moral failure, a different kind of failure than forgetting to tag third base on the way to home.

No comments:

Post a Comment