Thursday, May 17, 2007

The Cheek!

From the mailbag:
I made the mistake of copying your "Rousseau and Freedom," paper from your blog [link]. I am sorry. My university is going to charge me with cheating. Can you please do me a big favor and temporarily take down "Rousseau and Freedom,"??? I will owe you forever. Please let me know if you can help! Thank you!

[Name redacted]

I guess it's too much to hope that the additional question marks indicate his implicit understanding of the question's absurdity...

Still, it raises an interesting philosophical question: is it a pragmatic contradiction to apologize and then seek to escape culpability? Ben suggests, "an apology is not really a true apology if the person in question does not attempt to right the wrong that has occurred." Is this right -- does attempting to evade responsibility entail that an apology is insincere? Or is it possible to genuinely admit culpability, and yet seek to avoid what you recognize to be your just deserts?


  1. I particularly liked the reductio ad absurdum of "I will owe you forever." Be thankful for small mercies. At least they didn't contact u in txt tlk.

  2. Well, I think that, even if Ben is right, this particular guy may not be guilty of pragmatic contradiction. He's apologizing to *you* for stealing your stuff (i.e., for harming you), and that's what he's sorry for. He may not be sorry that he cheated (i.e., for harming the university), though, so there's no contradiction in trying to cover it up.

    That being said ... what a moron!!

  3. This comment has been removed by the author.

  4. On what is hopefully a different note--

    I'd like like to post a brief thank-you to you and your posters for the insightful discussions you conduct on this message board. I'm a third-year university student about two-thirds of the way through a philosophy minor, and I've just (as in within the last hour) finished taking my year-end exam. During the course of studying for this exam, I have been utilizing your site extensively for discussions conducted in a contemporary tone, which have been invaluable in helping me understanding points that had been eluding me.

    As for the topic at hand, I believe that an apology can still be sincere without attempting to rectify the error. Certainly your plagiarizer hasn't learned his lesson (or at least the moral improprieties of his actions), but that does not mean that he regrets his actions and the wrong they imposed on you.

    Thanks again, and I expect to become a regular reader.

  5. C'mon guys: it looks like it was an honest cut/paste mistake...

  6. A sociopath may be the only one able to pull off the otherwise contradictory feat. He genuinely apologizes, in the sense that he admits that he did wrong and seeks forgiveness. Although he is not genuinely contrite, there is a certain sincerity in his admission that he did wrong. He entreats us for pardon. There's no contradiction there because his apology, unlike ours, does not entail a preference for punishment. So, as long as the sense in which his apology is sincere is robust enough, the sociopath pulls off the feat.

    Non-sociopaths can't pull off the feat. Kant was right that they prefer their own punishment (though he was wrong in saying that the preference comes from Reason.) They also have strong desires not to be punished, and if those desires get control, the contradictory behavior shows up.

  7. I don't think Tea's quite right. It's correct to say that there's really two wrong actions in play -- (1) submitting plagiarized work and (2) ripping off Richard's work. I don't think it's correct to say that this kid's sincerely apologizing for (2) while trying to avoid culpability for (1), because the culpability for (1) hinges on the culpability for (2). That is, Richard has no way to punish him for (2) except allowing him to be punished for (1). So, there's a pragmatic contradiction here: the culpability for (1) is not in practice separable from the culpability for (2).

    I don't think the kid's a sociopath, though, contrary to Jim. I think this is better seen as a plea for mercy: he (I say "he", but could be "she") knows he did wrong and apologizes for it, but is sufficiently frightened of the punishment to ask to be let off the hook.

    On a tangential note, though, has he never heard of Google cache?

  8. A better question is whether his professor has heard of it or not, and whether the student has actually been caught and is looking for a way to remove the evidence in order to provide a defense ("no - professor so-and-so did not find the paper I copied online!") or whether he just thinks that it's very likely the professor will find it.

    Either way, though, I think the thing to do is look up the student's university and forward along the email to the professor of the course (or if it is ambiguous, just the department chair).

  9. He should hack into the University firewall and get it to filter any page thet mentions "Rousseau".

  10. Jonathan - you're welcome!

    I don't actually think the plagiarist imposed any wrong on me in particular. (If anything, I get to benefit by being amused!) I just think that plagiarism is a crime against our intellectual institutions in general. So I wouldn't want a personal apology (though Tea may be right that this is what the student intended) -- my interest in his punishment is more impersonal.

    DP - unfortunately, he wrote from a non-university (gmail) account.

  11. Jim - that sounds like a good analysis.

    ADHR - What do you make of the following argument: self-acknowledged wrongdoing entails the believe that one ought to be punished accordingly. We are committed to desiring what we believe ought to happen, because to believe that something ought to happen, is just to believe that one would desire it if one were fully rational, etc. So there is something irrational, or self-contradictory (at least, contradicting one's ideal self!), to seek to avoid what one recognizes to be their just deserts.

  12. you could name the gmail account and we could do a little "investigating"

    having said that maybe being able to recognise a good example and take it as your own is actually an important skill.


  13. Richard,

    I had someone reference a post of yours in a paper last year. I think it was a post on the problem of evil, but I can't now recall.

  14. Richard:

    I think I'd deny the second premise. First premise -- "self-acknowledged wrongdoing entails the belief that one ought to be punished accordingly" -- seems right. It's hard to make sense of the idea that I can sincerely acknowledge wrongdoing and yet not think I ought to be punished (or, more mildly perhaps, at least blamed or held responsible).

    Second premise, though -- "We are committed to desiring what we believe ought to happen, because to believe that something ought to happen, is just to believe that one would desire it if one were fully rational, etc." -- seems wrong, for three reasons.

    One, I'm not convinced that the (standard) account of beliefs and desires playing together to generate or underwrite oughts is correct, and it's at work in the second premise. My misgivings stem from more robustly realistic accounts of so-called "normative" reasons. (I'm thinking of Jonathan Dancy and Rudiger Bittner here.) Believing and desiring don't really have a lot to do with making something a genuine ought. Genuine oughts are found in the world.

    Two, the connection the second premise draws between believing and desiring, although someone like Michael Smith is a-okay with it, looks dubious to me. I don't see the incoherence in believing that I ought to do something, and yet having no desire to do it and denying that I should have the desire to do it. This is, I suppose, a case of a weak amoralist -- not someone who resolutely believes all moral claims are bunk, but someone who thinks (rightly or wrongly) that some particular moral claims don't exert any force on his motivational set.

    Three, I'm not convinced that rationality in itself is a source of oughts. So, even an ideally rational agent may have no oughts at all. This ties back into my first point, as if oughts must, in some sense, be discovered or found, then it follows that perfect rationality is at best a good method for finding them -- it's not the same as finding them.

  15. If the plagiarized material has already been submitted, then it may not be possible to right the wrong without facing punishment. I think the guy wants to avoid punishment, and do what it takes to achieve this.

    I don't see how that would help. I am sure Google Cache and similar services would have indexed your original content by now.

    --Ramnath R Iyer

  16. And if their Prof is a regular here, or reads around this site, then they just got themselves a whole heap more trouble, by trying to avert the course of justice...
    I say throw the book at them Prof!


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