Nothing so needs reforming as other people's habits.
- Pudd'nhead Wilson, (by Mark Twain)
By Kwame Anthony Appiah
- April 2, 2019
My daughter spends half her school day in an arts high school, the other half in a traditional high school. Recently, she shared with me instances in which one of her peers had plagiarized in the arts school and cheated on exams in the regular high school. She told me that her peer is considered, by teachers in the art school, to be a superior writer.
One afternoon she came home from the arts school upset because the cheater read aloud a supposedly original poem that my daughter recognized as having been written by a former student. She quietly pointed out to the cheater that she recognized the work. The cheater shrugged.
I think my daughter has an obligation to stop the cheating by informing the teacher. I suggested that she photocopy the original poem and give it to the teacher and allow the teacher to reach her own conclusions. I think that my daughter is loath to do anything because in part she is upset about being upstaged by a cheater. I think this emotional sidebar is secondary to the fact that the cheater is stealing from the whole class: Writing from the cheater is not a good sample for others to workshop because it is not original and taints the learning opportunities of the other students. At the traditional high school, the cheater’s test scores may also wrongly modify the grading curve, which affects the grades of all other students in the class.
My daughter’s friends independently became aware that this student is a cheater and plagiarizer. They urged my daughter to “rat” on the cheater. I wish these friends had informed teachers before now. It seems unlikely that the friends are willing or able to join together to talk to a teacher. But I really want my daughter to take a stand here. Am I wrong? Name Withheld
Young people belong to a world of group norms, and a central one favors loyalty to their peer group over the authority of their elders. In ordinary circumstances, “ratting out” a peer violates that norm. A member of the group can get away with it if others regard the wrong in question as itself a betrayal of the group and as a serious violation. They aren’t likely to be impressed by your specific objections — your point about its effects on the grading curve or your claim (which I don’t quite get) that a good poem is a bad sample if it’s stolen. The norm violation that will register, oddly, is the cheater’s showing off, the effort to make himself or herself look better than the rest. The cheater’s classmates will have resented what your daughter resented: being upstaged.
The real reason this young person should be reported is that what he or she has done is wrong. Yes, cheating of this sort does slightly damage other people, by misrepresenting their relative capacities. It may also be bad for this young person if it brings him or her to a place where expectations of his or her performance are higher than they should be: The cheater may have to keep cheating to maintain appearances, thereby increasing the likelihood of being found out and discredited. But the heart of the wrong here is that the cheater is deceiving teachers, taking advantage of their good will and the unearned respect they have for him or her. Honesty, like all virtues, entails a whole complex of attitudes and behavior.
You, like some of her classmates, want your daughter to take sole responsibility for seeing that this wrong is recognized and punished. Upholding the value of honesty, in this way, would make sense if she were the only person who was in a position to do so. But she isn’t. And it would be cowardly of her friends to have her bear all the social risk here. A better solution is at hand: A group of those who know what’s going on should come forward together. You doubt that they’ll do this. But has anyone asked them to? And isn’t that the first thing for your daughter to work toward?
She could, of course, just slip the evidence to the teacher anonymously, or she could inform the teacher along with a request for confidentiality, assuming she thinks the teacher would respect that request. Why am I suggesting the other approach, then? Because the collective affirmation of honesty would be a better outcome for her peer group. They could think of themselves as having chosen to speak out against cheating. And that might help them keep to that norm in subsequent years. Nothing fixes a value in your mind better than having stood up for it together with your friends.
The Ethicist, Kwame Anthony Appiah, March 23, 2016
My father-in-law is quietly racist, sexist and anti-gay. He was kind enough to offer me a job at his firm. I had previously voiced my (respectful) dissent, but this became tiring when I saw him every day. I began to ignore his comments but felt guilty, because I believe that silence equals complicity. One day, after he said something particularly mean and I said nothing, I assuaged my guilt by making a donation to Planned Parenthood. Since then, I’ve adopted a strategy of donating to different organizations whenever I fail to speak up. The amounts are small, but large enough to be uncomfortable for me; I see these as a kind of punishment for not being courageous or energetic enough to keep standing up to him.
My question is threefold: First, ethically, must I disclose to him that his words result in my funding organizations whose work he is against? Second, is my method an ethical way to assuage my own guilt? Third, if I do not disclose the donations, may I take comfort in a ‘‘revenge’’ of which the subject is never aware? I have been wondering about this for a long time, but it is a secret from my husband, and I am too embarrassed to discuss the issue with friends. Name Withheld
You have my sympathy. Your father-in-law sounds like a real charmer. A marriage brings you together with more than a spouse, and sometimes that’s a burden. (It can also be a plus; in your case, it has landed you a job.) But you’re not responsible for the backward views of your father-in-law, even if he is also your employer. Nor are you obliged to keep reminding him that he is wrong; you have already tried to correct him, and it made no difference. So you aren’t complicit with every bigoted remark you don’t vocally object to. You have made your position clear.
Why, then, does he keep at it? You might wonder if he hasn’t taken to expressing his views as a kind of power play, hoping to provoke you. If he makes sexist remarks that cause you and other women to feel seriously discomfited, he may even be in breach of the law, given that — for firms with 15 or more employees — creating a hostile work environment based on gender is a Title VII violation. (The same goes for race.)
But those are all strikes against him, not against you. You need not bear the whole burden of trying to correct his moral errors. It’s sad that you feel you can’t take this up with your husband. Might you reconsider? I would have thought that others in the family would want to share with you the work of edifying your father-in-law. After all, as long as he is not actively harming blacks, women and L.G.B.T. people, your father-in-law is the main casualty here, because, from an ethical point of view, his views diminish him.
I don’t wish to discourage you from giving to good causes, but you shouldn’t do so in a spirit of self-flagellation. You haven’t done anything wrong; there’s no guilt for you to assuage. Nor does the idea of revenge strike me as an attractive motive.
Must you tell him what you’re doing? The reason to do so is that it would, no doubt, annoy him to discover that each nasty word was funding causes he opposes. But letting him know won’t change his ways. I would give to the causes you support in a spirit of generosity and leave the mean spirits to your father-in-law.
“If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.
(ג) אָמַר רַבִּי יוֹסֵי בַּר חֲנִינָא הַתּוֹכַחַת מְבִיאָה לִידֵי אַהֲבָה, שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר (משלי ט, ח): הוֹכַח לְחָכָם וְיֶאֱהָבֶךָּ, הִיא דַּעְתֵּיהּ דְּרַבִּי יוֹסֵי בַּר חֲנִינָא דְּאָמַר כָּל אַהֲבָה שֶׁאֵין עִמָּהּ תּוֹכָחָה אֵינָהּ אַהֲבָה. אָמַר רֵישׁ לָקִישׁ תּוֹכָחָה מְבִיאָה לִידֵי שָׁלוֹם, וְהוֹכִחַ אַבְרָהָם אֶת אֲבִימֶלֶךְ, הִיא דַּעְתֵּיהּ דְּאָמַר כָּל שָׁלוֹם שֶׁאֵין עִמּוֹ תּוֹכָחָה אֵינוֹ שָׁלוֹם. (בראשית כא, כה):
Rabbi Yossi bar Hanina said: "Rebuke leads to love, as it says 'Rebuke a wise person and he will love you.'" That is the opinion of Rabbi Yossi bar Hanina who said: "All love that does not include rebuke is not love." Reish Lakish said: "Rebuke leads to peace, [as it says] 'Avraham rebuked Avimelech.'" That is his opinion who said: "All peace that does not include rebuke is not peace."
Rabbi Zeira said to Rabbi Simon: Let the Master reprimand the members of the house of the Exilarch. [Rabbi Simon] said to him: They will not accept reprimand from me. [Rabbi Zeira] said to him: Let my master reprimand them even if they do not accept it.
§ The Sages taught: “You shall not hate your brother in your heart; you shall rebuke [hokhe’aḥ tokhiaḥ] your neighbor, and do not bear sin because of him” (Leviticus 19:17). Why does the verse specify “in your heart”? One might have thought that the verse means: Do not hit him, do not slap him, and do not ruin him due to hatred. Therefore the verse states “in your heart.” This teaches that the verse speaks of hatred in the heart. From where is it derived with regard to one who sees an unseemly matter in another that he is obligated to rebuke him? As it is stated: “You shall rebuke [hokhe’aḥ tokhiaḥ] your neighbor.” If one rebuked him for his action but he did not accept the rebuke, from where is it derived that he must rebuke him again? The verse states: “You shall rebuke [hokhe’aḥ tokhiaḥ],” in any case. One might have thought that one should continue rebuking him even if his face changes due to humiliation. Therefore, the verse states: “Do not bear sin because of him”; the one giving rebuke may not sin by embarrassing the other person.
It is taught in a baraita that Rabbi Tarfon says: I would be surprised if there is anyone in this generation who can receive rebuke.
Why? Because if the one rebuking says to him: Remove the splinter from between your eyes, i.e., rid yourself of a minor infraction, the other says to him: Remove the beam from between your eyes, i.e., you have committed far more severe sins. Rabbi Elazar ben Azaria says: I would be surprised if there is anyone in this generation who knows how to rebuke correctly, without embarrassing the person he is rebuking.
And Rabbi Yoḥanan ben Nuri says: I call the heavens and the earth as witnesses before me that Akiva was lashed, i.e., punished, many times on my account, as I would complain about him before Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel the Great. And all the more so I thereby increased his love for me.
This incident serves to affirm that which is stated: “Do not rebuke a scorner lest he hate you; rebuke a wise man and he will love you” (Proverbs 9:8).
Rabbi Yehuda, son of Rabbi Shimon, asked his father: If one is faced with the choice of rebuke for its own sake, or humility not for its own sake, which of them is preferable? His father said to him: Do you not concede that humility for its own sake is preferable? As the Master says: Humility is the greatest of all the positive attributes. If so, humility not for its own sake is also preferable, as Rav Yehuda says that Rav says: A person should always engage in Torah and mitzvot even if not for their own sake, i.e., without the proper motivation but for ulterior motives, as through the performance of mitzvot not for their own sake, one will come in the end to do them for their own sake.
The Gemara asks: What is considered rebuke for its own sake and humility not for its own sake? The Gemara answers: It is like this incident that occurred when Rav Huna and Ḥiyya bar Rav were sitting before Shmuel. Ḥiyya bar Rav said to Shmuel: See, Master, that Rav Huna is afflicting me. Rav Huna accepted upon himself that he would not afflict Ḥiyya bar Rav anymore. After Ḥiyya bar Rav left, Rav Huna said to Shmuel: Ḥiyya bar Rav did such-and-such to me, and therefore I was in the right to cause him distress. Shmuel said to him: Why did you not say this in his presence? Rav Huna said to him: Heaven forbid that the son of Rav should be humiliated because of me. This provides an example of rebuke for its own sake, as Rav Huna originally rebuked Ḥiyya bar Rav only when Shmuel was not present, and of humility not for its own sake, as Rav Huna did not forgive Ḥiyya bar Rav but simply did not wish to humiliate him.
§ The Gemara asks: Until where does the obligation of rebuke extend? Rav says: Until his rebuke is met by hitting, i.e., until the person being rebuked hits the person rebuking him.And Shmuel says: Until his rebuke is met by cursing, i.e., he curses the one rebuking him. And Rabbi Yoḥanan says: Until his rebuke is met by reprimand.
And Rabbi Ile’a said in the name of Rabbi Elazar, son of Rabbi Shimon: Just as it is a mitzva for a person to say that which will be heeded, so is it a mitzva for a person not to say that which will not be heeded. Rabbi Abba says: It is obligatory [for him to refrain from speaking], as it is stated: “Do not reprove a scorner lest he hate you; reprove a wise man and he will love you” (Proverbs 9:8).
כל מי שאפשר למחות לאנשי ביתו ולא מיחה נתפס על אנשי ביתו באנשי עירו נתפס על אנשי עירו בכל העולם כולו נתפס על כל העולם כולו
Anyone who had the capability to protest the members of his household and did not protest, he himself is apprehended for the members of his household. [If he is in a position to protest] the people of his town, he is apprehended for the people of his town. The whole world, he is apprehended for the whole world.
אלא הנח להם לישראל מוטב שיהיו שוגגין ואל יהיו מזידין הכא נמי הנח להם לישראל מוטב שיהיו שוגגין ואל יהיו מזידין והני מילי בדרבנן אבל בדאורייתא לא ולא היא לא שנא בדאורייתא ולא שנא בדרבנן לא אמרינן להו ולא מידי
Rather, the accepted principle is: Leave the Jews alone; it is better that they be unwitting sinners and not be intentional sinners. [There were those who understood that] this principle applies only to rabbinic prohibitions but not to Torah prohibitions. However, this is not so; it is no different whether the prohibition is by Torah law or whether it is by rabbinic law, we do not say anything to them.
He who rebukes a friend, at the beginning, no hard words should be used against him to shame him, for it is said: "And thou shalt bear no sin upon him" (Lev. 19.17). Thus did the wise men say: "Understand it not by rebuking him thou mayest cause his countenance to change expression; for, it is said: 'And thou shalt bear no sin upon him'" (Ibid.; Arakin, 16b); herefrom we learn that it is forbidden to put an Israelite to shame, needless to say publicly. Although he who does put his fellow to shame is not flogged, it is a grievous sin. Even so did the wise men say: "He who publicly puts his fellow's countenance to shame has no share in the world to come" (Pirke Abot, 3.15). A man is, therefore obliged to guard himself against putting his fellow to shame publicly, regardless of whether he be young or old; not to call him by a name of which he feels ashamed, nor tell aught in his presence of which he is ashamed. However, all these refer to matters touching the relationship between man and man; but if it concern heavenly matters, if the sinner does not repent after being rebuked privately, he should be shamed publicly, and his sin should be proclaimed, and harsh words should be used in his presence, and he should be shamed and cursed till he repent and take up the good path, even as all of the prophets in Israel did with the wicked.8Baba Mezi’a 59a; Yoma, 86b. C. G.
תני תנא קמיה דרב נחמן בר יצחק כל המלבין פני חבירו ברבים כאילו שופך דמים א"ל שפיר קא אמרת דחזינא ליה דאזיל סומקא ואתי חוורא
The tanna taught a baraita before Rav Naḥman bar Yitzḥak: Anyone who humiliates another in public, it is as though he were spilling blood. [Rav Naḥman bar Yitzḥak] said to him: You have spoken well, as we see that after the humiliated person blushes, the red leaves his face and pallor comes in its place.