September 13, 2010

Cheaters Never Prosper

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The outpouring of reader responses to my last column shows that sexual identity, and the honesty and sensitivity that are required in dealing with sexual identity, are a pressing concern.One letter writer pointed out, “There is a difference between not coming out and pretending to be straight.” I agree, and it is exactly that difference which I tried to convey in my original column. There is absolutely nothing wrong with waiting until one feels comfortable to reveal one’s sexual orientation. I never instructed Nervous to come out “immediately,” as one reader believed. The goal should be peace of mind and comfort with who one is — as the French say, être bien dans sa peau. If she simply declines to correct other’s misconceptions, that is perfectly fine.The ethical violation comes if Nervous actively constructs a lie about her identity. If she was Chinese but told others she was Korean (hypothetically assuming that for some reason, being Chinese was stigmatized by many but being Korean was not), this would clearly be unethical. Representing herself as straight when she knows that she is not is equally deceptive. If there were a compelling threat — say, if Nervous were in the military and coming out would get her expelled — then her situation would be different. But to argue that it’s okay for her to pretend to be straight because if she told the truth other girls might not like her not only condones unethical behavior but also reinforces the stigma surrounding homosexuality.Although it might be hard to come out, being honest will be much more fulfilling for Nervous than living a lie. I intended her to come away with the message, “Don’t be afraid to tell people the truth — your real friends will accept you unconditionally and respect you for having the courage to tell the truth.” One reader wrote that every time his frat brothers considered a gay prospective pledge, the president would ask, “This pledge is gay. Does anyone have any objections?” In seven years, no one raised a hand.

Dear Everyday Ethicist,In my physics class, the textbook that we’re using has a solution manual online. I know many students are using it either to copy answers or check their answers. Since so many others are using it, I’m at a disadvantage because I have to spend more time doing worse quality work. What should I do?— Does Not Compute

Dear DNC,So you’re saying that because other people cheat, you should be able to cheat too? If you saw someone stealing food in Trillium, would it suddenly become ethical for you to grab your salad and run?Of course not. However, that doesn’t mean your grades should suffer as a result of your honesty. Your first recourse should be to speak with the professor. Did he or she make the solution manual available for students to use, or did the students illegally download it online? If the former, your worries may be unfounded — many professors don’t mind if students use the solution manual to check their answers.But if the other students are illegally downloading the solutions, then you should alert the professor. Maybe he or she can change the way problems are assigned or plan to switch textbooks the following semester. This might not be as easy as copying the answers, but in the long run, you might well have reason to pat yourself on the back. Prelims are usually worth far more than homework; students who take the lazy way out often find themselves struggling on exams when they don’t know how to solve the problems.

Elisabeth Rosen is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. She may be consulted at ethicist@cornellsun.com or erosen@cornellsun.com for all ethical dilemmas, sticky situations, faux pas’ and pickles. The Everyday Ethicist appears alternate Tuesdays this semester.

Original Author: Elisabeth Rosen