Once upon a time there supposedly was a professor, part of whose most recent journal article bore a striking resemblance to passages from John Dewey, whose own prosaic style philosopher William James deemed "damnable."1 When confronted by this similarity, the professor merely shrugged and confessed, not to plagiarism, but to having read Dewey so many times that she must have had it memorized. Dewey? Memorized? Certainly not by accident! But if the professor used Dewey to a valuable end, might we not excuse the Plato who, even anonymously, brought her Socrates to light?

A recent article in MEDIA ETHICS (Douglas Perret Starr, "Some Musings on Plagiarism," MEDIA ETHICS, 17:1:9, 20-21, Fall 2005) has cracked just such a door, in effect qualifying some acts of plagiarism, a dangerous stance in no uncertain terms. After critiquing Prof. Starr's article, this essay will make the argument that his position is untenable on the basis of culture and that plagiarism is in fact an absolute and unconscionable violation of our humanity.

Starr's thesis is that the timely borrowing of an obscure phrase from a long-forgotten author can become a powerful part of the cultural lexicon. His copious examples of plagiarism from such famous figures as Abraham Lincoln, John F. Kennedy and Winston Churchill do provide interesting support. The phrase's attachment to the famous person is at worst hardly noticeable and perhaps even a public service during dark political days. With such a crying social need for skillfully wielded words, no matter their origin, people aren't likely to mind, Starr observes. He does state that plagiarism is "indefensible" and the "rules for avoiding plagiarism (permission or attribution) still apply" but undermines these passing comments both by misunderstanding the nature of plagiarism as well as in terming the historical exceptions to the rules, "the common heritage of humanity." To the contrary, I believe plagiarism of any sort is so serious that it doesn't matter how much cultural purchase certain turns of phrase are imbued with, and it is not noble for an original author to fall on one's sword and let another (or no one) take the credit.

First, legal comparisons and understandings of plagiarism actually undermine a rich and nuanced appreciation of its moral implications. For example, Starr equates plagiarism to "theft of intellectual property" and "copyright infringement," and the pithy phrases lifted from authors long forgotten are "trademarks," another proprietary and legalistic term. Of course law and ethics both have a moral base, but ethics actually can do more moral work than law, especially in the case of plagiarism, not because ethics are "cut-and-dried," but because they are not. Ethics are much better equipped to address the whole of our humanity and to accommodate the ideal, the good and the nuanced. The law is but a moral shadow of ethics. Further, while it is not entirely true that the law is devoid of emotion,2 certainly the law is tied to an epistemology that privileges Enlightenment Reason, and cannot fully embrace emotion in its judgment process.

Additionally, Starr chooses a text no less authoritative than the Bible (Ecclesiastes, "there is nothing new under the sun") to support his notion that pragmatically, human creativity is limited such that we can expect little more than that the same words and ideas be bandied about from culture to culture and epoch to epoch.3 Ironically, scholars now mostly agree that King Solomon is not the author of the book Qohelleth (Ecclesiastes), nor was it written in 900 B.C., but hundreds of years later by someone who, ethically, took great pains not to claim that Solomon was its author.4 More seriously, though, Starr, while he does quote if not attribute Qohelleth accurately (in translation, of course), takes the indicated passage out of context: "When Qohelet says there is nothing new under the sun, he refers to something fresh that breaks into the cycle of life and gives it meaning and value, not that nothing is ever unfamiliar or novel."5 In other words, people are original, but that does not assure that their creative work will be meaningful or satisfying, which is the point of the book. Nevertheless, the uniqueness of human beings, as manifest in their makings, which create both identity and community, are at stake in plagiarism. Nothing less.

Reasons are crucial to ethics. Exploring deep and important distinctions among concepts can lead us to appropriate behaviors. Notice I did not say "Reason." While some may choose to privilege one epistemology that is arguably only a portion of the ethical animal, it does not advance a rich discussion of plagiarism to do so here. What are the reasons plagiarism of any sort is unethical? I can offer only two in this format.

First, plagiarism is particularly serious from a cultural context. The reality of U.S. society is an economy run on the work of the mind, not manual labor. In effect, living in such a culture underscores a very tangible harm from plagiarism: he who steals an idea or the words that express it robs his victim of economic gain, literally as money but also in the intangibles that so often translate into wealth for our culture: prestige, respect, opened opportunities of every sort both personal and professional. Unfortunately, in our entrepreneurial culture, we are often more concerned with the pragmatic application of an idea than with protecting the integrity of the individual who creates that idea, an attitude Starr's article perhaps unconsciously reflects, but all the more reason we should be concerned about plagiaristic complacency. The law is a poor protector of insidious harm such as this. Furthermore, more laws, regardless of their strength or the frequency of their employment, can never create a culture of honesty or integrity, two crucial cultural characteristics for plagiarism not to exist.

Second, and more significantly, the creation of ideas is related to being human. If this is so, to steal a person's ideas or words (as the manifestation of those ideas) is to steal from her humanity. It is, so to speak, identity theft of the worst sort. This notion is grounded in thought as old as Greek poesis and as modern as the Hutchins Commission's work on the importance of free expression to our humanity.6 Transcending culture, country, economy, people do invent, do originate, do feel a sense of self in what they make, which explains why people are so violated when taken from. Consider the narrative of Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel-when Raphael imitated his innovative style with the "School of Athens," the Renaissance genius was not flattered, he was livid, artistically raped, and felt he had lost what had made him unique.7

Instead of relying on a legal definition, we need to remember what it means to be human as our moral guide on plagiarism. Meaningful humanness is the act of creation, what differentiates ourselves.8 One important way this creation takes place is through our words, the vehicle to reveal our distinctiveness. In fact, without our words, we cease to lead a human life.9 As Dante wrote in the 14th century, "for in every action what is primarily intended by the the disclosure of his own image."10 People want to create: the expression of self is both a product of culture and a force on that culture.11

For all the attention plagiarism has received of late, especially in journalism, there has been little discussion of it beyond the reprehensible individual behaviors of the few.12 But journalism is not the only profession in which this is a problem, nor is it limited to the few. Plagiarism is also the dirty little secret of the Academy, and this is especially inexcusable, for ideas are the heart of the Academy, our identity, our livelihood, the source of much of what differentiates ourselves. If we expect moral behavior of our journalists, can't we expect it of ourselves?

Starr touches on only a pale reflection of a deeper reality when he claims that the authority for the information lies not with the plagiarist but with the originator. I think what he means here is authenticity. It is not the validity of the information that is at stake as much as it is the authenticity of the person.13 It is not authority at issue or in question with plagiarism; it is identity. A plagiarist pretends to be what he is not; someone he is not.

Ask anyone who has picked up a journal article to read her own prose with someone else's name on it, or seen his idea presented at a conference or as the subject of another's journal article: it sears the memory like a brand. The profound abjection of missing part of oneself is indelible and far-reaching. The concept of ownership cannot do it justice. The stolen birthright of our words and ideas is precious and irreplaceable. They are not tools employed first by one hand and then another, ultimately falling to he who wields them last or most prominently. They are our essence, if such a thing exists, and as such, deserve unassailable identification with their creators.



1 James W. Carey, "A Cultural Approach to Communication" in Communication as Culture: Essays on Media and Society (Boston: Unwin Hyman, 1988).

2 Martha Nussbaum has an excellent explication of emotion and law in Hiding from Humanity: Disgust, Shame, and the Law (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2004).

3 This is similar to the pessimistic argument Roland Barthes makes in "Death of the Author" (from Image, Music, Text, 1977), and I do not share such a denigration of human creativity. But in any case, for the reasons I will discuss below, it provides no moral justification for plagiarism.

4 Some scholars place the authorship at approximately 250 BCE because of the type of Hebrew used in the book [e.g., W. Sibley Towner, New Interpreters' Bible, vol. 5 (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press)].

5 Bruce Waltke, An Exigetical Old Testament Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, forthcoming).

6 The Hutchins Commission contended that without the ability of each person to express herself, no other freedom could exist, and thus, human life ceased to be truly human. A Free and Responsible Press (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1947).

7 For a discussion of the incident, see Hugo Chapman, Tom Henry and Carol Plazzotta, Raphael: From Urbino to Rome (London: National Gallery, 2004).

8 The early Marx and Hegel have full discussions of the meaning of human making. For an overview of Hegel's view of work compared to Marx see, for example, Charles Taylor, Hegel and Modern Society (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1979, p. 50). According to Taylor, for both thinkers, work is where "man forms himself, comes to realize his own essence."

9 Hannah Arendt, in The Human Condition (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1958) has said that speech is one of the modes in which humans appear to one another as human, and no one can refrain from it without ceasing to be human.

10 Ibid., p. 175.

11 Martha Nussbaum has suggested that human beings "define themselves to themselves" through acts of self-expression, which ultimately is part of the unending search for the truly human, that is, for what she says is the "deepest and most essential about human living." ("Aristotle on Human Nature and the Foundations of Ethics," in World, Mind, and Ethics: Essays on the Ethical Philosophy of Bernard Williams, Cambridge University Press, 1995).

12 Well known cases end up being about individual personalities (e.g., Doris Kearns Goodwin in academia, and numerous cases in journalism such as Jayson Blair and Jack Kelley). See for example, G. Favre (2 May 2004) "Press Confronts Breach of Trust; Twin Scandals have Shaken Journalism," San Francisco Chronicle, p. E2; and Laura Frank (7 June 2005), "The Charge: Plagiarism; Did Ward Churchill Publish the Work of Others as his Own?," San Francisco Chronicle, p. A5.

13 For a full treatment of the notion of authenticity, see Charles Taylor, The Ethics of Authenticity (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1992).


* Peggy J. Bowers is an assistant prof. in the Dept. of Communications Studies in Clemson Univ. Her E-mail address is This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..


The above article was published in Media Ethics, Spring 2006 (17:2),pp.8,18-20.