Steve Gimbel of Philosopher's Playground fame, in my opinion one of the most entertaining and canny philosophy blogs around, has posted his semi-annual appeal to students not to plagiarize their final papers. It's a different argument from your usual plagiarism is theft arguments or the plagiarism cheats you out of thinking things through yourself move.
Steve's argument has multiple lines; the opening moves are pretty nice. First, he notes that most students "just aren't that good at it." Basically, the odds are that you'll get caught. Plagiarizing isn't a good gamble. Second, even if you don't get caught, "it won't end up making that much of a difference in the end." Students already have done a lot of work over the semester, and even if the paper is good or bad, it will likely make only a small difference in one grade, in one semester.
[I]n truth your college GPA means very little in the lives of most people. But getting busted for plagiarism could mean a lot. . . There is so little reward that it is absolutely not worth the risk.
These two arguments seem right to me: not only is plagiarism morally wrong and counter to the purposes of going to college in the first place (acknowledged by Steve, but not the focus), but it's actually a risky proposition. But Steve has, I think, a much more rhetorically powerful argument, and one that is an occasion for some thought about arguments from pity and loyalty.
Steve's third argument has two parts. The first is that professors, for the most part, like most students. Bad work on one paper isn't going to hurt that:
We like you (well, most of you anyway). We want you to succeed. We want you to keep in touch by e-mail and come back to campus ten years from now for alumni weekend and tell us funny stories about your time in college and about how you got to be wherever it is you will end up. And you know what, we won't care or remember that paper. To be honest, we will have forgotten about it long before next semester.
Students and teachers have a relationship, and we teachers are not going to renege on that relationship just because you students wrote a bad paper. We understand that bad work happens sometimes, especially when time's tight. And now comes the second part:
But when you plagiarize, you put us in a horrible position. We don't want to turn you in, in part because we want the best for you, but also because we don't want to have to deal with the process. We are tired too. It's been a really long semester and we just want to get our grades in so we can get to the plans we've made for break. And now you make us have to spend our time searching for your sources, documenting evidence, and explaining how we knew this had to be plagiarized. We have so much to do right now that we don't need the headache.
But it's more than just that this is a hassle. Remember: we're in a relationship, and plagiarism breaks the trust that the relationship requires.
But more than that, it feels like betrayal…. I looked forward to giving you a good grade and seeing you around the campus and now you go and do this to me? ME: the one who spent the time preparing for class, answering your e-mails at awkward hours, giving you extensions and offering to look at drafts.
Plagiarism is disloyalty. Not just to yourself, the scholars you steal from, or the discipline, but to your teachers, the people who've loyally worked for your (the student's) benefit all semester.
I'll have a follow-up post later to discuss forms of arguments from pity and loyalty. Steve's argument here seems to be a case where the pity and loyalty that students (should) feel for their teachers is relevant to the conclusion that they shouldn't plagiarize. The problem is that these are classically considered fallacy forms. So the question is: under what conditions are the sentiments of pity and loyalty relevant?