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Moral Moments

Am I a Plagiarist?: ‘Teleporter on Trial’ on Trial

by Joel Marks

It is surely time that your moral columnist be hoisted by his own petard. In Issue 74 I discussed the metaphysics of teleportation and referred the reader to a science-fiction (or philosophy-fiction) story I had written on the subject, which you can read at: www.scifidimensions.com/Oct05/teleporter.htm. You’ll see that at the beginning of the story I give credit to Dan Dennett. But that was an afterthought. When I first sent the story to the magazine where it was ultimately published, I assumed that it was my original creation. Imagine my surprise when someone else to whom I showed the draft mentioned that it was similar to something he had read in Dennett and Douglas Hofstadter’s book, The Mind’s I.

So sure was I that this could not be the case that I didn’t even bother to check it out at the time. I knew for a fact that I had sat down at my computer one day and, in the flush of inspiration, written the entire story at one swoop, working out all of the plot details and arguments in my head. I certainly did know that I was writing about a theme that existed in philosophical literature, although not I thought as a story, but as a thought experiment. Teleportation is as much a motif in philosophy as in science fiction, just like time travel and brains in vats.

Furthermore, I was under the distinct impression that I had never read The Mind’s I, although I did have a copy in my personal library. Finally, I had not only shown my story to the person who mentioned the similarity, but had also at around the same time given him a copy of the book – hardly something I would have done if trying to hide an act of plagiarism. Thus must have been my unconscious reasoning.

Only after the story was published did I experience a sudden pang of doubt. I suppose the reality of publication made me think that I really ought to dot every i of certainty. So up I went to the third floor where I keep most of my books and quickly found the volume. It had been sitting there for years untouched. Confidently I took it down from the shelf and thumbed through it: no sign of use whatever. Until, that is, I happened to look at the introduction by Dennett, where I spied a few small penciled-in marginal markings of the kind I use in lieu of underlining to indicate significant passages. Starting then to read … there was my story!

Not totally, of course, but in essence. Enough to make it appropriate for me to contact the magazine editor at once and request that he add the credit to Dennett. (Thank God it was an online publication!) Suddenly I was in the shoes of George Harrison discovering that he had unconsciously filched Ronald Mack’s ‘He’s So Fine’ in the composing of ‘My Sweet Lord’; or of philosopher A.J. Ayer admitting to ‘unconscious plagiarism’ of emotivism from C.K. Ogden and I.A. Richards; or for that matter, of philosopher Thomas Nagel upon realizing that Timothy Sprigge had originally posed the title question of his famous essay, ‘What Is It Like to Be a Bat?’ – reprinted in The Mind’s I!

So what is to be made of this? However self-servingly, I am convinced that it is not really a moral issue. For it to be so, there would need to have been an intention to deceive, or at a minimum deliberate copying. I also realized that the shoe was now on the other foot; for example, I had once detected an ‘uncanny’ likeness between another philosopher’s journal article and one of mine from a few years previous. When I confronted her, she graciously made amends by inviting me to a conference she was hosting. On another occasion, I became aware of an undoubted case of ‘convergent evolution’ between a book of mine and that of someone else, where neither of us could possibly have been aware of the other’s work.

However, the current episode surely has moral implications for handling the fact of the ‘resemblance’ and its presumed causal history once recognized. In this respect I’m reminded of a joke told to me by my good friend Bill DeMayo:

A client has just finished a meeting with his accountant, who says that the fee will be $100. The client reaches into his wallet and places a bill in the accountant’s hand. After the client has left, the accountant notices that there are in fact two one-hundred-dollar bills stuck together. He immediately thinks to himself that he faces an ethical issue: ‘Should I tell my partner?’

But seriously, folks: even though my unconscious act was not itself morally wrong, it could count as plagiarism. This would depend on whether the concept of plagiarism incorporates conscious intention; it seems to be the legal consensus, at any rate, that it need not, so ‘unconscious plagiarism’ is not an oxymoron.

At base the phenomenon is psychological, and has even been given the technical name of ‘cryptomnesia.’ Interestingly there is a variant with regard to oneself: a person can unwittingly reproduce his or her own work. I must say that I’ve had this experience many times. For example, I’m capable of writing an entire moral moment, only to discover later that I had written practically an identical essay years earlier. This is not terribly surprising, perhaps. What is odd in these situations is that one forgets the previous occasion and so does not identify the subsequent act as one of repeating.

But whether repeating oneself or (in some sense) copying another, isn’t the bottom line simply that people are capable of forgetting things? The mind is a mechanism of extraordinary complexity, much of it hidden from the person whose mind it is. However, social science and neuroscience have begun making strides to unravel that complexity; and sometimes the results are, as it were, exonerating. Thus, maybe a ‘futuristic’ brain scan would have shown that I retained no memory trace of Dennett’s introduction when I wrote my story, so I just made up a very similar story that coincidentally resembled his. I don’t think that’s likely myself, but I can’t rule it out either.

© Joel Marks 2010

Joel Marks is Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at the University of New Haven in West Haven, Connecticut, and a Bioethics Center Scholar at Yale University. More of his essays can be found at moralmoments.com. The author respectfully requests that no one plagiarize his essay on plagiarism or any other!

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