A Theory of Moral Relativity
Freelancing. The word free is actually in the job title. Free from the 9-to-5 days, free to daydream, free to drink two pots of coffee a day in pajamas while earning a glossy name for yourself in high-visibility magazines. But freelance writing requires perseverance and is not necessarily fun or reliable work.
Overeducated and unemployed in Jerusalem, I tapped into online freelance writing opportunities. I soon discovered, however, that cyberspace primarily coughs up mundane topics for writers who dredge up sentences for measly pay. That is, until I connected with thousands of anonymous voices desperate for my words.
On the brink of financial desperation, I caught a break. I received a simple e-mail that read: “Are you still interested in writing for us?” The woman from the company called to explain that I would receive up to 50 e-mails a day with “model research paper” topics. I would have the liberty to write whichever ones I wanted, according to my resources, time, and mood.
I soon realized that writing “model research papers” meant writing term papers for students as bankrupt intellectually as I was financially. I mitigated my ethical concern by calculating it as an exchange: You need a paper, and I write it. It’s supply and demand. Besides, once I release a paper, I have no control over its destiny. If my clients are submitting my work as their own, the burden weighs on their own shoulders. Still, something about the whole business seems bizarre. When I talk about my job, the range of reactions I receive includes astonishment, disapproval, envy, and even offers of payment for me to finish graduate-level papers. When people ask what I do, I boast “freelance,” and then avert my eyes my gaze into a swirling drink.
Yet with no other job prospects, I began to willingly bear the pressure of deadlines for strangers. Each day I sit down to write clear and concise essays on American literature and Biblical studies, my fingers skimming the black and white keys like a pianist’s, deep in meditative rhythm. Then the truth hit me. I realized that I love my job. I love writing research papers without going to class or worrying about the grade. I love digging up my old literature anthologies and coming up with new ideas about without taking responsibility for them. My anonymous clients and I form a clandestine relationship, the complicit silence of cyberspace our witness.
Six months after receiving that fateful e-mail, I found a weekly Jewish e-newsletter sandwiched between paper requests. It contained an article titled “What Harm?” by Eliyahu Safran, and it was about gneivat daat, or intellectual theft. I wondered if signs exist, and what to do when I get signs I don’t want to read. It began: “What harm in the student altering an answer on an exam in order to avoid a failing grade? Or copying a couple of paragraphs from an article in order to complete an assignment?” Then it continued: “A gonev daat is one who intentionally misleads or gives a false impression through his words or deeds. It does not matter if ‘no one is harmed’ or if the dishonesty was not actually witnessed by one’s fellow. It is always and absolutely wrong.”
By definition, my clients are the gnevei daat, intellectual bandits making off in the night with my thoughts and perfect citations. I have never plagiarized, but am I complicit in a crime against God?
The complication with academic writing is that it doesn’t always seem wrong. There are times I believe I am helping a struggling student. Among my virtual clientele I imagine a middle-aged nurse juggling a family and a career. A foreign language student swamped with English assignments. In fact, some of the people I turned to for ethical advice expressed approval for students who occasionally pass off busywork that does not advance their skills. Part of the responsibility for this thriving phenomenon, some say, lay with professors who do not take the time to get to know their students’ work. On a theoretical plane, there is a camp that says academic writing can be understandable, if not excusable.
Yet Safran’s rabbinical perspective delineates black from white for our grayscale American society. The problem of intellectual theft is less about theft and more about deception. The trivial lies we all tell – from inquiring about goods we have no intention of buying to bestowing a disingenuous compliment – “are worse than blatant lies, precisely because of their hidden nature.” In the grayscale picture, my clients are not bona fide thieves: I sold them the rights to my work. What is wrong, from the vantage point of gneivat daat, is that they use my words to deceive their readers.
We may agree that lying and plagiarizing are wrong. However, a theory of moral relativity allows us to let those half-lies and questionable deceptions slip by, even when our intuitions hint otherwise. Our intellects rationalize the gentle tug on the dial of our moral compasses from true north. We’re not wrong. It’s just the tides. It seems that our society has allowed the smudging of moral boundaries as part of the human experience and the American spirit of letting nothing hold us back from success. According to Safran, “Such a laissez faire attitude might carry the day amongst those for whom honesty and dishonesty are not character traits but tolerable – and equally allowable – strategies for getting ahead in the world; to be employed as the situation dictates and used for advantage.” Without sturdy fences around right and wrong, moral relativity prevails.
The American politicians and athletes of late, whose nearsighted vision sought personal gratification, are reminders of the downside of this cultural phenomenon. As Jews, we are called to agree with Safran when he says, “there is a reason that laissez faire is a language other than Hebrew.” But moreover, maybe the men in this meteor shower of fallen stars never imagined their original sins would amount to the gravity of their falls. As they deceived their partners and themselves, their insidious lies snowballed into an avalanche. Deception is integral to extramarital affairs, and that, perhaps, is why we call it cheating.
If nothing else, Safran is correct that “A misdeed is always witnessed. Perhaps not by a fellow, but certainly by God. And most certainly by one’s own heart.” In the sea of subjectivity, the essence of gneivat daat – deceiving somebody – is ultimately deceiving oneself. Although the paper-writing business will go on without me, I hope someday soon to leave it behind, to raise the bar with all the other dreamers of a good and honest world. When that day comes, I will miss the best job I’ve ever had.
Emily Keeler is a freelance writer with a B.A. in English and philosophy and a Master of Theological Studies. She is looking for reputable work.