Essays and Ethics: It's no Quandary

Familiar with the phrase “quandary ethics”? Let’s say you live in a totalitarian state. Big Brother threatens to come for your family unless you knock two people off his hit list. You can’t save the targets of the hit; but you might save your parents and yourself by following orders. What will you do?

Here’s another quandary. You’re a busy college student with a double major, a part-time job, and a term paper due tomorrow. You google “term paper help” and get 307,000 hits. If you “delegate” your paper to a writing service, you’ll have time to tutor an inner-city child this afternoon.

“There are ethics in the media, business, academics, and even the internet. One aspect of the wide span that ethics covers is everyday ethics…The morality of everyday ethics includes aspects such as moral cliché usage and character traits.”

I’ll bet it’s been a while since you’ve read a paragraph like that. Unless you teach remedial writing. But what busy writer today can spare the time or emotion to draft her own transitional paragraphs? That’s always the hardest part, at least for me. This time, I decided to try a stylistic hint I didn’t learn from Strunk & White. It’s called “Copy & Paste.” Apple C, Apple V, and I’m done.

The paragraph came as a free sample from, where members can access papers if they “share” their own, or pay a fee. There are 250,727 members, and 87,160 papers available (and counting).

Several hundred other websites offer similar services, many as large or larger than Cheathouse. The more expensive sites, with professionals to custom-write your paper, also boast clients in the thousands. Several of these claim to employ 600 to 700 writers, many full-time. Besides your term papers, they’ll take on your admissions essays, your master’s thesis, or even your doctoral work. If you can’t pay, you may end up with writing as incoherent as the quote above. But plenty of students can pay.

Writers advertise on sites like Craigslist, too. “I recently graduated from WashU with degrees in English and psychology and a minor in women’s studies…. I’m in dire need of the extra income and am looking to lease my intelligence/writing skills.” The best anti-plagiarism software will never catch this girl or her clients. Nor will it catch students who use a site like Term Paper Quest, which runs every essay through its own version of the same software universities use.

The advertising takes a friendly, understanding tone, designed to bypass the potential client’s conscience and focus instead on how hard it is — sob — to be a college student.

“Would you rather sacrifice your health, your job, your sports or family commitments for the sake of your paper grade, or prefer to enjoy all this while your paper is being thoroughly researched, carefully written and properly formatted by one of our research paper writing experts?”

These sites know the power of the American rhetoric of busy-ness. And like nothing else I’ve seen, they demonstrate the ethical confusion and deadening pragmatism that afflict the conscience of my generation.

I’m 26. I remember several ethics lessons from my time in school. In 4th grade, they gave us a list of people: a cancer researcher, a mother of three, and so on. We had to choose which one should get a heart transplant. A few said, “We should give the heart to whoever needed one first.” This wasn’t allowed; we had to choose someone. What did we learn? That in some situations, there are no good answers; ethical decisions are difficult and sometimes impossible to make.

The other ethics lessons all had the same purpose: to teach us that in some situations, there are no good answers…etc. I’ve heard of an activity that asked, “If you had to kill your best friend, how would you do it?” When one girl refused to entertain the idea, she was reprimanded. This, too, is classic quandary ethics: an impossible circumstance, forcing students to choose among bad options, and all to teach them that ethics are more complicated than they think.

But that girl was right. How could anyone make her kill her friend? By holding a gun to her head? She would still have a choice.

What about the heart transplant? In real life, we can always give the heart to the person first on the list, regardless of merit; and that’s what we do. Daydreaming a scenario that leaves that option out proves nothing about the nature of ethics in the real world.

It’s true that ethical decisions can be more complicated than they first appear. In fact, it’s obvious; you could even say it hardly needs to be taught. But in my years in school, no one got around to telling us that sometimes, ethical decisions are actually less complicated than they appear.

For example, your own self-interest might cloud the issue. You might start seeing extenuating circumstances where there are none. In fact, some things — like cheating — are just wrong, and no extenuating circumstance can excuse them. If I don’t “have time” to write my own term papers, I don’t have time to attend college.

Quandary ethics, and its friends situation ethics and values clarification, portray a hopelessly complex moral universe in which you can never know what is right or wrong, so you may as well give up.

As an added pragmatic advantage, once you’ve seen the complexity and thrown up your hands, you can coast through life. Cheat your way through college and graduate school; do whatever you think your circumstances justify.

Another Cheathouse quote: “Now it is my duty to install [sic] this same credibility in my children, so that the cycle can continue and they themselves can also grow up to be as trustworthy as myself.”

I hope not. But unless we teach some better ethics lessons than the ones my generation heard, we can’t expect tomorrow’s students to be any more trustworthy than this guy — who traded his integrity paper online. Integrity sold separately. I know we can do better than that.