For as far back as I can remember being a newspaper-reader, Randy Cohen’s “The Ethicist” column in the New York Times has been a favorite weekly read. In it, Mr. Cohen provides pointed, and sometimes-snarky, ethical advice to reader-provided moral problems. I enjoy reading “The Ethicist.” Though I don’t think his moral philosophy is necessarily superior to anyone else’s. But the succinct way in which he provides worthy advice for those without guidance always impresses me. It’s also, as I said, fun to read. I will forever remember that one time, almost 5 years ago, when he skillfully responded to one of my email queries, about the ethics of selling successful college application essays (according to him, it’s generally something to be wary about, although there are some exceptions).
As a teacher, one’s life is fraught with moral quandaries. One of the expectations that students have of teachers is that we be consistent. Favoritism is the killer of teacher support. Translated into something more philosophical, teachers need to respect rules of equity. But what’s fair? Is it fair to force students who are 1 second tardy to fill out tardy reflection forms? Is it fair to give out raffle tickets to the first two volunteers but not the third? Is it fair to excuse MA–who works, by the way, in a kitchen at a DC restaurant from 4pm to 1am, Monday to Sunday–from homework strictly because of his strenuous work schedule? If so, how about a student who works 8 hours each day? There is much gray area here.
Recently, I’ve come across a classroom situation in which I am questioning both my ethical and legal judgments. Here are the facts:
- This semester, I am requiring that all students purchase a composition notebook of some form or another.
- This notebook will be used solely for the purpose of writing (in-class Do Nows and out-of-class homework assignments).
- Today was the day by which students needed to have their notebooks.
- Many didn’t have them.
- Having anticipated this situation, however, I had already acquired, at no cost, a sizable number of extra notebooks from the English department.
- I sold these notebooks, at $1 a pop, to students who didn’t have them.
- Many snatched them up.
My question(s): is it ethical for me to charge students money for these composition notebooks, even if I received them for free? Is it even legal for me to sell–theoretically, at a profit, since I acquired them at no cost–these notebooks?
I thought carefully about putting a price on these notebooks. Want of money certainly did not drive my decision. Rather, my awareness of moral hazard did: if students knew that they could receive free notebooks from me, even the ones who were responsible enough to acquire their own notebooks might have done otherwise. Plus, the issue of fairness emerges when I do not charge any money for the notebooks: is it fair that DM, who has been lazy, gets a free notebook while AV, who is conscientious, pays out of her own pocket to acquire one? In that situation, the “reward” goes to the wrong person. Finally, putting a price on a notebook, even if it costs me nothing, teaches students that “money doesn’t grow on trees” and about personal responsibility. For these reasons, I feel justified in the way I acted.
Then again, I’m not sure. But what do you think? Ethically speaking? Legally? Realistically? Help a teacher out.