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The Ethicist
Life's full of questions; he's got answers.

Randy Cohen writes "The Ethicist" column in The New York Times Magazine. If you'd like help with a moral dilemma you're facing at school, at home, or at work, send your question to: ethicist@nytimes.com or The Ethicist, The New York Times Magazine, 620 Eighth Avenue, 6th Floor, New York, NY 10018, and include a phone number.

September 7, 2009

The Babysitter's Dilemma

When I arrived to babysit for a family whose children I adore, the mother told me her daughter was coming down with a cold. Shouldn't she have warned me in advance? I'm a student and don't have time to get sick. I stayed, knowing this mom needed the help, but my dad says I should have left. Is he right? EVE RYBNICK, WEST ORANGE, N.J.

HE IS NOT. You did well not to leave this mother in the lurch, although she should have told you promptly about her child's health and let you decide if you wanted the job.

An employer should not significantly alter the terms of employment. But her failure to alert you to this minor malady is not enough reason to walk out on her. And there's the possibility that her child's symptoms emerged too late for the mom to make other arrangements.

Let's keep things in perspective. The daughter didn't have the plague; she had a cold—a routine hazard for anyone who leaves their house, and certainly for anyone who has contact with kids: They're walking petri dishes of who knows what.

Incidentally, nobody has time to get sick. But with ordinary precautions—like washing your hands frequently—most people don't need to become hermits to avoid catching cold.

I'm a student intern at a nonprofit theater. When I was assigned to do research on a new play, I discovered that many passages were taken verbatim and without citation from various sources, ranging from websites to literary journals. I'd like to alert the theater's artistic director, but I fear tensions and recriminations. Must I take that risk? NAME WITHHELD

YOU MUST. As a novice, you're understandably reluctant to anger senior and influential people who can affect your professional future—but that should not deter you from speaking up.

Better that this comes out now than on opening night: Critics can be harsh, and lawyers even harsher. By acting promptly, you can protect the theater and thus do your duty. If the artistic director is wise, the response should not be recrimination but appreciation.

It's also possible that what you've discovered is not deliberate plagiarism but a careless failure to cite sources. If that's the case, the artistic director can talk to the writer and work out a solution: Cut the passages in question, properly credit them, or significantly rework them.

Another possibility is that the author intentionally used diverse material to construct a collage play. There's nothing wrong with that, as long as he or she meets all legal and ethical obligations to the audience and the original authors.

Depending on how much of this material is used and how (and whether it's in the public domain), payments and permissions might be legally required. As an ethical matter, the audience should know what it's getting, and all sources should be acknowledged in the program.