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The Ethicist
October 4, 2010

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.

Homework help—or cheating?

My son, a high school junior, lent his homework to a friend to show him a general approach to the assignment. The friend plagiarized some of it. Their teacher found out and put a note in my son's file that could prevent him from getting into the National Honor Society. Was what my son did so wrong?
NAME WITHHELD, Dallas, Oregon

STUDENTS OFTEN HELP ONE ANOTHER understand assignments, a fine way to aid learning. If that was your son's intent, then his conduct was not unethical, but it was imperfect. Rather than provide actual answers to the homework, he would have done better simply to discuss the assignment with his friend.

Your son should have been savvier about the way his assistance might be abused. If the friend asked to borrow a gun, a mask, and a large canvas sack with "loot" stenciled on the side, your son might reasonably infer that these things would be put to a dubious use. He should also have known if school rules forbid such homework help.

It is difficult to judge the teacher's response to your son's negligent but not malicious behavior without reading the note on file—and that's what you should do next. If you disagree with its assertions, you should be given a chance to refute them. Talk to the teacher and the principal to learn your options and to determine if you are exaggerating the likely impact of this note on your son's academic future.

Can I hide the fact that I'm paid for my 'volunteer' work?

A foundation hired me to start and then help run a philanthropy club at my high school. We raise money for women's health in Mexico. None of the other members of the club are paid. Am I ethically wrong not to tell my classmates or colleges or future employers that I am paid for work they might assume is voluntary?
ANNA AKULLIAN, Berkeley, California

I PREFER to put this affirmatively: It is good to be open and honest in this situation (as in so many). There is nothing wrong with your being paid for a job that others do for free. Some people help out at a soup kitchen, for instance, working alongside paid staff. But in such cases, everyone knows what they're getting into. Club members can make a meaningful decision to do unpaid work only if they have an understanding of the circumstances, including yours. Such transparency gives them the information they need and allows you to avoid the queasy feeling of acting under false pretenses. And as things stand, you've nothing to hide and much to be proud of.

Who gets the raffle TV: the ticket holder or the buyer?

I took my teenage daughter and one of her friends to my company's annual outing, a baseball game and raffle. The grand prize was a 47-inch TV. Coincidentally, the friend mentioned that her family needed a new TV, and, as fate had it, she held the winning ticket. After the game, we took the TV to her house. Her mother was delighted but said that since I paid for the tickets, the TV was mine. Is it?

THE TV belongs to your daughter's friend. When you gave her that ticket, you gave her all attendant benefits. Her claim has nothing to do with her family's need for a TV. It's simply a random bit of good fortune for the person holding the winning ticket: her.

The decision would have been trickier if you had physically held on to all the tickets and ushered your crew into the block of seats you had bought. Then you could argue that the prize goes to the ticket holder—you—as distinct from the seat holder, the friend. But happily (for her, if not you), the seat holder and the ticket holder coincided.

UPDATE: The families compromised: Ilkowitz kept the enormous 47-inch TV and bought the daughter's friend a merely very big 32-inch TV for about half the cost of its colossal sibling.

(The New York Times Upfront, Vol. 143, October 4, 2010)