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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.

December 14, 2009

A Cheater's Redemption?

My daughter is a high school senior. In her sophomore year, she was caught cheating on a test and suspended. Because she had an exemplary junior year and it was her first and last offense, the school expunged the suspension from her records. If my daughter is asked on her college applications, must she admit cheating?

YES. The school's decision to expunge the record doesn't justify your daughter's deceit. If a college asks a question, she must give an honest answer. The high school may have purged its records of her offense, but it cannot alter the facts of the matter.

Knowing that the high school no longer has any record of this incident might make it tempting to conceal it: There's little chance your daughter would be caught in a lie. But she should not yield to that temptation.

I hope college admissions offices will show a real understanding of youthful fallibility, regarding this misstep not as the defining moment of your daughter's life but as a one-time thing.

UPDATE: The daughter was asked about cheating, replied honestly and was accepted by her early-decision college.

My friend Natalie had a small party to which another friend brought a movie on his portable hard drive for everyone to watch. When Natalie got up to get a sweater, she tripped on the cord and broke the hard drive. She offered our friend $300 to replace it, but he wanted $1,800 to cover the cost of data retrieval as well: The drive contained his digital artwork, which he hadn't backed up. Who owes what? JOE KERR, NEW YORK

THE FRIEND OWES Natalie an apology for rebuffing her generous offer.

If this was an ordinary mishap, then she owes him nothing. As a matter of courtesy, she should offer to replace his hard drive. And with equal courtesy, he should decline. Then all the guests should chip in for a new drive. All were enjoying the movie; all should help cover the inadvertent damage, not as an obligation (they have none), but in the spirit of friendship.

We're not entitled to compensation for each of life's calamities. To leave the house is to accept some risks. A passing car may splash mud on us; a passerby on a sidewalk may jostle us, spilling our coffee.

These are the ordinary vicissitudes of life, not occasions for lawsuits. It's when people behave negligently—the passing car was speeding and the owner was letting his poodle drive— that compensation can be demanded.

What's more, the friend contributed to his own misfortune. If his artwork was so important, he should have taken the ordinary precaution of backing it up. And he could have positioned the cord so people wouldn't trip over it.

UPDATE: There were no data-retrieval costs. This fellow obtained the original "unprocessed" material from the graphics company where he works and, with some effort, got his artwork back. He did accept Natalie's $300. They remain friends.

(The New York Times Upfront, Vol. 142, December 14, 2009)