Sewanee Night Owls debate the question “Is plagiarism morally wrong?”

Dr. Mark Hopwood and Agnes Callard at Sewanee Night Owls. Photo by Dakota Collins (C’23).

By Dakota Collins
Executive Staff

On the night of February 27, Dr. Mark Hopwood, assistant professor of philosophy, and members of his Public Philosophy class held the inaugural meeting of the Sewanee Night Owls. Despite the “late” (for Sewanee) start of 9 p.m., the McGriff alumni house was filled with students, faculty, staff, and other community members gathered to discuss the question for the night: “Is plagiarism morally wrong?”

After inviting the overflow crowd to sit, either in the few remaining chairs or on the floor in a space cleared at the front, Hopwood smiled, welcomed the gathering, and introduced guest speaker Dr. Agnes Callard, associate professor of philosophy at University of Chicago, where she founded the original branch of Night Owls. 

Chicago’s Night Owls discussions are held under the watchful eye of an owl figurine, a symbol of philosophic thought. In absence of such a figurine, Hopwood presented Callard with an owl-shaped pin, like ones that adorn philosophy majors’ gowns at Sewanee; a merger between the original branch of Night Owls and the night’s new franchise at Sewanee.

The purpose of Night Owls is to hold late-night philosophical discussions of “controversial” topics. At Sewanee, where the act of plagiarism—even accidental—could lead to suspension, the topic of plagiarism fit that niche perfectly and likely led to the event’s high turnout. Flyers posted in McClurg and around campus advertized the event with simple yet eye-grabbing statements, such as “There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with a system in which we stop crediting the original source of the idea” or “Plagiarize this poster.” 

“Since we’re talking about plagiarism tonight, you might want to consider what you share,” Hopwood noted pointedly before the discussion began. “Philosophers often speak in hypotheticals.” 

Before the discussion opened to the room, Hopwood and Callard set up the topic by representing either side of the debate: Hopwood, arguing against plagiarism, and Callard arguing not that plagiarism is good, but that it is inherently impossible. 

“Because you can’t steal ideas,” Callard reasoned, “it’s not immoral to steal an idea, and since plagiarism is stealing ideas, it’s impossible [to do].” 

Callard, however, allowed that cheating is immoral. “It’s certainly possible that plagiarism counts as cheating, if you agree to a rule that ‘plagiarism’ is cheating,” she said, referring specifically to Sewanee’s honor code: One shall not lie, cheat, or steal.  

Hopwood countered that, “Ideas are work.” In stealing someone’s idea and crediting oneself with it, one loses recognition or, in some cases, compensation for that work. 

After both parties debated either side for about a quarter of an hour, Hopwood opened the floor for input from those gathered. As people began to dwindle out around 10:30, Hopwood and Callard paused the discussion to reaffirm that it was okay to leave as it got to “bedtime,” and that it was even a Night Owls “tradition” that eventually, numbers got down to only a few. Some attendees did leave early, or at least stand up to help themselves to more of the ice cream and hot chocolate provided, but a number stayed with the discussion until its end at midnight. 

The “Is plagiarism morally wrong?” discussion was, Hopwood asserted, not the last Sewanee Night Owls event—members of his Public Philosophy class plan to host more Night Owls discussions in future on other interesting, controversial topics.