Vanderbilt University upholds a strict honor code, which is designed to foster and promote a sense of honesty and integrity among the entire student body. The well-established Undergraduate Honor Council focuses on ensuring that students are following the honor code and acting appropriately in regards to all their work. If a student’s behavior seems suspicious to a professor or another student, a violation will be reported to the Honor Council, and the Honor Council will then take several steps of investigation to determine the punishment. For example, if a professor finds that a student plagiarized on a paper, the professor can report the violation to the Honor Council, and the Honor Council will investigate the situation, speak with all relevant parties, and attempt to determine a fair punishment for the violation.
Now, although most of us are aware of what constitutes plagiarism, let us take an example where a student paraphrased in his/her paper and truly did not know that he/she was plagiarizing. In this case, should the student’s ignorance be an excuse for his/her violation, or should the Honor Council go about the normal process and punish the student with the same punishment as other cases of plagiarism? Ultimately, there are various factors that must be considered such as the nature of the plagiarized work, the amount that was plagiarized, the level of premeditation, etc. Once these factors are considered, it is easier for the Honor Council to determine a fair punishment. With that said, one of the main points made by the Honor Council is that ignorance is never an excuse. Therefore, even if a student was unaware that he/she was plagiarizing, if the student was caught, the violation is treated as a violation, and ignorance should not be an excuse. I believe the Honor Council does not allow for ignorance to be an excuse because it would allow for most students to be dishonest and plead innocence based on ignorance. If this were constantly occurring than the overall goal of the Honor Council in promoting honesty and integrity on campus would be threatened. Thus, I do understand why ignorance as an excuse is not really valued, however, should the student be held responsible even if he/she truly did not realize the violation of the honor code? In the end, the Honor Council would argue that it is up to each student to understand and fully comprehend the honor code so that instances like these do not occur.
Let us now consider a different example where ignorance is used as an excuse and determine whether or not the individual should be held morally and/or legally responsible. Let’s say that you are the bartender at a hip restaurant in downtown Nashville where there are a ton of underage cute girls trying to buy drinks from you without their licenses. You begin to flirt with these girls and want nothing more than to allow them to buy drinks from you, despite the fact that you do not know their ages. When you ask them their birthdays, they hesitate before answering the question, providing you with some indication that they are underage. With that said, based on the information they provide you, they are legally allowed to drink, and as a result, you allow them to buy the drinks they wish. In this case, would the bartender be morally and legally responsible for his actions? Ultimately, the bartender could claim that he “did not know that they were underage,” even if he was given reason to believe that they were underage. In this scenario vs. the student at Vanderbilt, it seems fair to argue that the bartender should be held responsible because he should never allow individuals to purchase drinks if they do not have their licenses and their ages seems unclear. While the bartender would plead ignorance as an excuse, it is clear he was guilty for his actions and he acted inappropriately.
Evidently, all cases are different, and to me, it does not seem right to argue that ignorance is never an excuse. Although I do understand why strict liability laws are in place because they ensure that the guilty are always being punished for their violations, it seems that we are penalizing too many innocent individuals by upholding such strict policies.