Is Ignorance Ever An Excuse?

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.  



5 thoughts on “Is Ignorance Ever An Excuse?

  1. In terms of evaluating guilt when the defendant claims ignorance, I find that I must agree with the Honor Council’s determination that it is not a valid excuse. Even our legal system has made it clear that ignorance can’t be used as a defense. It is the responsibility of the citizen to be aware of and adhere to the laws, just as it is the student’s responsibility to cite any works they have consulted. Although the student may truthfully have not intended to plagiarize when he wrote his paper, he must have read the information somewhere, in which case he is obligated to cite that source. I equate this to a driver who strikes a jaywalker; he is required to maintain control of his vehicle at all times. This does not mean that there should not be different levels of responsibility, though. It is a different situation if the student did not internally cite his source but included it in the bibliography than if he didn’t cite it at all, just as it is a different situation if the driver was texting and didn’t see the person than if he saw the person and attempted to divert the jaywalker.

  2. I agree with the Honor Council’s idea that ignorance is not an excuse. Throughout school, we were taught that if there was ever a chance that what you are writing could be viewed as plagiarized in any way, that you are supposed to cite it — unless something is “common knowledge,” then there should be a citation.

    In your example of the bartender, I believe that if the bartender has even a sneaking suspicion that the students are underage, then he should not serve them. However, if they provide an ID, then they should be served. If they do not have one, not only is the bartender putting his life on the line, but he is risking possible punishment for the bar/restaurant as well.

  3. While I do believe that ignorance is a believable excuse in some cases, if people are not ever held liable when they present this excuse, it will become the typical “go-to” excuse to avoid punishment, and then those who are actually ignorant will not be able to claim it (the true meaning will be diluted and then nobody will ever be able to use it). Therefore, I understand the purpose of strict liability laws so that people are held responsible for their actions. In the case of the honor council, I feel that people should be judged on a case-by-case basis with their history breaking honor council, the severity of the plagiarism, etc. taken into consideration. Maybe the student could even get off with a warning the first time. However, if he ever claimed ignorance when brought to the honor council a second time, immediate action should be taken. In the case of the bartender, it is a stipulation of his job that he should not serve minors and should therefore not serve anybody without asking for a proof of identification. Because he did not ask of these from the girls, he should be punished for his actions- he blatantly broke “the rules”. In the end, however, I believe that judging on a case-by-case basis is ideal, as circumstances can provide for completely different situations that need to be handled as such.

  4. I agree that in the case of the Honor Council, ignorance is not an excuse. One of the fundamental tenets (which is followed by the University) is that the citizens under the rule must should be made aware of all of the laws before they can be punished according to them. It then becomes the prerogative of the student to make himself aware of all of these laws before signing a living agreement or contract to attend Vanderbilt. I doubt that anyone reads the Student Conduct Handbook from cover to cover, which is only normal. However, that does not become an excuse for a student in violation of university policy.

    In the case with the bartender, I definitely agree that it is the responsibility of the bartender to find out whether or not a person attempting to purchase alcohol is of age. I would assume why some bars employ people who assess the validity of ID’s to make sure they are real is because they assume that the law would be prepared to show little to mercy to a bar just because an underage person bought alcohol with a fake ID. It seems to be in the bar’s own interest to avoid that problem altogether by simply making sure that everyone who is buying alcohol is old enough to do so.

  5. Ignorance is a very difficult thing to determine in another individual. I believe that can be an acceptable excuses at times, but there are many times when it is not. Ignorance of a wrong does not negate a wrong action; it simply shows that a wrong action was not done with willful intent. The action itself is still wrong. Therefore, in cases where ignorance is claimed, I do not think that excuses them entirely of their wrong, but rather, it serves as a factor in mitigating the level of punishment for the offense. This should be kept on record, and if the offense is repeated, ignorance is obviously no longer a viable excuse and that person should then bear the full consequences of his actions.

    With that said, in the case of contractual agreements like the Honor Code, I do not think true ignorance can be claimed as an excuse. In signing a contract that we would not engage in such behavior, we are saying that we have knowledge of this rule and we will be sure not to violate it. If such a violation occurs, ignorance cannot be accepted as an excuse for the trespass.

    Similarly, in the case of the bartender, the bartender has agreed in his contract agreement with the bar to only serve alcohol to people of age. Therefore, it his job to find out the age of his customers based on a valid ID. If he cannot confirm that someone is 21 or older, it is his job to refuse selling that person alcohol. Ignorance of the person’s age is completely unacceptable.

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