Thursday, November 18, 2010

Finders Keepers?: The Ethics of Scavaging

We're in the middle of a job search and that means reading lots of letters of recommendation. Every once in a while, you get one from an extremely influential and therefore famous philosopher. So, when one of our applicants had a letter from Jurgen Habermas, I did start thinking about all the names that have passed by us in our last several searches: Derrida, Searle, Putnam, real philosophical rock stars, thinkers bound for the pantheon of greats. If we had a philosophers hall of fame, these folks would be easy first ballot shoo-ins.

Now, the procedure for handling search materials is that they need to be kept for three years in case of legal questions regarding the fairness of the search process and then they are shredded so that confidential bits of information, like letters of recommendation, cease to be.

Suppose as a hobby, I collected the autographs of famous intellectuals. Here are prime examples that are bound for the shredder. Would it be morally acceptable to save the signatures? I wouldn't be stealing them FROM anyone, they were just going to be destroyed. Why not save something of value? We could cut them off the letter so none of the information would survive, just the signature. Would that be o.k.? Suppose I then turned around and tried to sell it on eBay to other intellectual autograph seekers, would that be o.k.? Would it make a difference if I waited five years or until the person passed away?