Home > Advice Column, Ethicator > The Ethicator on the Ethicist: Should I really write my own recommendation?

The Ethicator on the Ethicist: Should I really write my own recommendation?

March 23rd, 2011
Why not just say it?

Why not just say it?

Dear Ethicator,

Your inferior counterpart at the New York Times recently told a reader that it was perfectly ok for her to write his or her own letter of recommendation for law school and then have a former professor sign it.  I’m thinking of doing this myself, but still, I’m not sure what I think of her advice. Does it sound fishy to you?

By the way, I’m disappointed Ariel Kaminer was chosen for that job; it should have been you.


Need a Second Opinion

Dear Second Opinion,

Whoa!  Not so fast there.  I have no beef with Ariel Kaminer; we’re both professionals, both trying to make the world a better place. Unlike other ethicists you might know, I do not get my kicks running down my colleagues in the profession (or stealing their ideas, or exploiting their labor, for example).

And besides, she is right.  If you think about it, this is all about building your brand with your target audience.  And who is better positioned to do this than you? Face it, your supervisor is dead weight; most academics wouldn’t know a good sales pitch if it bit them on the ass. Write that recommendation yourself, and you’ll know you’ve struck the right tone.  And remember:  it’s not lying if you really believe it.  If you can honestly say you are on your way to a Nobel Prize, feel free to point that out.

Job recommendations are just one of several kinds of notes you’re better off writing yourself, and letting someone else sign.  Some other examples I’d recommend include:

  • Award nominations
  • Promotion letters
  • Book reviews
  • Medical prescriptions

Uncomfortable? Sure. But unethical? No way. Now go get ’em. You’re welcome.

The Ethicator


Send your questions to the Ethicator: info@whitecoatblackhat.com

Advice Column, Ethicator

  1. j.
    March 24th, 2011 at 22:19 | #1

    hume was totally down with writing reviews of his own books:


  2. March 27th, 2011 at 15:48 | #2

    This is a swell idea. In the public relations field, we call practices like this ‘astroturfing’ and ‘sock puppetry’. For example, astroturfing refers to political, advertising, or public relations campaigns that are formally planned by an organization or company, but designed to mask their true origins to create the impression of being spontaneous, popular “grassroots” behaviour. (The term refers to AstroTurf, a brand of synthetic carpeting designed to look like natural grass).

    Sock puppetry, on the other hand, is (usually online) when people pose as one user soliciting recommendations for a specific product or service. They then sign on as a different user pretending to be a satisfied customer of a specific company. In some jurisdictions and circumstances, this type of activity may be and should be illegal. Big Pharma employees have been widely accused of this practice in online patient forums.

    For example, last summer, The Times in London reported that the owner of the Drumnadrochit Hotel near Loch Ness admitted to posting a fake review of his own venue on the TripAdvisor website, calling it “outstanding” and “charming”.

    But the hotel owner told The Times:

    “Maybe I shouldn’t have done it. But I don’t think it’s that big a deal.”

    “No big deal” is likely what those who write their own job recommendations, award nominations, book reviews and medical prescriptions believe too, right?


    • B Elliott
      March 28th, 2011 at 14:52 | #3

      Thank you for your excellent comments, and especially for your explanation of astroturfing and sock puppetry. These both sound like worthy endeavours. Now, that said, could you please provide me the names of some firms where I can learn this trade? Thank you!

      The Ethicator.

  3. Grady Moped
    March 28th, 2011 at 15:05 | #4

    Hello Ethicator, I would just like to say that I consider you a beacon of light. I work for a major pharmaceutical company, and you seem like just the person we need over here, speaking truth to power. At the very least, we should be buying advertising on your site. Rock on!

  4. Annie Knowby
    March 28th, 2011 at 15:17 | #5

    Your warmth and brilliance never cease to amaze. I am a health care professional, and am constantly subjected to Carl Elliott’s cheap, sermonizing, second-rate hackery — and cannot help but shake my head in astonishment that the two of you could possibly share any genetic material. You, sir, are a genius.

  5. Hermann Diehl
    March 28th, 2011 at 15:21 | #6

    You have a servant’s heart. God bless you.

  6. Jake
    March 28th, 2011 at 15:26 | #7

    Pulitzer-worthy. You rock!

  7. Matthew
    March 28th, 2011 at 17:22 | #8

    Dear Ethicator,

    You are like a God to me. Do you need disciples? I am ready to serve.

  8. Dr. Smith
    March 28th, 2011 at 17:36 | #9

    Dear Ethicator,

    I’m a bioethicist, and I just want to confirm your suspicion that Carl is widely hated in our field. You might even say he is despised. If we could spit on him, we would. (But that would present hygiene problems, as I’m sure you are aware, since you are also a trained health care professional. So we don’t do it.) We in bioethics are also well-aware of the fact that Carl stole all his best ideas from you. This is an open secret. Anyway, I’m just glad that you have managed to put aside your justifiable sense of betrayal and have begun to disseminate your ethical ideas on the web, absolutely free of charge. Nice work. We all wish we could be more like you.

  9. Fanboy
    March 28th, 2011 at 20:14 | #10

    Is there any way I could get you to send me a signed photograph? I’m willing to pay anything.

  10. Bob
    March 28th, 2011 at 20:19 | #11

    I work for a major pharmaceutical company and I am genuinely stunned that anyone takes your brother seriously. It’s pretty clear that those ideas are not original. When I read his book I could tell he was faking the whole thing. You should probably sue him.

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