The Statistics of Morality

Submitted into Contest #158 in response to: Write about a character with questionable morals.... view prompt


Teens & Young Adult Fiction

He flinched in surprise when it was cold instead of hot. His eyes flicked from the words “empirical methodology” to the partially-full mug of coffee which he had subconsciously set down in disgust. The black liquid, no longer steaming, looked like a miniature oil spill in the white ceramic.

He rubbed his eyes. Gotta be at least 2am. Refusing to look at the nightstand clock as he passed it, he refilled the mug with burned coffee from the too-hot coffee pot. Half an inch of utter darkness, mirroring the bedroom window, still remained at the bottom of the carafe. Yuck, it’s all coffee grounds. He dumped it down the tiny bathroom sink and started brewing a fresh pot.

He shuffled back to the desk in the corner with the lamp that was too bright, and sat down with his coffee mug and a sigh. The desk was small. With his laptop in the center, the multiple piles of books and papers laid precariously close to the edges. His arms were lanky like everything else about him and, when he was typing, his elbows couldn’t quite rest on the wood. It made for an uncomfortable night of essay writing.

C’mon, man. He almost said it out loud. It’s almost the end of the semester. You can do this. He looked down again at pages 148-149 of A Study of the Fundamentals of Applied Statistics, Seventh Edition, and tried to focus.

His eyes had just run across the words “hierarchical linear models” when the idea came. He brushed it away, ran his fingers through his slightly greasy blond hair, and took another drink of coffee before returning to the texbook.

By the time he had scraped a dried-out yellow highlighter over the words “fixed effects predictors” the thought had returned several more times. No. No way. I’m not a cheater. His eyes went to the clock on the nightstand, almost uncontrollably. 3:37am. Not good.

He got up for fresh coffee and pictured the scene that would happen in another four hours, where he would be handing in his paper to his Statistics 101 professor. It was 30 percent of his grade. He looked helplessly back at his laptop, where only four of ten pages of his essay had been completed.

He took another sip of coffee. What does the word “cheat” mean, anyway?

If he had been thinking clearly, he would have laughed at himself for suddenly becoming a philosopher. “People usually don’t rationalize doing good,” his ethics professor used to say.

But he wasn’t thinking clearly. Not anymore. After three and a half pots of burned coffee and running on no sleep, he was just worried about his grade.

Define cheat. The words appeared in the search bar on his laptop and he clicked enter. He scanned the results and wasn’t surprised.

Violate rules…deceitful tactics…swindle…deceive…

He changed cheat to plagiarize and clicked enter again.

Taking credit…passing off words and ideas…someone else’s work…full acknowledgement…copying another…

The last swallow of coffee was cold and extra bitter. I’m not a cheater…but everyone in the class is basically writing the same paper, right? We’re all using the same textbooks and research materials for inspiration.

His hand shook a little as he clicked the cursor over to one of the research papers he had open in his browser window. It was an article for a scientific journal, written six years ago by multiple esteemed researchers in the statistics field.

I can’t finish this paper in time. And it’s not cheating as long as I change it a little bit, right? It’s just like reading about something and writing a report about it, right? You just change some of the words.

He searched and found some scattered paragraphs that he could fit easily into his essay. 

If I read a sentence someone wrote and then re-type that sentence in my own words, that’s okay, right? What if I use one of the words in the original sentence? What if I use two?

Select. Copy. Paste.

Now I just need to make it a little different. Find. Replace. Answer becomes Result. Study becomes Research. It’s basically like I wrote it myself. That’s what inspiration is, right?

He continued, copying and pasting, clicking find and replace, until he had ten pages of text. The nightstand clock read 7:41am. Daylight was filtering into the window, and after pressing print he turned off the desk lamp.

What if half of the words in my new sentence are from the original source? Does that make it wrong?

Rationalizing is exhausting, he realized. He had landed on 50 percent as a morally acceptable number. He couldn’t say why, he just felt like it was a good number. It wasn’t like he was copying 100 percent of someone else’s work. That would be cheating. That would be plagiarism.

He clicked the coffee pot off and pulled on jeans and a gray sweatshirt as the printer slid out his essay, page after page of black text on white paper. He made sure all the pages were there, straightened the edges, set the cover page neatly on top, and fastened everything with a paperclip. As he hurriedly slid on his shoes he glanced at the nightstand clock. 7:49am.

He left the dorm and walked quickly across the campus in the cold mist. During the walk he had a conversation with himself.

Had he procrastinated? Definitely. He could admit that to himself.

Was he going to set a completed paper on his professor’s desk at 8am this morning? Yes.

Was that paper going to pass? He was pretty sure it would.

Was that paper written ethically? That…that question was a little more difficult to answer.

He filed into the classroom with the other students, the last one to enter, and set his paper on top of the stack on her desk.

His professor glanced at it. “Hold on,” she said as he started to turn. She handed it back to him with a pen. “You’ve forgotten something important.”

He looked down at the cover sheet.

An Essay on Differential and Inferential Statistics


August 08, 2022 04:54

You must sign up or log in to submit a comment.


Allen Learst
01:14 Aug 18, 2022

Karen: A great idea for a story. I like the descriptive language, like, "Daylight was filtering into the window," though I would suggest making the line more active. "Daylight filtered into the window"; and, "He left the dorm and walked quickly across the campus in the cold mist." Readers love it when they can SEE the moment, even if it's a line as simple as this one. I noticed several places where the prose can be activated. I can't remember exactly what Stephen King says about adverbs in his book "On Writing," but they can kill your prose ...


Karen C
02:39 Aug 18, 2022

Hi Allen, thank you so much for your comment! I really appreciate your insight and the corrections, and will definitely work on using more active words in the future. Funny you mention Stephen King - I started reading "On Writing" earlier this year but haven't finished it yet. :) And that's a good thought on the paraphrasing; it didn't even cross my mind. Take care.


Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply
Mavis Webster
20:43 Aug 13, 2022

I enjoyed this! The ending made my heart plummet a little, you got so invested in the protagonist's feelings and "in his own head," so to speak, that the anxiety was shared with the reader. Some highlights are how you describe the character. You don't just say, "he has long arms," but you write, "his arms were lanky like everything else about him and, when he was typing, his elbows couldn’t quite rest on the wood." Another quote that stood out to me was “'People usually don’t rationalize doing good.'” You conveyed the feeling of this stor...


Karen C
21:57 Aug 14, 2022

Thank you so much for the comment, Mavis! I really appreciate it and I'm glad to hear you were able to relate/connect with the protagonist. I was hoping that would be the case for readers! :)


Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply
RBE | Illustrated Short Stories | 2024-06

Bring your short stories to life

Fuse character, story, and conflict with tools in Reedsy Studio. 100% free.