Sunday, April 13, 2014

Alternative answer to exam question stands up to scrutiny

Years ago, when N.W., a reader in the Midwest, attended a liberal arts college, she and a friend decided to meet one of their distribution requirements by taking an introductory religion course focusing on nonwestern religions. It was, she writes, an overview course describing the beliefs and practices of "pretty much every other religion besides Judaism and Christianity."

When they sat down to their final examination, one of the long essay questions the professor posed "added some color" to the typically staid compare-and-contrast questions often used to test students' knowledge of what they've learned during the semester.

"The essay question posed a hypothetical," N.W. writes. "If your personal faith was outlawed, which of the faiths we covered during the course would you join?" The professor specified that students show their knowledge of at least three of the religions covered over the course of the semester in their answers.

After they finished the exam, N.W. and her friend talked about the question over lunch in the school cafeteria.

"I took it as an intellectual challenge and made a choice, as did the vast majority of my classmates," N.W. writes. But her friend, who was "far more deeply religious," chose to answer the question differently.

She chose to go the route of "persecuted religions the world over," writes N.W. "Go underground."

"I understood her choice," N.W. writes. "She didn't want to even consider losing her faith as part of a thought experiment."

N.W. asked her friend if she'd followed the instructions to discuss three of the religions they'd covered in the class in her answer. She told N.W. that, indeed, she had.

N.W. wonders if it was right to pass her friend, even if she didn't directly give an alternative religion as an answer to the professor's question?

In dealing with acts that show integrity, I often refer back to Stephen Carter's delineation of the three steps needed to act with integrity, outlined in his book, Integrity (Basic Books, 1996). The first step requires discerning the issue. The second step requires acting on what you discern. The final step is stating openly what you've done and why.

In writing the response she did, N.W.'s friend certainly worked to discern the issue. She thought through the question carefully and decided that, theoretically, choosing an alternative religion, even for the sake of getting a good grade on an exam, was unacceptable. She acted by writing the answer she did and articulating the reasons for her choice.

N.W.'s friend indeed showed integrity. Even though some of her classmates might have thought otherwise, the friend did give a direct answer to the professor's question. "None, and here's why" responds to the essay question posed, as long as she supported her answer with a clear understanding of the material covered in class.

The right thing was for N.W.'s friend to answer the question fully and with understanding and integrity, all of which she did. Although she never revealed the specific grade she received on the final, she did pass. Any teacher worth his or her salt welcomes a student who shows comprehension, critical thinking...and a bit of gumption. 

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Sunday, April 06, 2014

Faulty car leaves owners in the "lurch," ethically speaking

Often readers face a quandary about doing the right thing when they know doing so could cost them financially. A reader from the Midwest is caught in just such a quandary.

The reader's wife recently settled a breach-of-warranty lawsuit against a car manufacturer. The suit was based on the fact that her car lurched forward when coming to a stop, something that happened often but not always.

The first time the reader's wife experienced the problem was more than a year after she bought the car. That first lurch nearly caused a collision. After that, she learned to leave extra room before coming to a stop and pressing firmly on the car's brake.

Eventually, this practice stopped working. In the fall of 2012, when the reader was driving his wife's car, the vehicle leaped forward into a cross street when the reader tried to stop at an intersection.

He parked the car in the driveway at home and neither he nor his wife drove it for more than a year as she was working to settle her breach-of-warranty suit against the manufacturer.

Ultimately, the reader received a settlement, but the amount was smaller than she might have received had she considered selling the lurching vehicle to a dealer. She received $8,000 from the manufacturer, about half of which will be left after her lawyers take their share of the spoils.

"Our fear was that if we returned the car to the (original) dealer," the reader writes, "they would sell it to some innocent buyer who might then get into an accident."

The couple plans to make a last-ditch attempt to fix the car so the lurching is gone once and for all.

"If that doesn't work, we will need to dispose of it somehow," writes the reader, "possibly by selling it privately with a written disclosure of the car's history, or by junking the car altogether."

They don't "want the possibility of an accident on their consciences." They point out, however, that three acquaintances, all lawyers, have suggested that the couple simply sell the car to a dealer and be done with it.

"They say that what happens after that is not our problem. What do you think?"

From a strictly legal standpoint -- keeping in mind that I am not a lawyer - the couple's lawyer acquaintances are likely correct.

But fobbing off responsibility onto a dealer does not diminish the reader's concerns about a potential buyer's safety. But simply because something is legal does not always make it the best choice.

From an ethical standpoint, the reader seems to be taking the right stance by showing an appropriate level of concern for unsuspecting future buyers. The right thing is for them to trust their instincts that selling the car without disclosing all that has ailed it would not only result in a guilty conscience, but would also expose potential buyers to unsuspected risk. 

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Friday, April 04, 2014

Send your ethics stories and questions...

For the weekly newspaper ethics column I write for the Tribune Media Services Syndicate called "The Right Thing," I am always looking for stories of ethical challenges, dilemmas, and perplexing situations. If you have such a story or question based on an incident and would like it to be considered for the column, please email it to me at 

Please make sure to include enough details about the story, the issue that you're wrestling with, and your name and the city and state or province where you are located. Include a way for me to contact you. 

If you know of others who might have interesting stories, please forward this on to them by clicking on the envelope below. 

Thanks in advance for your stories.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Am I my coworker's pizza keeper?

If a colleague interprets rules differently from you, does that make her unethical? A reader from the Midwest seems to think so.

The reader has a colleague who works as a counselor for her church's youth group. Until some members of the youth group are baptized, the coworker said she had chosen to abstain from eating bread.

"In her mind, this is some sort of meaningful religious sacrifice," the reader writes, suggesting he's doubtful that the meaningfulness extends beyond his coworker's mind.

When a group of people at the reader's office, including his bread-abstaining coworker, were discussing where to go for lunch, they decided they'd go to an all-you-can-eat pizza buffet.

Obviously, the reader believed this would cause some concern for his coworker. However, the woman readily agreed to the group's choice and said she'd just eat the cheese and toppings off of the pizza and leave the rest.

"I believe it is unethical for a person to do this," my reader writes.

He explains that he believes the all-you-can-eat deal works because "it assumes people will get full and stop eating." To go to an all-you-can-eat place with the intent of not eating half or more of the food, he writes, "is shady."

"In the same way that you can't share food with a non-paying tagalong at such a place, or take leftovers home, I don't think you can go to such a place with the intent of not consuming the food you are taking."

At the restaurant, the reader's colleague had the opportunity not to partake of the buffet and instead order her own pizza off the menu. If she had done that, my reader concludes, "she'd be free and clear to eat or not eat it in any way she saw fit." But the reader seems surprised that his coworker saw nothing wrong with ordering the buffet and then eating only the toppings from the pizza.

"Is her approach ethical?" he asks.

Years ago, my wife and I frequented a restaurant in Western Massachusetts that featured a salad buffet with printed signs that implored diners to: "Take as much as you want, but eat as much as you take."

The reader is likely right that restaurants would prefer buffet customers eat what they take from the buffet table. Clearly, he'd never go to a buffet and take food with the intent of not eating all that he took.

It is inappropriate for the reader to pass judgment on whether or not his coworker is making a religious sacrifice through her actions. That's between the coworker and her God.

Ideally, the coworker would eat what she takes from the buffet table to avoid being wasteful. But it's not convincing that the coworker's behavior would be any more shady than that of a customer who doesn't like pizza crusts and leaves them on her plate. It's unlikely the reader would pass similar judgment on the crust abstainer.

The right thing is for my reader not to let his judgment about whether his coworker's self-professed religious actions and decisions are legitimate to color his assessment of how she behaves at the buffet table. She'll be back to eating the whole slice soon enough. 

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Sunday, March 23, 2014

Should we help those unwilling to help themselves?

A few years ago, a reader from California joined a local church's singles group. The group's leader planned for the members to help cook, serve and clean up after one Saturday evening meal per month at a local homeless shelter.

On their first visit, members of the group were told that because a cookout had been planned for the shelter residents and some graduates would be manning the grills, the singles weren't needed for cooking. Instead, he handed the 10 singles trash bags and disposable gloves, and asked if they'd help pick up litter from the fenced-in yard outside the shelter.

When they went outside, there were about 200 men sitting on chairs, picnic tables and blankets on the ground. Cigarette butts, cans, bottles and candy wrappers were strewn around the yard.

"Something in my mind just immediately said, 'no' in a loud voice," the reader says.

She told her leader she had to work at midnight, which was true, and that she had a headache, which was not true, and she went home.

"All the way home, I questioned myself, and I still do," she writes. She wonders why she was willing to cook, serve and clean up for the program, but not to pick up litter.

"If (the homeless at the shelter) have it together enough to manage to get themselves to this dining room at the appointed times for meals," she writes, "they could be expected to contribute some effort."

The reader works in a hospital emergency room, so she interacts regularly with the homeless. "I contribute clothing, have found meals when they are with us, and have helped soak feet and cut toenails." She also does lots of community service, but picking up litter, "I could not do."

She never went back to the homeless shelter.

"Am I way off the beam thinking that people who are there expecting to be fed could be expected to pitch in and do what they can?" she asks. "I guess I have a dose of that old saying, 'He who will not work shall not eat.'"

That 'saying' the reader cites is an admonition from Paul to the Thessalonians in the New Testament portion of the Bible. The Thessalonians, expecting the imminent return of Jesus, exhausted their own resources and then began mooching off of others. Not cool, Paul pointed out.

It's fair for the reader to expect that the residents of the homeless shelter would be asked to help clean up the yard. What's not clear, however, is that they refused to do so. Since the job for which the singles group originally volunteered was covered, the organizer may simply have been trying to find an alternative.

The reader had every right to choose whether or not to participate. Lying about a headache to get out of the task was not the right thing to do, however. It would have been the right thing to tell the organizer the truth: that she was comfortable cooking and serving a meal, but not cleaning up a yard while those who presumably littered it sat around. 

Follow him on Twitter: @jseglin 

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