Sunday, August 02, 2015

Is it wrong to give a break to those who might not need it, when others clearly do?

Let's say you own a two-family house and live in one of the apartments with your family. You've always rented the other unit to friends or family at below-market rates for the area. You're almost certain that these renters could afford to pay market rates based on their jobs and where they lived before moving into your house.

Now, let's say you've been reading regular reports about families in the area struggling to find affordable apartments. Then, you begin to cross paths with families in your own line of work who desperately want to live in your neighborhood because it's close to their children's schools, healthcare providers and other services they use.

Is it wrong to charge below-market rates to those who can afford to pay more when you know there are families out there in greater need?

A.L., a reader in Boston, posed this question to me recently. She and her spouse own a two-family house in the city. They rent out a two-bedroom apartment to work acquaintances for about $250 less a month than what the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development lists as the averagefair market rent for such a unit in Boston. Comparable apartments in their neighborhood rent for at least $600 more than the couple is charging.

It's not that A.L. frets about the fact that she and her spouse could get more money for the apartment. Given that the mortgage is paid off, they receive more than enough to cover maintenance costs and pocket a nice profit.

A.L. mentioned that she'd read a new report from Northeastern University, "The Greater Boston Housing Report Card2014-2015," which includes observations such as, "Working middle-class families are increasingly being priced out of the region's rental and homeowner market" and "Low-income households...are increasingly finding themselves with excessive housing cost burdens and the potential for homelessness."

Based on the report, A.L. wonders if she and her spouse should offer their apartment at an affordable rate to a family whose needs are greater than those of the friends and family to whom they've been renting.

A.L. and her spouse are fortunate that they're able to show generosity to family and friends by making the apartment available at below-market rates. It's also admirable that A.L. struggles with questions of fairness and displacement in the local housing market.

But just as A.L. has no ethical obligation to rent to friends and family at below-market rates, she also has no obligation to rent to another family whose needs might be greater. Either choice is admirable.

The right thing is for A.L. and her spouse to do is to continue to be conscientious landlords and come to an agreement about how much they want to charge in rent and whether or not to keep the rental in the family. 

Follow him on Twitter: @jseglin 

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Sunday, July 26, 2015

The cloak of anonymity should not protect those who abuse it online

Should anonymous posts be permitted on websites and, if they are, should the posters' anonymity be protected at all costs?

The limit to how much anonymity should be protected seems to have been answered in part in June, when the Illinois Supreme Court upheld a lower court's ruling that an Internet service provider must reveal the name of an anonymous commenter on a website who made defamatory comments about a politician back in 2011. (The wheels of justice are not as swift as making an online post.)

As Bill Freivogel, a journalism professor at Southern Illinois University-Carbondale, told Chris Dettro, a staff writer at The State Journal-Register, "defamation is not protected by the First Amendment" of the U.S. Constitution.

The ruling revisits an issue that has long plagued websites: Should anonymous comments and posts be permitted?

The website reddit has been facing its ownissues over what, if anything, to do about anonymous posters who contribute violent, racist, sexist, or otherwise offensive threads of discussion to its site. On a site that built and prided itself on being open to the comments of users, many of those took issue with a recently departed CEO who tried to crack down on some of the more egregious user posts.

There are times when people posting opinions to a website might fear that adding their voices to a discussion could have personal or professional repercussions, so the cloak of anonymity presents a way for them to contribute without risking retaliation from those who might take issue with what they say.

Too often, however, posters use that anonymous status to post uncivil comments, expressing views they might not broadcast if they had to put their names to the words.

Years ago in a column, I quoted Stephen L. Carter, the author of Integrity (Basic Books, 1996) and a Yale Law School professor: "'If the fear of retaliation causes us not to stand up for our principles, then what kind of principles are they?"

Carter's question remains a strong one to ask today. If some Internet users strongly believe in a particular issue or have a strong response to someone else's opinions, the right thing to do is to have the conviction to attach their names to their views.

On the blog I maintain for this column, anonymous comments are permitted. Most users, however, choose to include their names with their posts, whether those posts agree or disagree with a point I or others have made. While a spam filter catches a good deal of ads for curious products, I haven't had to set up the comments section to require all users to verify their identities before being allowed to post.

My decision has to do with the civility and responsibility the contributors exhibit in making their posts. Like many others who run sites that allow comments, I'd like to keep the ability for readers to make comments as simple as possible. I thank my readers for making such a decision easy to make.

There's nothing ethical about using anonymity as a bludgeon to make posts that are vicious or cruel. When users choose to go such a route, they deserve to be called out. 

Follow him on Twitter: @jseglin 

Do you have ethical questions that you need answered? Send them to 


Sunday, July 19, 2015

Expressing sympathy or thanks are not business obligations

Several months ago, I wrote about P.W., a reader from the Midwest who wondered if customer service representatives had an ethical obligation to thank buyers for pointing out errors in shipments. After receiving a package rather than the intended recipient who lived two states away, P.W. had alerted the company. She was sent a shipping label so she could forward on the package on, but no thank you note.

P.W. also wondered if customer service reps were ethically obligated to express sympathy for customers when it was clear buyers were dealing with the loss of a loved one. After her stepmother died last year, P.W. called 12 magazine publishers to cancel her stepmother's subscriptions. Of the 12 reps she told about the death, only three expressed sympathy.

While it would have been thoughtful, kind and ultimately good business to thank P.W. or express sympathy, the customer service reps were under no obligation to do so. Their obligation was to provide a competent and honest response to P.W.'s requests, and each did so.

Now, M.M., a reader from St. Catherines, Ontario, wants to know if courtesy expectations are a two-way street.

After exchanging email with a customer service rep from a major retailer , M.M. got the information he needed to complete his transaction.

"I sent a simple 'thank you' (note) as a follow-up," M.M. writes. Shortly after, he received an email response from the rep indicating how much she appreciated M.M.'s thank you. "She wrote that she responds to hundreds of customers each day and only rarely gets thanked," writes M.M. "It seems to me customers should recognize that courtesy goes both ways. Are customers obligated to be courteous, or is the fact that they're paying for the service thanks enough?"

Kindness and thoughtfulness are virtues and certainly ones I'd encourage in both parties to a business transaction. If a customer service rep is particularly helpful, then expressing thanks for that help is a good thing.

But customers are not ethically obligated to send thank you notes, any more than customer service reps are obligated to express thanks or show compassion to customers. A customer, such as M.M., is obligated to be honest in his dealings with a company. And customer service reps are obligated to work with customers like P.W. and M.M. to respond to their needs.

The right thing for both parties to do in such transactions is to be honest, respectful and responsive. These are the most basic measures of what makes for an ethical business deal.

The handful of customer service reps who expressed sympathy for P.W.'s loss reflects well on them and their company. The same goes for M.M., who took the time to thank a helpful rep. None of them were ethically obligated to show such kindness. Perhaps each of our business dealings would be a bit more positive if we followed their lead. 

Follow him on Twitter: @jseglin 

Do you have ethical questions that you need answered? Send them to