Sunday, December 31, 2006

SOUND OFF: PARENTS WHO SPY ON KIDS

While a guest on "Late Night with Conan O'Brien," actress Patricia Heaton said that she regularly reads her 13-year-old son's e-mail without his knowledge. She said that it was the only way for her to know about those things he doesn't tell her about.

A child's safety is obviously a paramount concern for a parent, and checking his e-mail is one way to monitor safety. But does reading a child's e-mail without permission violate privacy? Are there boundaries that parents shouldn't cross to glean information about their children?

Send your thoughts to rightthing@nytimes.com or post them here by clicking on "comments" or "post a comment" below. Please include your name and your hometown. Readers' comments may appear in an upcoming column.

Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of "The Right Thing: Conscience, Profit and Personal Responsibility in Today's Business" (Smith Kerr, 2006), is an associate professor at Emerson College in Boston, where he teaches writing and ethics. He is also the administrator of http://www.jeffreyseglin.com, a Web log focused on ethical issues.

Do you have ethical questions that you need answered? Send them to rightthing@nytimes.com or to "The Right Thing," New York Times Syndicate, 609 Greenwich St., 6th floor, New York, N.Y. 10014-3610.

WHAT WAS I THINKING?

The arrival of the new year is the perfect time to reflect on the past 12 months and try to realign anything that, in retrospect, seems a bit off. Throughout the year readers eagerly offered me alternative solutions and/or additional advice. Now and then they also asked, "What were you thinking?"

Responses to three columns in particular prompt me to revisit some issues. Links to these columns can be found below.

CAN DO?

The most response I received was to a column I wrote last January about a reader from Columbus, Ohio, who was torn about whether to report a man who regularly intercepts bags of recycled cans delivered to a bin at a local Home Depot. [See The Right Thing: WHO'S STEALING MY TRASH?] I wrote that this scavenger was no more in the wrong than the guy who visits my neighborhood every Friday morning, before the recycling truck arrives, to collect recyclables from our neighborhood recycling bins.

Readers such as Mario Fiermonte of Mission Viejo, Calif., continue to e-mail me that this practice can divert funding from a municipality's recycling efforts. That's a valid point. In addition, many municipalities have city codes comparable to Columbus' statute 1305.07, which prohibits anyone from removing waste set out for collection unless given permission by the "owner of such waste." If you're willing to give your recycling to an individual collecting cans, the smartest thing is to tell him that it's OK to pick up yours.

Given the minimal effort needed, the choice should not be whether or not to recycle in the first place.

FREE AS THE AIR

In February I wrote that it was up to people setting up wireless Internet connections to make them password-protected if they don't want others to use them occasionally. I was deluged with responses from readers on both sides of the issue. [See http://jeffreyseglin.blogspot.com/2006/02/surfing-on-borrowed-time.html ]

In March, after my column appeared, an Illinois man was fined $250 for tapping into the wireless connection of a not-for-profit agency while sitting with his laptop in a parked car outside the agency's office.

I still maintain that the ethical responsibility for securing the connection should fall on the person setting it up. Rest assured, if you're caught parked outside my house tapping into my wireless connection, and I have not made it password-protected, I will not press charges.

NOT SO FAST!

Finally, in October I wrote about a trucker from Orange County, Calif., who had received a speeding ticket for going 63 miles per hour in a 55-miles-per-hour zone, even though he had set his cruise control to 55 miles per hour. [See http://jeffreyseglin.blogspot.com/2006/10/keep-on-trucking.html ] His boss refused to pay the ticket. The trucker discovered that the speedometer on his truck was out of calibration, and I told him that his boss should pay for the ticket and whatever it cost to check the calibration.

"Shame on you for such bad advice," wrote Cathy Worley, a retired attorney from Columbus, Ohio. "A person who travels for a living does not need a speeding violation on his record when he is not personally at fault."

It wasn't enough for the boss simply to pay the ticket, Worley argued, since the incident would still be a black mark on my reader's driving record. The trucker's boss should also pay for any court costs involved in fighting the ticket, which should be dismissed on the grounds of mechanical failure. Her counsel is wise, and I'm happy to pass along her advice.

I trust I can count on Fiermonte, Worley and my other readers to do the right thing by continuing to share their wisdom with me as the new year progresses.

Thursday, December 28, 2006

FOR WHOSE EYES ONLY UPDATE

Thanks to my reader from Madison, Wisc., I've an update to the column I wrote on November 5, 2006, "For Whose Eyes Only," about campaign documents detailing the Democratic Party's strategic plans for last November's election that somehow ended up in Republican Party hands. (The original column can be read at http://jeffreyseglin.blogspot.com/2006/11/for-whose-eyes-only.html.)

The State of Wisconsin Ethics Board issued a press advisory today (December 28, 2006), that indicated that a Senate staffer had taken the documents from a folder and copied them on a state-owned photocopier and then gave copies to his Republican colleagues.

The Ethics Board fined the staffer $100 for using a state-owned copier, but determined that "Laws the Ethics Board administers do not address the appropriateness of...taking the Democratic documents and conveying them to his Republican colleagues." (The complete text of the State of Wisconsin Ethics Board Press Advisory can be found at http://www.thewheelerreport.com/releases/Dec06/Dec28/1228ethicsbdcampaignplan.pdf.)

The Board's finding leaves open the question of the ethics of taking the documents that the staffer knew were not his own and then sharing them with colleagues to use in their campaigns. The advisory does not address whether, simply because the action fell outside of the laws administered by the Ethics Board, the board condones it as an ethical act.

Sunday, December 24, 2006

THE BEST OF YEARS, THE WORST OF YEARS

It's time again to look back at egregious ethical lapses of the past year. As usual, however, believing that as much can be learned from those who do the right thing as from those who don't, I'm sticking with my tradition of offering positive alternatives that stand in stark contrast to the misguided actions or wayward intents of many people in the news.

AN IMPLAUSIBLE `PRETEXT'

In trying to find out who might be leaking information about their company, Hewlett-Packard executives engaged in "pretexting," which involved posing as someone else in order to gain access to the telephone records of some of their own board members, as well as those of journalists covering the company. As a result the company's reputation was tarnished and its former board chairwoman and others face criminal charges. [UPDATE: To here an interview I gave on NPR's "Here and Now" on HP's pretexting on January 12, 2007, you can click on Here and Now : Prosecutors Press Charges in Hewlett-Packard Case ...]

A much better example is provided by Nike. The athletic-shoe company has turned around its previous image as a company that didn't pay attention to the sweatshop conditions in some of the foreign plants at which its products were assembled. This year Nike was recognized by the Sustain Ability Global Reporters Program as the top company in the United States, and one of the top 10 in the world, in reporting the working, environmental and community conditions wherever it does business.

Once viewed as a pariah, Nike now is a leader in making its supply chains transparent enough to safeguard employee rights.

[For more on Sustain Ability's Report, see CSRwire.com - News from Nike, Inc.: SustainAbility Names Nike Top ... and for more on overcoming sweatshop conditions, see Rising Above Sweatshops, edited by Laura Hartman, Denis Arnold, and Richard Wokutch (Praeger, 2003) at Rising above Sweatshops: Innovative Approac... ]

IF YOU CAN'T SAY SOMETHING GOOD...

I was relieved when News Corp. chairman Rupert Murdoch finally pulled the plug on O.J. Simpson's book and television interview about how he might have murdered his ex-wife. More than enough said.

But not nearly enough has been said about Bangladeshi economist Muhammad Yunus and his book Banker to the Poor: Micro-Lending and the Battle Against World Poverty (Public Affairs, 2003). Yunus makes extremely small, unsecured loans to very poor people to help them lift themselves out of poverty. While initially many were skeptical of his efforts, the default rate on his loans is negligible and the impact of the loans on his borrowers has been transformational.

This year Yunus and his Grameen Bank were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for their efforts. It brought renewed attention to Yunus and his efforts, but they deserve even more. [Yunus' book is available at Banker to the Poor: Micro-Lending and the B...]

IN VINO VERITAS?

On July 28 Mel Gibson was arrested and charged with driving under the influence. During the arrest he let loose a barrage of anti-Semitic and sexist statements. The next day he apologized, saying that he was ashamed of everything he had said. Gibson's outburst raised the suspicion of deep-seated feelings of hatred toward particular groups in him and perhaps in others as well.

Compare that to an incident that occurred in September on the campus of the University of Minnesota. A member of Hillel, the Jewish student association, received a call from a member of the Muslim Student Association who on Sept. 9 had noticed a swastika painted on a sidewalk near the Minneapolis campus.

Members of the two groups, as well as those of the Episcopal Student Association and others, met to discuss the issue. The students saw the incident not as a Jewish, Muslim or Christian issue, but as a human issue.

The meeting was the first time the groups had come together, but, according to Lauren Palay -- who, besides being the president of Hillel, is also my niece -- they intend it to be the beginning of a unified commitment to do the right thing and to stand together against any such instances of hate in the future. [I happened to be visiting Minneapolis when this incident occurred. For a fuller report, see the university newspaper's (The Minnesota Daily) story at A message of hate inspires peace - Minnesota Daily]

SOUND OFF: A CIVIL RESPONSE

Many of my readers believe that civility and candor are not mutually exclusive.

"One may only be civil when one is candid," writes Mary Beth Harris of Charlotte, N.C. To be anything less than honest, she adds, "is the biggest sign of disrespect one can bestow on another."

E. Carroll Straus of Orange County, Calif., draws a distinction between candor and "mean-spiritedness or bullying."

While Debbie Billings of Corona, Calif., agrees that we can state our honest opinions civilly, she believes that people have become less civil about protecting their own right to express their views while restricting the expression of views that differ from their own.

Charlie Seng of Lancaster, S.C., writes that, because of a "seeming craze to be candid about everything," we have gone "from a civil type of life toward an uncivil and mistrusting type of life." It's not necessary, he writes, "to be candid all the time."

Check out other opinions at http://jeffreyseglin.blogspot.com/2006/11/sound-off-shut-up-and-read-this-column.html or post your own by clicking on "post a comment" or "comments" below.

Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of "The Right Thing: Conscience, Profit and Personal Responsibility in Today's Business" (Smith Kerr, 2006), is an associate professor at Emerson College in Boston, where he teaches writing and ethics. He is also the administrator of http://jeffreyseglin.blogspot.com, a Web log focused on ethical issues.

Do you have ethical questions that you need answered? Send them to rightthing@nytimes.com or to "The Right Thing," New York Times Syndicate, 609 Greenwich St., 6th floor, New York, N.Y. 10014-3610.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

SOUND OFF: CHARITY PARTIES

According to a recent story in The Wall Street Journal, there is a growing trend among holiday-party givers to request attendees to make a donation to a specific charity, rather than bring wine, food or gifts to the party. While the motives may be well-intentioned, some have suggested that guests may feel alienated by "too much of a hard sell" or that they "don't appreciate the social pressure to give to what the host, not the guest, determines is a good cause."

Do you think it crosses an ethical line to make such requests, and to allow admission only if the attendees agree to give to a charity they might not have chosen on their own? Would you make a point of going and not giving to the charity if it wasn't one of your causes? Or should invited guests who take issue simply and politely stay home?

Send your thoughts to rightthing@nytimes.com or post them here by clicking on "comments" below. Please include your name and your hometown. Readers' comments may appear in an upcoming column.

Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of "The Right Thing: Conscience, Profit and Personal Responsibility in Today's Business" (Smith Kerr, 2006), is an associate professor at Emerson College in Boston, where he teaches writing and ethics. He is also the administrator of http://jeffreyseglin.blogspot.com, a Web log focused on ethical issues.

Do you have ethical questions that you need answered? Send them to rightthing@nytimes.com or to "The Right Thing," New York Times Syndicate, 609 Greenwich St., 6th floor, New York, N.Y. 10014-3610.

THINKING ABOUT ETHICS IN A VACUUM

Three years ago I was asked to give a welcoming address to new students at Emerson College, where I teach. My oldest grandson happened to be about to start kindergarten, so -- figuring that the concerns about starting a new school don't change much from childhood to the teen years -- I asked Evan if he had any worries.

"Two things," he said. "Making new friends and falling down."

I told the incoming class about Evan's concerns. I assured them that they would make plenty of friends, and that those friends would be there to pick them up if they should stumble.

Evan's advice immediately came to mind when James Winter, a reader from Baltimore, e-mailed to ask whom I myself turn to for advice in dealing with the ethical questions that readers toss my way. Winter is generous enough to imagine that "the occasion is rare indeed" when I find it necessary to turn to others for help, but in reality nothing is further from the truth.

Whether you're a seasoned ethicist or a complete beginner, ethics is not done in a vacuum. Rarely can I simply sit down and concoct a full-blown, thoughtful response to a reader's question. To bang out a glib observation with an amusing punch line might win me a chuckle at the reader's expense, but it would do little to help the reader think through an important choice -- and, even if the issue at hand is a minor one, the ethical issue that it raises is often important.

My challenge is to try to look past the superficial meaning of readers' questions and see what the readers aren't telling me, what motivated them to ask their questions in the first place. So I often return to questioners to see if I can better grasp what it is that they're trying to resolve. Whether it's through conversation or through correspondence, the questioner is often my best resource.

My resource pool reaches beyond the original source, of course. If a question falls into a specialized area about which I know absolutely nothing, I seek out an expert. If a question comes up that involves a skull being stolen from a graveyard, it never hurts to check in with an authority on cemetery law. But most of the time that isn't the case. Usually I turn to the same places to which you'd turn: to intelligent colleagues, friends and family members. I'm lucky that I can also rely on the wisdom of my students and the regular readers of this column.

Then, of course, there is the education I've received and the books that I've read. Often the perfect thought is already in my head, put there by some author whose work I've been fortunate enough to read.

For example: "Ethics is how we behave when we decide we belong together," Margaret Wheatley and Myron Kellner Rogers wrote in A Simpler Way (Berrett-Koehler, 1999).

Shortly after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, three women -- a Muslim, a Christian and a Jew -- decided to get together and write a children's book that would help explain to their own children and to others what their three faiths had in common. Instead their meetings turned into confrontations, often revelatory ones, about their own and one another's faiths.

The result of those meetings is "The Faith Club: A Muslim, a Christian, a Jew: Three Women Search for Understanding" (Free Press, 2006), by Ranya Idliby, Suzanne Oliver and Priscilla Warner. The book is a wonderful recounting of how three women chose to behave when they decided they belonged together. ["The Faith Club" is available at The Faith Club: A Muslim, A Christian, A Je... ]

When we're trying to sort through the gray maze of difficult ethical choices, the right thing to do -- and that turns out to be the question that Winter really was asking -- is to avoid making those choices in isolation. We should have faith that, on those occasions when we fall down, our friends will help to steady us.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

HONESTY IS A GREAT SLEEPING AID

Several weeks ago I told the story of Eunice Kwon, the Pasadena High School student who won a Rotary Club district's annual ethics-essay contest by writing about how she and several of her friends who were "the smart kids" at school had lapsed into a culture of cheating. (See http://jeffreyseglin.blogspot.com/2006/09/you-tell-me-yours.html )

It was only after a friend told Kwon that he had found a password to a teacher's online grading book and easily could change all their grades that Kwon's ethical sense was jolted. She realized that her previous infractions of the rules, "no matter how petty, were all forms of cheating."

I challenged readers to tell me the kinds of ethical dilemmas in which they have found themselves, and they responded with some beauties.

Two stories stand out as examples of how everyday activities can challenge an individual's integrity, and several stories sent by high-school students in Columbus, Ohio, poignantly evoke how early the struggle to do the right thing begins.

THE CUSTOMER GOT THE TIP

While vacationing on the San Juan Islands in Washington with her husband, Genie Hufham of Charlotte, N.C., visited a restaurant gift shop and decided to buy a jacket that bore the restaurant's name on the breast pocket. The hostess put the jacket into a bag and told Hufham that the cost would be added to the bill for her dinner.

"After driving 15 miles back to our hotel," Hufham writes, "we realized that the cost hadn't been added to the meal bill."

The following day they returned to the restaurant to pay for the jacket. The hostess recognized them from the night before, and the waitress who had forgotten to add the charge to the bill was summoned.

"I wanted her to know that I would never be able to wear it without thinking that I had taken advantage of her mistake," Hufham says.

They settled the bill, and today Hufham wears her jacket with a clear conscience.

AN OPEN-AND-SHUT CASE

About two years ago Karen A., a reader from southern California, was putting her kitchen through a substantial remodeling. She located the cabinet pulls she wanted, and had a saleswoman at the store copy the catalog page and make a note of the sizes and prices for her.

When she returned, some weeks later, the same saleswoman assisted her. Unfortunately Karen had misplaced her notes, so the saleswoman pulled up a price on her computer.

"She said that the cabinet pulls were $6.48 each," Karen writes. "I was sure they were discounted to me previously to $4.34. I was insistent, and she agreed to let me order them for $4.50."

The pulls arrived, and Karen picked them up without any problem. A few weeks later, however, she came across her original notes and was horrified to see that the quoted price had indeed been $6.48. Many cabinets had been involved, and the different was significant -- a total of about $100.

When she returned to pay the money she owed, Karen was directed to the accounting office, where a confused clerk looked up and asked, "You want to pay more?"

Karen went through what she calls her "I-will-sleep-better-at-night explanation." The clerk consulted with another clerk, she writes, and the two of them went into the back office, where Karen heard them let out what she calls "a giant isn't-she-stupid roar."

"Thankfully," Karen writes, "honesty is its own reward ... and a great sleeping aid too."

TRIED AS JUVENILES

I received several letters from juniors in Beverly Graves' literature class at Worthington Kilbourne High School in Columbus. Graves, who has been teaching English for 34 years, often uses newspaper stories to make literature relevant to her students.

"It's a great way to update the choices the kids are struggling with," she says.

One student wrote about how her math teacher uses candy to reward pupils who answer difficult problem sets. But one day recently, when the teacher left the classroom, another student grabbed a handful of candy and tossed it to several other kids in the back of the room. The student who wrote me struggled with whether to turn in her classmate and risk being labeled a tattletale or not do anything and be tormented. She chose the latter, but continues to be plagued with guilt.

Another student wanted to know how he, as a lacrosse player, could keep from being viewed negatively in the wake of scandals allegedly involving lacrosse players at Duke University and in Dublin, Ohio. He worries that the misguided values of a few highly publicized players and coaches may tarnish what has been for him a wonderful sport.

Yet another student learned how long it can take to repair the damage done by even a small lie earlier this fall, when she told her mother that she would be spending the night at a friend's house and instead spent the night at Bowling Green University in a girlfriend's dorm room. Weeks later her older sister innocently let the secret slip.

"I've lost my trust," my correspondent says. "I'm still kind of grounded."

Despite the easy opportunity to do otherwise, both Hufham and Karen A. chose to do the right thing. And Graves' students are learning at an early age how to wrestle with the kinds of ethical issues that each of us faces throughout our lives.

Copies of my book, "The Right Thing: Conscience, Profit and Personal Responsibility in Today's Business" (Smith Kerr, 2006), are on their way to Hufham, Karen A. and Graves, as is a gift from the New York Times Syndicate to Graves' students for sharing their stories.

Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of "The Right Thing: Conscience, Profit and Personal Responsibility in Today's Business," is an associate professor at Emerson College in Boston, where he teaches writing and ethics. He is also the administrator of http://jeffreyseglin.blogspot.com, a Web log focused on ethical issues.

Do you have ethical questions that you need answered? Send them to rightthing@nytimes.com or to "The Right Thing," New York Times Syndicate, 609 Greenwich St., 6th floor, New York, N.Y. 10014-3610.

Sunday, December 03, 2006

YOU CAN'T TAKE IT WITH YOU, BUT WHAT THEN?

After my reader D.M.'s husband died in 2004, she worried that, when she herself died, the bulk of her estate would go to the state of California instead of to her eight adult children. D.M. is 77 years old, and her assets consist mostly of $100,000 in cash and a house worth about $700,000.

Five of her children make good incomes and live on their own, but two of her daughters and a son live with her in her house. Her son is blind but holds down a minimum-wage job. Her daughters work but, because of a series of unfortunate relationships and events, have outstanding bills that eat up most of their income. Each depends on D.M. for support.

A lawyer wisely advised D.M. to create a trust to protect her assets, but the question troubling her is, what's the right thing to do in terms of dividing her assets among her children?

If D.M. were to die and leave ownership of the house equally to her eight children, it would have to be sold. The three children now living there would be unlikely to be able to afford a new home, and their inheritance would quickly be eaten up by high rents. If the house were left solely to the three children, they could continue living there -- but the other five children would be shortchanged.

"I know it is up to me in the final analysis," D.M. writes, "but should I divide my assets evenly or according to their needs?"

I sometimes joke with my own children that I plan to die broke, thus avoiding any arguments over who gets what when I'm gone. A few years ago I went so far as to give my son-in-law, as a gift, a copy of the Stephen Pollan/Mark Levine book "Die Broke: A Radical 4-Part Personal Finance Plan" (Collins, 1997).

But I'm kidding, of course, and D.M.'s question is one that I regularly receive in various guises from many readers: "Must I treat my children equally when it comes to money, gifts or inheritances?"

The answer, of course, is no. It's your money and your stuff, so you can do with it whatever you want. You owe your children nourishment, protection and so forth when they're young, but the parent/child relationship carries with it no built-in ethical obligation as far as inheritance is concerned.

There are consequences to your actions, though. You have the right, for example, to favor one child over another for no apparent reason, but there's no fairness to such action, and it's very likely to create animosity toward yourself while you're alive and, after you're gone, animosity among your children.

D.M. has a compelling reason to provide for her children at different levels after she's gone, however. Three of her children seem clearly to be more in need. One reasonable solution might be for her to leave her house to the three who live in it and to split the $100,000 in cash among her other five children. If that's what D.M. is inclined to do, she should do so with a clear conscience.

The right thing for D.M. to do, after she decides how she wants to divide her assets after her death, is to talk with all of her children to let them know what she has decided to do. She doesn't need to explain herself or to ask their permission, but simply to let them know what to expect.

And the right thing for each of them to do is to thank her.

SOUND OFF: MADONNA'S ADOPTION

My readers were of mixed opinion about whether Madonna's adoption of a Malawian boy should have been fast-tracked because of her financial gifts to the country.

"Is it right that Madonna and other stars be allowed to circumvent the law because of their status or financial contributions?" asks Wendy Hagmaier of Fullerton, Calif. "No. This would mean that the rich could traffic in human beings."

Lena Lukings of London, Ontario, thinks that it all boils down to money.

"While I realize that Madonna can and will change that little boy's life far beyond what any parent can imagine," she writes, "I believe that money was behind the rapid adoption. Within days Madonna had that child in England. There just was not enough time allotted for a reasonable decision to be made."

J.J. Singh of La Palma, Calif., however, sees nothing wrong with the adoption.

"I question the challenge by the Human Rights Consultative Committee," Singh writes. "Their only objection appears to be the fast-track adoption procedures implemented. The committee has not objected to the child being adopted by Madonna."

A.J. Williams of Fullerton, Calif., agrees. "She is saving that child from a life of poverty and disease," Williams writes. "So what if her occupation fast-tracks her? It is that much sooner that the child can be rescued!"

Check out other opinions at http://jeffreyseglin.blogspot.com/2006/10/sound-off-madonna-and-child.html or post your own by clicking on "comments" below. You don't need to register if you post anonymously, but please include you name and location in the body of your comments.

Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of "The Right Thing: Conscience, Profit and Personal Responsibility in Today's Business" (Smith Kerr, 2006), is an associate professor at Emerson College in Boston, where he teaches writing and ethics. He is also the administrator of http://jeffreyseglin.blogspot.com, a Web log focused on ethical issues.

Do you have ethical questions that you need answered? Send them to rightthing@nytimes.com or to "The Right Thing," New York Times Syndicate, 609 Greenwich St., 6th floor, New York, N.Y. 10014-3610.

Thursday, November 30, 2006

SOUND OFF: NO SMOKERS NEED APPLY

Mike Hofman, the executive editor at Inc. magazine, posted an item on the magazine's blog about a Massachusetts man who sued Scotts lawncare company after he was fired after failing a drug test that showed nicotine in his system...even though he didn't smoke on the job. (Read the item at http://blog.inc.com/archives/2006/11/30/smokers_firing_sparks_lawsuit.html)

It reminded me of a Sound Off question I posed to readers back in January 2005, shortly after Weyco, an employee-benefits company in Michigan, announced it would begin testing its employees for nicotine use. Most of my readers were outraged. You can read their unedited responses at http://marketing.nytsyn.com/nytsyn/editorial/rightthing24.html if you scroll down the page.

If you'd like to post a comment on the current case that's in Mike's blog item or written about in more detail at http://www.boston.com/business/globe/articles/2006/11/30/off_the_job_smoker_sues_over_firing/, or about the issue of employers testing employees for nicotine use in general, you can click on "comments" below.

Sunday, November 26, 2006

SOUND OFF: INFLUENCING ELECTIONS

The day after the recent midterm elections, President George W. Bush announced the resignation of Donald Rumsfeld, his secretary of defense.

Not long before the elections, the president had been quoted as saying that he would not replace Rumsfeld and that he hoped Rumsfeld would serve for the rest of the Bush administration. As it turned out, however, the two men had been discussing Rumsfeld's resignation for quite some time and the departure was planned whether or not the Democrats took control of the House or Senate.

Bush told reporters that he had not wanted to influence the elections by making an announcement beforehand, even though he knew what he planned to do. Some Republicans who lost close races complained, arguing that Rumsfeld's resignation, had it been announced prior to the election, might have given them enough of a boost to hold onto their seats.

Do you believe that it was ethical for Bush not to announce Rumsfeld's resignation until after the midterm elections? If so, was it ethical for him to say that he planned no change, even when he now says that he was in fact planning a change?

Send your thoughts to rightthing@nytimes.com or post them here by clicking on "COMMENTS" below. Please include your name, your hometown and the name of the newspaper in which you read this column. Readers' comments may appear in an upcoming column.

Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of "The Right Thing: Conscience, Profit and Personal Responsibility in Today's Business" (Smith Kerr, 2006), is an associate professor at Emerson College in Boston, where he teaches writing and ethics. He is also the administrator of http://jeffreyseglin.blogspot.com, a Web log focused on ethical issues.

Do you have ethical questions that you need answered? Send them to rightthing@nytimes.com or to "The Right Thing," New York Times Syndicate, 609 Greenwich St., 6th floor, New York, N.Y. 10014-3610.

Sunday, November 19, 2006

AN AWKWARD MATTER OF CONSCIENCE

Several weeks ago I wrote about Dr. Mary Hanna, who had received $184,000 toward her medical education from the U.S. Army in exchange for committing herself to four years of active duty and four years of reserve duty once she had become a doctor. In December 2005, however, as she was completing her medical residency, Hanna notified the Army that she wanted reclassification as a conscientious objector, based on religious beliefs that she recently had embraced.

As reported in The Boston Globe, Hanna wrote in her application for conscientious-objector status that she felt that she would betray "moral and religious principles by participating in war in any way." The Army denied her initial request, but she appealed.

I asked my readers if they thought that Hanna was morally bound to carry out the commitment she had made to the Army, even if she repays the money with interest, as her lawyer says she is willing to do? Or did her new religious obligation trump her previous contractual agreement?

Not surprisingly, I received a tremendous amount of reader response.

"A contract is a contract," writes Red Wolfe of Melbourne, Fla., speaking for many of my readers. "Buying out is not, nor should it be, an option. So suck it up and do the honorable thing and do your duty as per your contract, regardless of second thoughts."

Jean Crawford, a former Army nurse who now lives in Charlotte, N.C., served three years of active duty in exchange for receiving a salary from the Army while completing her nursing degree. Hanna's offer to repay the debt doesn't resolve anything, she writes, because the Army could have used that money to help someone else through medical school "who would have served without whining."

Crawford believes that being a conscientious objector is perfectly consistent with being an Army doctor.

"She would have the opportunity to treat not only her fellow soldiers, but also the wounded enemy and wounded civilians -- a very, very conscientious thing to do," she says.

Many readers point out that physicians are noncombatants who do not carry guns.

"They are not expected to fight," writes Gwen Wooldridge of Huntington Beach, Calif., "just cure."

A number of readers expressed suspicion of Hanna's recent, "convenient" conversion into a conscientious objector.

Even some of those who are willing to give her the benefit of the doubt, however, believe that it should be the Army's decision, not hers, as to whether Hanna should serve her terms of active and reserve duty. If the Army needs medical staff, writes Dave Marohl of Sun Prairie, Wis., it would be wrong to let her off the hook.

"The choice should be their option," he writes, "rather than given to the person who has chosen to duck her responsibilities."

Readers such as Phil Clutts of Harrisburg, N.C., believe that the Army should accept Hanna's offer to repay the money and relieve her of her obligation.

Requiring her "to meet her contractual -- and moral -- obligation to the Army could backfire," writes Clutts, who is concerned that she might be so distressed by her internal conflicts as to be unable to function effectively. "Why take the chance, if the government can get its money back?"

Since I posed my question to readers, the case has gone to trial and a federal judge has reversed the Army's decision, ruling that Hanna must be discharged from the Army as a conscientious objector.

That was the legal verdict, but was it, independent of the niceties of the law, the right thing to do? I don't believe so.

Hanna would have been wise to raise her concerns well before the precise moment that her call to duty was coming due. But faith doesn't work on a timetable, and I don't question her claim that this is a matter of faith.

What troubles me, rather, is her conclusion that she cannot conscientiously be involved with the military in any way.

As several of my readers point out, her role as a physician would make her a noncombatant. If she feels that, even so, she cannot treat soldiers or civilians who are injured during war because she disapproves of war, how does that translate into nonmilitary contexts? I agree with Mary Burson, a reader from Laguna Niguel, Calif., who finds Hanna's objections too simplistic.

"As a civilian physician," Burson writes, "she would conscientiously object to smoking, drug addiction, overeating and gang activity, but she would not refuse to treat patients whose ailments or injuries resulted from these causes. It would be morally wrong."

Hanna made a commitment, and that commitment does not vanish because she now sees it in a different light. She is obligated to avoid viewing the situation in black-and-white and instead to make more of an effort to find a way in which her newfound religious sensibilities and her earlier contractual obligation can be rationalized.

Her faith may, for example, prohibit her from doing anything that would enable a wounded soldier to return to the battleground and prolong the war. But that prohibition would probably not extend to barring her from using her skills stateside, at a veteran's hospital, treating wounded soldiers who will never see battle again. Perhaps this sort of compromise would satisfy the Army, perhaps not -- but it is Hanna's responsibility to explore every alternative, rather than simply folding up her cards and going home.

As for the Army's responsibilities in the case, Hanna has the same right to apply for conscientious-objector status that anyone else has, and the Army has the moral obligation to take her application seriously. It would be wrong for reviewers to approach her application prejudiced by the suspicion that her religious conversion is the result of cowardice or the desire to earn more money in civilian practice.

It is obligated to consider her application carefully and without prejudice, in short, but it is not obligated to grant her conscientious-objector status if, in the Army's opinion, she does not qualify for it. And, like Hanna herself, the Army leadership should avoid either/or scenarios and try to find a way for her to serve out her obligation without dismissing out of hand her religious objections.

Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of "The Right Thing: Conscience, Profit and Personal Responsibility in Today's Business" (Smith Kerr, 2006), is an associate professor at Emerson College in Boston, where he teaches writing and ethics. He is also the administrator of http://www.jeffreyseglin.com, a Web log focused on ethical issues.

To post a response to this column click on "COMMENTS" below. You can choose to post anonymously so you don't have to register, but plese include your name and location in your post.

Do you have ethical questions that you need answered? Send them to rightthing@nytimes.com or to "The Right Thing," New York Times Syndicate, 609 Greenwich St., 6th floor, New York, N.Y. 10014-3610.

Sunday, November 12, 2006

SOUND OFF: SHUT UP AND READ THIS COLUMN

On Oct. 21, in his inaugural address as the 26th president of Washington & Lee University in Lexington, Va., Kenneth Ruscio said: "...at precisely the time we need mutual understanding, we are descending inexorably into a public discourse of incivility and mistrust."

A cry has arisen for more civil behavior in everything from political advertising to college campuses, but for Ruscio civility requires more than simply polite behavior. (Here's a link to his complete address: http://www2.wlu.edu/web/page/normal/1247.html )

Here's my question for you: Is a cry for civil behavior the same thing as a cry for concealment of one's honest feelings? Or are civility and candor compatible?

Send your thoughts to rightthing@nytimes.com or post them at http://www.jeffreyseglin.com. Please include your name, your hometown and the name of the newspaper in which you read this column. Readers' comments may appear in an upcoming column.

Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of "The Right Thing: Conscience, Profit and Personal Responsibility in Today's Business" (Smith Kerr, 2006), is an associate professor at Emerson College in Boston, where he teaches writing and ethics. He is also the administrator of http://www.jeffreyseglin.com, a Web log focused on ethical issues.

Do you have ethical questions that you need answered? Send them to rightthing@nytimes.com or to "The Right Thing," New York Times Syndicate, 609 Greenwich St., 6th floor, New York, N.Y. 10014-3610.

THE RIGHT THING: FOR WHOM THE BOOTH TOLLS

"If they don't know how to merge, they shouldn't be on the road," my wife often mutters -- if you consider a mutter an utterance that could be heard from several cars over through closed windows -- when we get stuck behind a line of traffic that bottlenecks because of drivers who don't know how to seamlessly move from two lanes into one.

As a native Bostonian, my wife learned to drive among those whose offensive-driving skills are legendary. She knows the ways of the road, including who has the right of the way in a rotary -- or a roundabout, depending on where you live -- and, while she can get from any point A to any point B faster than I can, she's never had a speeding ticket. There was the time that a stray policeman's horse crashed into the back of her Chevy Impala as she was waiting at a stop light on Dorchester Avenue, but no one could have seen that one coming.

So when a question about proper toll-booth ethics arises, I turn first to my wife.

Here's the question: If there are only three booths accepting cash and a long line at each booth, what obligation, if any, does a waiting driver have to someone who drives past in another lane until, right before the booths, he or she signals a desire to cut into the line of waiting cars, all of whom have been waiting for much longer than has the new arrival?

My wife ponders the question, but before she can answer I introduce an additional consideration: Does it matter that there are always big signs warning that backing up at a toll booth is illegal?

And then, as she's about to utter her pronouncement, I add a final twist: Does it make a difference whether the driver was clueless until the last moment or simply too impatient to wait in a long line?

My wife's answers, based on her estimable knowledge of the road, match my own take on the ethics of the situation.

First, a waiting driver has no obligation to let another driver cut into line in front of her. She earned the place she occupies fairly, and is not obligated to give it up to another driver simply because that driver has placed himself in an awkward position.

That said, because the cutting driver cannot legally back up at the toll booth, it could present a traffic hazard not to let him cut into line. The driver may have been heading to a booth that registered scanning devices and not have realized until the last minute that he was in the wrong lane. If he doesn't get out of that lane, he could be in the way of other cars, especially if other drivers make the same mistake and the line to cut builds up.

Because safety is an issue, despite the absence of any ethical obligation to give way, the right thing to do is to let him cut into line in front of you. Fairness to the drivers who have waited patiently behind you comes into play, but safety trumps patience in this scenario.

The situation is different in a grocery store, where there is no meaningful safety consideration. There it's wrong to let a person cut in front of you when there are people waiting behind you, unless they too give their OK.

My wife and I agree that it does make a difference whether the driver was clueless or simply too impatient, at least in terms of how we feel about yielding, but that, by the time he's up there waiting to cut into line, the safest course is still to let him in. One incivility should not breed another, particularly when safety is at stake.

And, my wife adds, it wouldn't kill you to turn off your windshield wipers when it's raining, so that the toll collectors don't get soaked.

Monday, November 06, 2006

FOR WHOSE EYES ONLY? PART II

After reading this week's column (The Right Thing: FOR WHOSE EYES ONLY?) in the Charlotte Observer, reader Ralph Lowrance of Charlotte, wrote me:

Mr. Seglin:

I read with interest your comments about whether someone should look at a document, inadvertently left on his desk or on a copier, which showed confidential information. In short, you said that looking at confidential information is "tantamount to theft."

A recent column by your colleague Randy Cohen defended not only looking at confidential information (the salaries of all employees, in this case), but also advocated disseminating the information to everyone in the company.

In a future column, would you reconcile your position with his?

Thank you.

Ralph Lowrance
Charlotte, NC

The column by Mr. Cohen that Mr. Lowrance refers to appears at

Salary Exposure - New York Times

As for reconciliation, in this instance, Mr. Cohen and I disagree on the appropriate ethical response to the situation and I continue to maintain, as I did in my column, that it is inappropriate to take advantage of confidential information that you have inadvertently received.

I encourage other readers to read both columns and to weigh in.



Sunday, November 05, 2006

FOR WHOSE EYES ONLY?

A reader in Madison, Wis., alerted me to a political battle that is brewing in her city, which is the state capital. The issue revolves around campaign documents detailing the Democratic Party's strategic plans for the November election that somehow ended up in Republican hands.

The Republicans say that the documents were found in a copy machine in the state Capitol building, suggesting that someone in the Democratic Party may illegally have used state resources for campaign purposes. The Democrats claim that a Republican operative came across the documents that had been inadvertently left in a binder near the copy machine and rifled through them.

A reporter for The Wisconsin State Journal reports that the executive director of the Wisconsin Committee to Elect a Republican Senate told him that the documents were "used to further the cause of Republican candidates."

My reader wants to know how careless a competitor has to be before it is fair to copy found documents and use them for your own purposes.

"How public does the place have to be?" she asks. "Is it never right? Is it sometimes right?"

From an ethical standpoint, where a document is found does not matter. If it was clearly marked, the person who found it knew that its contents were confidential and belonged to someone else. It may be a political windfall to find documents that reveal your opponent's game plan, but using material that clearly belongs to someone else is tantamount to theft. The material doesn't, after all, leap from the copier into your hands.

The right thing to do in such a situation is either to walk on by or, better yet, to return the material -- unread, of course -- to its rightful owners. The owners may suspect that you read the material, but their suspicions are their own problem, though not as great a problem as their carelessness with sensitive documents.

Such considerations aren't limited to the political world, of course. The same sort of questions that my reader raises can be asked about any documents that clearly are meant to be confidential but are left within your easy view or grasp. What if, for example, a list of confidential salary information for your entire company is left at the copy machine by a human-resources employee?

While it's a natural temptation to want to know how you stack up against your colleagues, it would be wrong to study the material if you know that it's confidential and has been accidentally left behind. You may want to seize the opportunity to prove how underpaid you are compared to others, but there is no honor in capitalizing on someone else's mistake to further your own career.

Chances are that you wouldn't even think of popping into your boss's office to read her e-mail if she had left it up on her screen. Reading printed material that is clearly confidential, simply because you have accidental access, is every bit as wrong.

Professionals should certainly be taken to task when they are careless with sensitive information.

The negligent Democrat in Madison has doubtless gotten an earful from his or her superiors, and if he or she used a state-owned copy machine for party purposes, there will probably be legal consequences as well.

But someone else's carelessness is no justification for doing the wrong thing -- even if you stand to gain from doing so.

SOUND OFF: YOUR TEAM AIN'T DOODLEY-SQUAT

My readers had mixed reactions to Boston University's new zero-tolerance policy for foul language and sexist or racist comments from fans at university sporting events. Most applauded the university's policy, however.

"Emotions can run strong and can get out of control at sports events," writes Bert Hoogendam of Sarnia, Ontario, "but nobody has the right or privilege to use swear words and any other vulgar expressions."

"A ticket to a paid event is not a license for the `fans' to personally assault a participant," agrees Anthony Elia of Mission Viejo, Calif.

"Sometimes the parents of these students don't teach their own kids about citizenship and how to be good people in this society," writes Connie Alvarez of Orange, Calif., "and schools sometimes have to step in and play that role."

"The students who feel that they need to use such language -- anywhere -- need an extensive vocabulary course," writes Merrilee Gardner of Irvine, Calif.

But Chuck Jones of Anaheim, Calif., disagrees."Seems that, because something offends them, it's OK to suspend that pesky First Amendment," Jones writes. "Just another example of hypocrisy in our society."

Check out other opinions at http://jeffreyseglin.blogspot.com/2006/10/sound-off-watch-your-mouth.html or post your own at by clicking on "comments" below.

Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of "The Right Thing: Conscience, Profit and Personal Responsibility in Today's Business" (Smith Kerr, 2006), is an associate professor at Emerson College in Boston, where he teaches writing and ethics. He is also the administrator of http://jeffreyseglin.blogspot.com, a Web log focused on ethical issues.

Do you have ethical questions that you need answered? Send them to rightthing@nytimes.com or to "The Right Thing," New York Times Syndicate, 609 Greenwich St., 6th floor, New York, N.Y. 10014-3610.

Sunday, October 29, 2006

SOUND OFF: MADONNA AND CHILD

A clamor of condemnation has followed the singer Madonna's adoption of a year-old boy from Malawi, a nation in southeastern Africa. The Human Rights Consultative Committee has challenged the adoption in court, and some have claimed that Madonna is being given special treatment because of her celebrity and her financial generosity to the country through her charity, Raising Malawi, which is setting up an orphanage for 4,000 Malawian children and trying to raise $3 million to support AIDS orphans. Madonna insists that in adopting the boy she has done everything according to the law.

Two questions: Do you see any problem with the adoption being fast-tracked because of who Madonna is and because of her financial gifts to the country? And, in either case, does the media have any business delving into this sort of personal issue simply because the adoptive parent happens to be famous?

Send your thoughts to rightthing@nytimes.com or post them here by clicking on "comments" below. Please include your name, your hometown and the name of the newspaper in which you read this column. Readers' comments may appear in an upcoming column.

Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of "The Right Thing: Conscience, Profit and Personal Responsibility in Today's Business" (Smith Kerr, 2006), is an associate professor at Emerson College in Boston, where he teaches writing and ethics. He is also the administrator of http://www.jeffreyseglin.com, a Web log focused on ethical issues.

Do you have ethical questions that you need answered? Send them to rightthing@nytimes.com or to "The Right Thing," New York Times Syndicate, 609 Greenwich St., 6th floor, New York, N.Y. 10014-3610.

KEEP ON TRUCKING

Occasionally a reader sends me a question for which the answer seems obvious. Take the guy who gets a speeding ticket while driving a company car, on company time, and wants to know whether he or his employer is responsible for paying the ticket.

It doesn't take an ethicist to know, right off, that it's the driver who's responsible for paying. His employer didn't break the law -- he did, and he should be held accountable.

The question has always seemed black-and-white to me, with little room for argument. As with many things, however, even this question can fall into an area tinged with gray.

A reader from Orange County, Calif., writes that he recently received a speeding ticket for going 63 mph in a 55-mph zone while driving his employer's tractor/trailer vehicle. The reader explained to his employer that he always sets the cruise control to 55 miles per hour, so he knows that he was not speeding, but his boss replied bluntly that he does not pay speeding tickets.

This wasn't good enough for my reader, who considers himself a careful driver: "In almost 30 years of commercial driving," he writes, "I had never gotten a speeding ticket."

Convinced that something must be wrong somewhere, he took the truck to a garage -- on his own time and at his own expense -- to have it checked out.

"The shop found that the speedometer was out of calibration by 8 miles per hour!" he writes.

As a result, my reader now takes his GPS unit with him and checks the speedometer on every truck he drives.

"I have found that many of the trucks have inaccurate speedometers," he says, "and have written them up."

The employer is legally and ethically bound to ensure that the company's trucks are safe to be on the road. My reader wants to know if the employer has the same obligation to ensure that the speedometers are correct.

"Is he responsible for speeding tickets we receive when they are out of calibration?" he asks.

The employer absolutely is responsible for making sure that all of the equipment on every company truck works. Besides earning a driver an unfair ticket, a speedometer that's out of whack also could endanger other drivers on the road -- although I'd like to think that a seasoned truck driver would know to drive carefully, regardless of what his speedometer says.

If the employer has not checked the accuracy of the truck's speedometer and a driver receives a speeding ticket as a result, it's the employer's responsibility to pay the ticket.

The right thing for the employer to do is not only to pay the speeding ticket, but also to reimburse my reader for the expenses he incurred in having the truck's speedometer checked. The employer should also check the accuracy of the speedometers on his entire fleet of trucks.

It's fine and good to hold employees personally responsible for their actions while on the job, but employers must likewise take responsibility when it's their carelessness that causes a problem.

Sunday, October 22, 2006

STOP ME BEFORE I CHARGE AGAIN!

Ethical concepts differ greatly from person to person and from culture to culture, but there's at least one that practically everybody can agree with: Parents have an ethical responsibility to protect their children.

How far that obligation extends changes as the years pass, however. When a little boy is learning to walk, for example, it's a parent's responsibility to make sure that he doesn't tumble down ungated stairs. Long before the boy becomes a teenager, though, the responsibility for recognizing the potential danger of those stairs has passed to him.

The same is true in financial matters. Parents are obligated to teach their children how to be financially responsible, and if a girl runs into financial trouble by, say, keeping poor records for a paper route, her parents are responsible for helping her resolve her mistakes.

Many college students are still maturing financially, so it is reasonable for parents to step in to try to help their children when they fall into financial trouble. That's what A.M., a reader from Orange County, Calif., did six years ago, when her daughter ran up credit-card debt that she could not pay off.

A.M. and her husband hoped that their daughter would learn from that experience, but apparently not. Now married and expecting her second child, she and her husband are so burdened with mortgage and credit-card debt that they may lose their home.

"While we want to offer help," A.M. writes, "we don't feel that it should be in the form of financial aid. They are adults."

A.M. is absolutely correct. Now that her daughter is in her 20s, she is obligated to take responsibility for her own financial well-being. Bailing her out would prolong her daughter's immaturity and rob her of the chance to do the right thing for herself.

There are no set rules about where to draw the line between stepping in and standing back, between fixing things for your kids and teaching them to take responsibility for their own actions. Some teenagers will recklessly tumble down stairs and some 20-somethings will get into financial trouble. Continuing to fix every mistake a child makes does the child no favor. It runs counter to the ultimate ethical responsibility of parents: letting their children, once grown, live their own lives.

A.M. does not want to lend her daughter the money to get out of the financial mess she has gotten herself into. This is a reasonable decision.

The right thing for A.M. to do is to let her daughter's family resolve their own problems, and to be ready with advice if and when her daughter turns to her for help. If asked, A.M. can steer her to a credit-counseling agency who can help her devise a repayment plan. The National Foundation for Credit Counseling, the umbrella organization for credit counselors, is reachable at www.nfcc.org and can point A.M.'s daughter to a reputable, nonprofit credit-counseling agency in her area. These agencies receive a cut of the repayment plans they devise.

A.M.'s primary parental obligation now is to treat her daughter like an adult. This means allowing her to make her own mistakes and to correct those mistakes for herself -- no matter how painful it may be for a mother to watch her daughter stumble.

SOUND OFF: TEXTBOOK WHEELCHAIRS

The book publisher Houghton Mifflin has run into criticism for publishing textbooks with photos depicting children in wheelchairs who are actually child models who can walk, instead of models who actually use wheelchairs.

My readers held mixed opinions about this controversy.

"The idea that a person with a disability is (depicted) is, in the end, probably a more important factor than if the person is actually disabled," writes Cynthia Dines of Carmichael, Calif. "However, morally I disagree with the publisher's decision. It represents what is common in the corporate world: that money, not people, is the bottom line."

Linda Saxon of Amherstburg, Ontario, goes a step further.

"Persons with disabilities should be hired equally to portray persons with and without disabilities," Saxon writes, "so that society can embrace diversity and put an end to stereotyping. A disability is just one characteristic of a person, like someone having red hair or blue eyes."

But Karrin Hopper of Trabuco Canyon, Calif., believes that the controversy is a tempest in a teapot.

"Too much is being made about nothing," she writes. "A model is paid to bring an idea to life, similar to an actor. ... The publisher should be praised for its effort to show a diverse group of children."

Laura Oliver of Aliso Viejo, Calif., seconds that notion.

"Do these critics who charge Houghton Mifflin have no life?" Oliver asks. "Do they really have nothing better to do than to research a picture and find out if the models are really disabled?"

Check out other opinions at http://jeffreyseglin.blogspot.com/2006/09/sound-off-wheelchair-walkers.html or post your own by clicking on "comments" below.

Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of "The Right Thing: Conscience, Profit and Personal Responsibility in Today's Business" (Smith Kerr, 2006), is an associate professor at Emerson College in Boston, where he teaches writing and ethics. He is also the administrator of http://www.jeffreyseglin.com, a Web log focused on ethical issues.

Do you have ethical questions that you need answered? Send them to rightthing@nytimes.com or to "The Right Thing," New York Times Syndicate, 609 Greenwich St., 6th floor, New York, N.Y. 10014-3610.

Sunday, October 15, 2006

SOUND OFF: A DUTY TO SERVE

Mary Hanna's medical education cost $184,000, which was paid for by the U.S. Army. Hanna had committed herself, once she became a doctor, to giving the Army four years of active duty and four years of reserve duty. Now that she's finished her residency, however, Hanna has notified the Army that she wants reclassification as a conscientious objector based on religious beliefs that she has recently embraced.

The case is now winding its way through the courts, but there are ethical questions that don't depend on the legalities: Hanna's lawyer says that she's willing to repay the money, but even so is she morally bound to carry out the commitment she made to the Army? Or does a new religious obligation trump an old contractual agreement?What do you think?

Send your thoughts to rightthing@nytimes.com or post them here by clicking on "Comments" below. You can choose the anonymous posting option, but please consider including your name, your hometown and the name of the newspaper in which you read this column in the text of your response. Readers' comments may appear in an upcoming column.

Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of "The Right Thing: Conscience, Profit and Personal Responsibility in Today's Business" (Smith Kerr, 2006), is an associate professor at Emerson College in Boston, where he teaches writing and ethics. He is also the administrator of www.jeffreyseglin.com, a Web log focused on ethical issues.

Do you have ethical questions that you need answered? Send them to rightthing@nytimes.com or to "The Right Thing," New York Times Syndicate, 609 Greenwich St., 6th floor, New York, N.Y. 10014-3610.

PARTY ON! ... TO A POINT

Former Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis' sentiment, "Sunshine is the best disinfectant," has long been a mantra for those seeking truth by shining a bright light on all the facts. The term "transparency" -- making the ways businesses, governments or other institutions operate clear enough for outsiders to understand -- is another rallying cry for full disclosure.

G.S., a reader from Ohio, recently e-mailed me about a situation that has come up at the middle school where he teaches, a situation that in his opinion cries out for a more transparent approach.

The school has a social committee that plans activities for the staff during and after school hours. Some of the funds for its activities are raised by staff members who bring in baked goods to be sold to students. The committee also collects $10 from each staff member for a flower fund to be drawn upon whenever major events occur in the lives of staff members or their families.

This year the head of the social committee has decided to spend $200 for food at a bar that has agreed to host the staff's annual Christmas party. G.S. is concerned for several reasons.

First, there's the party's location. He believes that most parents would "be offended" if they knew that the money their children paid for baked goods was going to pay for a staff party in a bar, even if the money is earmarked for food and not liquor. Second, he doesn't believe that any of the money collected for flowers should be used for the party. And finally he sees a conflict of interest in the head of the social committee steering the party to a bar owned by her best friend, a former staff member.

If money from the flower fund is indeed to be used to pay for the Christmas party, G.S. has every reason to be upset. The money collected from staff members for flowers should not be used for any purpose other than flowers, unless they themselves specifically agree to the new use. People give their flower money for that specific purpose, and the right thing for the social-committee chair to do is to make sure -- and to give a clear accounting as evidence -- that every penny raised did indeed go to the purchase of flowers. Anything left over should be saved for future flower purchases.

He also is right to be concerned about the potential conflict of interest represented by the committee chairwoman steering the party to her best friend's bar. Even if this represents the best deal the staff could get, the appearance of a conflict is inevitable. Ideally the chairwoman would have allowed others to shop for a location, with her friend's bar naturally among the options. If the results of this survey determined that the bar in question was the best choice, it would remove any suspicion that the chairwoman was using her position to benefit a friend.

G.S. is on shakier ground, however, in questioning whether the event should take place at a bar. Unless there is a school rule forbidding staff functions being held in such establishments -- and of course assuming that no students or other minors will be at the party -- there's no clear problem with having the party there. As for the children and their parents, they're probably more concerned about the baked goods than about where the money will be spent.

The right thing for the social committee to do is to segregate the money collected for the flower fund from its general-use funds, and to ensure that all flower money goes for the purpose intended. The chairwoman should also go out of her way to avoid any perception of a conflict by making sure that, if a party occurs at a friend's bar, it's for the benefit of the social committee and not solely for the benefit of her friend.

Sunday, October 08, 2006

TAKE ME OUT TO THE POSTSEASON!

Fans of the Philadelphia Phillies are not accustomed to seeing their team in baseball's postseason play. The last time the Phillies reached the playoffs was in 1993, and the last time they won the World Series was in 1980.

But as the 2006 season wound to a close, the Phillies were neck and neck with the Los Angeles Dodgers in a battle for the National League wild-card berth, which would launch them into the playoffs for only the second time in a quarter-century.

As fate would have it, the Phillies came up short once again, to the despair of Philadelphians far and wide -- and, perhaps, to the relief of one former Philadelphian, K.P., a reader of this column in Charlotte, N.C.

When it seemed possible, near the end of the season, that the team might make it to the postseason, Phillies fans who held season tickets were sent playoff tickets, just in case the team made it to postseason play. K.P. received his recently deceased father's postseason tickets.

K.P.'s father had been a 30-year Phillies season-ticket holder. In January, when he died unexpectedly of a heart attack, K.P. inherited his tickets. Because K.P. was no longer living in Philadelphia, he sold the tickets at face value to a former colleague of his father's.

When the former colleague asked K.P. about postseason tickets, however, K.P. told him that he was planning to use them himself or to sell them to other friends who had inquired earlier.

K.P. wanted to know if he was under any ethical obligation to offer the postseason tickets to the former colleague."I must be," he wrote to me, "because I will feel bad if I don't!"

K.P. has no reason to feel bad. When he agreed to sell the colleague the regular-season tickets, he says, they didn't discuss the postseason since "it appeared very unlikely at the time," any more than they discussed whether K.P. would be willing to sell his tickets for the 2007 season. K.P. received his father's 2006 tickets in March and sent them onto the colleague, who promptly mailed him a check.

The reason K.P. is torn about whether he is being fair to the colleague is that season-ticket holders generally have first dibs on playoff tickets if their team makes it to the postseason. But it is K.P., not the colleague, who is the season-ticket holder. As long as he didn't violate any state or federal ticket-reselling laws or whatever conditions the Phillies organization may place on reselling tickets, K.P. had the right to sell as many or as few of his father's tickets as he wanted.

In short, the colleague has gotten what he paid for, and should not have expected to receive anything beyond what he agreed to purchase back in March.

If the same situation comes up next year, should K.P. give the colleague the first chance to buy the postseason tickets if he doesn't use them himself? I'm sure the colleague would appreciate the gesture, but K.P. has no obligation to do so.

K.P. was clear with his father's old colleague about exactly what he was buying when he bought the tickets, so he's already done the right thing. The colleague is lucky to have acquired tickets in a season when the Phillies made the end of regular-season play more exciting than usual for their fans.

"My dad would have enjoyed this season," K.P. writes, "although he was accustomed to Phillies October disappointment!"

SOUND OFF: WHO CARES WHAT CELEBRITIES THINK?

Most of my readers who responded think that too much fuss is being made about recent negative comments made by movie star Mel Gibson, Sen. George Allen of Virginia and civil-rights leader Andrew Young about particular races or religions.

"It is hypocritical to overly publicize the comment of a one-time incident for most public figures," writes Susan Riberdy of Windsor, Ontario. "It is sad that we as a society focus on what famous people say, when we ignore the racial cleansing and atrocities around the world."

Joseph Sabatini of West Chester, Ohio, agrees."The personal lives of celebrities do not interest me in the least," he writes. "I have all the concerns I need in my life to succeed and be prosperous. There is no time for such nonsense."

"We should stop the carping censorship and let people state their opinions," writes Dunbar Jewell of Charlotte, N.C. "We each can then evaluate for ourselves without the all-knowing, Goebbels-like press shaping our minds."

Not that everyone was sympathetic. Sunny Carney of Columbus, Ohio, probably spoke for many in saying, "Gibson, Allen, Young and others of their ilk should practice that old bit of advice: Think before you speak!"

Check out other opinions at
http://jeffreyseglin.blogspot.com/2006/09/sound-off-does-persons-past-forgive.html or post your own at by clicking on "Comments" below.

Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of "The Right Thing: Conscience, Profit and Personal Responsibility in Today's Business" (Smith Kerr, 2006), is an associate professor at Emerson College in Boston, where he teaches writing and ethics. He is also the administrator of http://jeffreyseglin.blogspot.com, a Web log focused on ethical issues.

Do you have ethical questions that you need answered? Send them to rightthing@nytimes.com or to "The Right Thing," New York Times Syndicate, 609 Greenwich St., 6th floor, New York, N.Y. 10014-3610.

Talking Politics Over Turkey

For those wrestling with how to have a civil discussion over a holiday meal, a discussion with HKS PolicyCast