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.

Sunday, October 01, 2006

SOUND OFF: WATCH YOUR MOUTH

Boston University officials recently announced a zero-tolerance policy for foul language and sexist or racist comments from fans at university sporting events. Anyone caught violating this policy will be expelled from the event, and repeat offenders may be permanently barred from attending sports events.

Students have argued that the policy infringes on longstanding traditions and the right to free speech. But a university official disagreed, telling The Boston Globe, "I don't equate school spirit with the yelling of obscenities."

Is the university right to ban such language at games? Or, by doing so, has it censored the fans' right to free expression? What do you think?

Send your thoughts to rightthing@nytimes.com or post them by clicking on "comments" below. Please include your name, your hometown and where 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.

MIND-READERS NEED NOT APPLY

When I visited my father in Minneapolis recently, he reminisced about being a teenager living in New York. On one occasion he was approached by a man in Times Square asking for money to help make bus fare. My father gave him some change.

After he did, the man paused a moment and then said, "Listen, I'm not going to lie to you. I'm going to use the money to buy wine."

My father laughs now at the unexpected honesty he encountered.It may be rare to encounter so honest a confession, but many people are troubled by doubt as to how a stranger asking for money will really use the funds.

As soon as T.G., a reader from Laguna Niguel, Calif., hears somebody on the street say "Excuse me?" she instinctively thinks to herself, "Am I going to dig into my wallet this time or not?"

"But whichever I decide," she writes, "I never feel that I've made the right decision."

While she resents the request for cash, T.G. also feels sorry for the supplicant.

"It's humiliating to have to beg," she writes, "unless, of course, it's easier than digging ditches, picking strawberries, washing pots and pans, or serving burgers and fries."

T.G. lives on modest means herself, and she wonders if, when asked for bus fare or gas money to visit a mother, the right thing to do might be to ask for some verifiable scrap of information, such as the mom's telephone number. Then she wonders why, if things are that tough, the mother hasn't sent gas money already.

"Would that remind them that it's really not fair to ask strangers for money?" she muses.

Or, she asks, would the right thing be to turn them down, "realizing that millions of people generally make their own luck and that, if it weren't for us easy touches out there, the alternative might be to actually find some sort of paying job."

Finally she wonders if the right thing would be to simply be grateful that all they want is cash, and therefore to hand it over and walk away, "knowing that I will never see them again and will have assuaged my conscience without having inconvenienced myself in a way that might actually help solve the problem?"

From a practical point of view, it's impossible for her to tell if a given beggar will use her money to buy dinner or to buy drugs. She can't follow the beggar around for the rest of the day to track how her money is used, and wouldn't want to if she could. There is, of course, an ethical obligation on the beggar's part not to obtain money under false pretenses, but it's not feasible for her to determine her charitable giving based on whether or not the beggar meets that obligation.

Instead, regardless of how exactly a beggar asks for money, she should assume that it will go toward his or her general expenses, whatever they may be. Think of it as analogous to giving to a college's general fund, instead of to a specific fund-raising drive for a particular building or program. In such a case you'd give or not give based on your impression of the college itself, and that's the right approach to take here.

Because there is no obligation for her to give to the beggar, there's no reason for T.G. to feel guilty for refusing to give -- that's a perfectly reasonable response. And if she neither believes nor disbelieves anything she's told in a solicitation, she doesn't have to feel that she's been duped if the money winds up going for something other than the beggar said it would.

For my part, when someone asks me for money for coffee or for something to eat, I usually offer to buy it for them if I happen to be close to a coffee shop. But if I'm not near one, or if the request isn't that specific, sometimes I simply hand over cash and sometimes I don't. On the occasions when I do, regardless of what the beggar may have said, I make no assumptions about how the money will be spent -- it's a donation to the beggar's general fund.

The right thing for T.G. to do when asked for money, as it is for anybody else, is to decide whether or not she wants to give. If she does, fine. If she doesn't, also fine. But her decision should not be based on any expectation of how the money will be spent.

Can reader turn lost vacation into charitable deduction?

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