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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.