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Sunday, June 17, 2007

SOUND OFF: DON'T ASK, DON'T TRANSLATE?

Forty members of the U.S. House of Representatives have written to the House Armed Services Committee asking the Pentagon to explain how it can afford to have expelled 58 Arabic-language experts from the U.S. military because they were gay. According to the Associated Press, the letter pointed out that the loss of "capable, highly skilled Arabic linguists continues to compromise our national security during time of war." (The Associated Press article as it ran in the Navy Times is at Sailor among latest Gay Arab linguists booted.)

The U.S. military continues to operate under the "don't ask, don't tell" law that was passed in 1994. Service members cannot be asked about their sexual orientation, but those who are openly gay must be discharged from the U.S. military.

Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates has said that he is not reviewing the policy.

If a shortage of Arabic-language experts is jeopardizing soldiers' lives, is the "don't ask, don't tell" law ethically compromised? Would it be wrong to allow such a decision to be driven by this sort of practical consideration? Or is there a larger ethical reason why the law should stay in place or be overturned?

Send your thoughts to rightthing@nytimes.com or post them here by clicking on "comments" or "post a comment" below. Please include your name, your hometown and state or province. 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 The Right Thing, 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," The New York Times Syndicate, 500 Seventh Avenue, 8th floor, New York, NY 10018. Please remember to tell me who you are, where you're from, as well as where you read the column.

THE RIGHT THING: EXPENSIVE REPLACEMENTS FOR CHEAP GOODS

When a reader starts off her e-mail "I have done a dumb thing," the story that follows is typically packed with equal parts confession and contrition. Such e-mails often end with a hint from the reader that she thinks, regardless of how clear the evidence is, that perhaps what she did wasn't so dumb and she was more the victim of circumstances.

That's usually why I get such letters. Readers are looking for some absolution from what looks pretty much like a dumb move ... and who better to provide such absolution than an ethics columnist?

In this case, my reader's mother was having knee surgery. My reader mentioned to an acquaintance that she needed a portable commode chair for her mother to use while recuperating. The acquaintance offered to lend her one. When she got it home, however, my reader found that it was very old and rusty, had a torn seat and generally was in poor condition.

Still, she took it to her mother's house to see if she wanted to use it. She didn't, and instead used her walker to get to the bathroom.

Here's where the dumb part comes in: My reader forgot that the commode was on loan and gave it away.

"It was a lapse of judgment," she says.

The commode on loan was so old that its particular model is no longer made. Replacement models run between $140 and $400, and my reader's acquaintance wants $206 to buy a replacement.

"I have paid her the money," my reader writes, "but I wonder what my responsibility was to her. Did I do the right thing or get taken advantage of?"

What my reader wants to know, essentially, is whether the fact that the item she borrowed turned out to be so old and battered that she couldn't use it should have any bearing on whether or not she was obligated to pay the full replacement price to the woman who loaned it to her. Answer: It shouldn't and doesn't.

When we borrow stuff, we're obligated to return that stuff when we're through with it, regardless of whether or not the stuff is as good as we hoped it would be when it was originally described to us. Since it wasn't her property, my reader had no business giving away the borrowed commode.

If she was too embarrassed to tell her acquaintance why she wasn't going to keep the commode, she simply could have returned it and thanked her without a lengthy explanation. Throwing it out or giving it to someone else were not appropriate choices.

The acquaintance has a right to ask for a replacement. If my reader thought that a lower-priced commode might more closely match the one she borrowed, she might have offered an alternative to the $206 model. I'm not sure that quibbling about price would have been appropriate, however, given that she didn't bother to tell the acquaintance that she was giving away the commode.

My reader was not taken advantage of. She did indeed do a dumb thing in giving away something that wasn't hers. But by reimbursing her acquaintance for the item that she borrowed and gave away, she has now done the right thing.

Sunday, June 10, 2007

THE RIGHT THING: NO HAPPY RETURNS

I'm not what you would call an ardent shopper. OK, I'll be honest, I pretty much loathe shopping of any sort.

A letter from a reader in Huntington Beach, Calif., reminds me why. Apparently there is a gift shop in a mall outside Los Angeles that sells imported decorative items. Nothing in the shop is priced, however. If you like something, you have to ask a salesperson how much it costs.

That's what my reader did when she found an item that she liked. After being told that it cost $65, she told the clerk that she wanted to find her husband before purchasing it. Before she could leave, however, the salesman began lowering the price in $5 increments -- but only if she bought the item right then. She purchased it for $50.

"In the excitement of the purchase," she writes, "I did not notice the handwritten signs stating `No Returns,' and I did not see it printed on my receipt."

Alas, after the item had hung on her wall at home for a few days, her husband decided that it didn't go with their decor. It was only then, when she got out the receipt preparatory to returning the item, that she saw the notation that "All Sales Are Final."

She felt foolish, and let the matter lie for several weeks before she summoned up the courage to call the store. After she had explained her predicament, the saleswoman reiterated the store's policy, but told my reader that she could exchange the item for something of equal value.

"We did go in and look," she writes. "But we weren't in the mood just to get something. Besides, since nothing is priced, I wouldn't know how fair the exchange was."

My reader believes that she's entitled to a refund. Is the store ethically bound to give her one?

I think not. There are signs in the store announcing that all sales are final, a message that is also printed on receipts. There is nothing defective about the item. The store is nonetheless willing to let my reader exchange her item for something else. That strikes me as more than fair.

If my reader is suspicious that the salespeople will inflate prices so that her exchange choices are limited, she can send in her husband ahead of time to ask about the prices of various items. That way they'll have an idea of what $50 will buy them in the exchange.

Fundamentally, however, that has nothing to do with the question of whether she should get a refund. The store has a right to establish its own policies. The right thing for her to do is either to accept the offer of the exchange or to live with the purchase. That she neglected to pay attention to the signs or to the receipt is not the store's fault.

That said, the store's policy of not labeling items with their prices makes for an annoying shopping experience. That it's willing to drop those prices by almost 25 percent to stop a customer from leaving can't help but make customers wonder if they got the best price possible. And while printed signs and a notice on the receipt are clear, salespeople could make the "sales final" policy even clearer by stating it when the customer is checking out.

Of course, it may be that the salespeople avoid stating the policy for fear of scaring off customers. If so, that's no justification for not making every effort to ensure that customers know what they're entering into when they engage in business. The store's mysteriously sliding prices and seemingly flexible no-returns policy suggest that it has a way to go in building a trusting relationship with its customers.

But then, I'm no shopper.

SOUND OFF: ALL THE NEWS THAT'S FIT TO AIR?

My readers were divided about whether they, like NBC, would have aired portions of the videos sent by Seung-Hui Cho, the Virginia Tech killer.

"I would have liked for them to not have shown them," writes Julie Clark of Cobbs Creek, Va. "In the tapes Cho states that he admired the Columbine killers. Hopefully no other young person will see this horrible footage and decide to emulate Cho."

D. Monroe of Yorba Linda, Calif. agrees: "Sick minds see this as glorification of a criminal, and it only prompts more sick minds to act out the same or worse vicious crimes." But Charlie Seng of Lancaster, S.C., would have aired the tape.

"The public had a right to know how warped this nut was," Seng writes. "Clearly NBC did the right thing." Check out other opinions at The Right Thing: SOUND OFF: STARING DOWN EVIL or post your own by clicking on "comments" or "post a comment" 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 The Right Thing, 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," The New York Times Syndicate, 500 Seventh Avenue, 8th floor, New York, NY 10018. Please remember to tell me who you are, where you're from, as well as where you read the column.

Sunday, June 03, 2007

SOUND OFF: A CONCESSION TO CONCESSION PRICES?

While reading an article on ABCNews.com about the ever-increasing cost of going to the movies, Debbie Rolland Billings of Corona, Calif., was taken aback by reader comments posted. Many readers wrote that they got around concession-stand prices by sneaking in their own treats from the outside, in clear violation of theater policies. While posters to ABCNews.com pointed out that theater snacks cost the theater only a fraction of what they charge for them, Billings noted that none of the readers acknowledged that theater owners foot hefty overhead costs including utilities, wages, workers-compensation insurance and liability insurance.

"These are all factors that go into the hefty price that consumers have to pay," she writes, "both at the box office and at the concession stand."

What do you think? Is it OK for movie-theater customers to bring their own snacks into movie theaters when the theaters prohibit them from doing so? Or are movie goers justified because of the high costs theater owners charge at concession stands?

Send your thoughts to rightthing@nytimes.com or post them below by clicking on "comments" or "post a comment." Please include your name (first and last) and your hometown in your post. 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," The New York Times Syndicate, 500 Seventh Avenue, 8th floor, New York, NY 10018. Please remember to tell me who you are, where you're from, as well as where you read the column.

THE RIGHT THING: A DRUG ON THE MARKET?

For several years I've suffered from migraine headaches, for which I take a combination of prescription medications. While I'm relieved that my doctor has found a solution that's worked, I'm struck, each time I have to refill one of the three prescriptions I use, by how expensive the drugs are.

I'm not alone. Last year U.S. sales of prescription drugs reached $274.9 billion, according to IMS Health, a health-care-information company (IMS Reports U.S. Prescription Sales Jump 8.3 Percent in 2006, to $274.9 Billion ). In Canada, according to the Canadian Institute for Health Information, the price tag was $21.1 billion. (Prescribed drug spending expected to surpass $21 billion in 2006.)

I'm fortunate to have health insurance that covers the bulk of the cost of my medicines, even though the amount I must pay as a co-payment increases regularly. Not everyone is as fortunate.

It's no wonder that consumers are looking for any break they can get on their prescription-drug costs.

Carla Hamilton of Orange County, Calif., believes that she's found a way to offset some of her prescription-drug costs by taking advantage of a promotion run regularly by drugstores in her area: If you bring a new or transferred prescription to their pharmacy, they'll give you an in-store gift card that ranges in value from $10 to $30, depending upon the promotion. Customers can take advantage of the offer only once, however, during any six-month period.

Since three different drugstore chains in Hamilton's area make the gift-card offer, she figures that she could rotate her prescriptions among the offering pharmacies at least six times during a 12-month period to take advantage of the promotion.

Hamilton knows that she can do this legally, without violating the restrictions on the promotion, but she wants to know if taking advantage of the promotion in this way would be ethically wrong.

The drugstores that run the gift-card promotions are obviously hoping to lure new customers away from their competitors. Ideally these customers would keep bringing their prescriptions to the pharmacy long after they had received and spent their gift cards. Making the gift cards usable only in that particular drugstore is another way of getting the customers into the store to "test drive" the store.

Hamilton's doubts may stem from a sense of loyalty to the drugstore that gave her something to switch to it, but the implied deal between her and the store extends no further than her receiving and using the gift card. The card is intended to get her to give the store a try, and that's what she does by using it. Thereafter she is free to stay or to go elsewhere as she wishes -- especially since the prescription drugs that she buys are exactly the same regardless of which pharmacy she patronizes.

The right thing for Hamilton to do is to comply with any restrictions that the drugstores have placed on their promotions. That's all she owes them.

There is nothing wrong in her taking full advantage of every gift-card offer she can find. If she can find a way to time her prescriptions so as to save $10 to $30 as often as six times a year, that's simply smart shopping. Even better would be if there were more drugstores in her area offering such deals, so that she could switch her prescriptions every month and offset even more of her prescription-drug costs.