Sunday, August 31, 2008

The Right Thing: You Tell Me Yours

Writing in The Boston Globe in mid-August, Anne Baker and Jeannie M. Nuss began their article as follows: "The congregation of Temple B'nai Israel in Revere has a hero, although no one knows his name."

Earlier in the week members of the congregation, located not far from Boston, found that their place of worship had been "tagged" in red paint with anti-Semitic graffiti and swastikas.

The incident was reported to the local police, of course, which might have been the end of it.

As temple members congregated inside, however, a car pulled up to the synagogue, and a stranger got out and began to paint over the graffiti. The painter would not give reporters or temple officials his name and would not agree to have his picture taken. As the stranger painted, the rabbi told the reporters that the group meeting inside the temple was studying texts about honesty.

The rabbi reported that the painter appeared to be very thoughtful about the job he was doing. He had chosen paint that matched the color of the temple as closely as possible.

"To me that feels like a very loving act," the rabbi told The Boston Globe.

Reading the story of the neighborly painter who wanted no credit, I was reminded of an observation by psychiatrist/writer Robert Coles, one that I cite regularly in giving talks about the importance of doing the right thing regardless of whether doing so will result in personal gain: "Character," Coles writes in The Call of Stories: Teaching and the Moral Imagination (Houghton Mifflin, 1989), "is how you behave when no one is looking."

Many of us have made the decision to step up and take actions that should make us proud, particularly to help fix a wrong we didn't commit. On the other hand, we've also avoided going the extra mile to help another person or group unless we received something in return.

Now it's your turn to tell me your own tale. What one story from your life captures a moment when you stepped up to do the right thing, regardless of whether or not you received recognition for it? Or, conversely, if you were given the chance but passed up the opportunity, what would you like a chance to do over, regardless of whether you were going to get credit?

Last year, after I asked readers to send me their stories, I received numerous compelling stories about the ethical quandaries they had found themselves battling. So I'm asking you again to send me your stories. Provide as much detail as possible, but keep your submission to no more than 300 words. I'll run some of these stories in an upcoming column. Those whose stories are used in that column will receive a copy of my book, The Right Thing (Smith Kerr, 2006).

Include your name, address and telephone number, and submit your story by Oct. 13, 2008, to: rightthing@nytimes.com or "The Right Thing," New York Times Syndicate, 500 Seventh Avenue, 8th floor, New York, N.Y. 10018.

c.2008 The New York Times Syndicate (Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate)

SOUND OFF: FREE PAPERS

Many years ago a reader put a quarter in a newspaper-vending machine to purchase a paper. It wasn't until she closed the lid that she realized that she had accidentally taken two papers.

What was the right thing for her to have done: 1. Put the extra newspaper on top of the vending machine? 2. Put another quarter into the vending machine and either put back the extra newspaper or simply open and close the door? 3. Keep the extra newspaper and chalk it up to good fortune? Or something else?

Post your thoughts here by clicking on "comments" or "post a comment" below. Please include your name, hometown, and state, province, or country. Readers' comments may appear in an upcoming column. Or e-mail your comments to me at
rightthing@nytimes.com.

You can also respond to the poll about this question that will appear on the right-hand side of the blog until polling is closed.

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.

c.2008 The New York Times Syndicate (Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate)

Sunday, August 24, 2008

THE RIGHT THING: THE LOVE IS GONE, THE CASH REMAINS

Relationships, especially when they fall apart, can be costly ... and complicated.

Six years ago, after she had left her live-in boyfriend of five years, one of my readers learned this the hard way.

"I was the sole support during most of the time I lived with him," she writes. "Stupid me made his house payments, paid the bills, supported his drinking habit, bought new tires for his truck."

She also made a few of his child-support payments, and figures that she spent thousands on his expenses through the course of the relationship.

When she left, her soon-to-be ex took $800 out of a savings account they held jointly.

"I found out when my statement came in the mail," she writes.

He promised that his mother would pay back the money, which never happened, so my reader took all of her money out of the joint checking and savings accounts they held. The bank told her, however, that while either of them could close the accounts permanently, her name could not be taken off either account unless her ex-boyfriend also agreed to have her name removed.

He hasn't done so, though she has repeatedly asked him to remove her name from the accounts and warned him that, if he didn't, she would take out any money he put into the accounts. She never has followed through on that threat, though.

Recently, however, she discovered that there was a little more than $1,000 in the joint checking account and $6,000 in the joint savings account. She told her story to the bank teller, who told her that the money was technically hers, since her name is on the accounts. He suggested that she close the accounts and pocket the money.

She was tempted, my reader admits, but "my conscience got the better of me."

Several days later, however, she withdrew $800 from the account, recovering the money that her ex had taken when they broke up.

"An eye for an eye," she reasons.

She plans to allow a month to pass so that her ex will see the next bank statement, "get the picture" and close the accounts. But she admits that the rest of the money is pretty tempting.

"The $7,000 would help me recoup some of my losses," she writes.

She's torn. Should she give him one month to close the account with her name on it? Or should she take the money and close out the account herself?

"Ethically," she asks, "what's your take on this?"

The $800 was hers to recover, since her ex took it without her permission after their relationship had ended.

Tempting as it may be to empty his coffers to even the score, however, there is no ethical justification for such an action unless, during the relationship, there was a specific agreement that she would be repaid for whatever money she doled out on his behalf.

Absent such an agreement, the right thing for my reader to do is to contact her ex, let him know that she took $800 from their account to repay the "unauthorized loan" and tell him that, if he doesn't close the account, she will.

If she does close the account, she should get the balance in the form of a bank check and send it to him. Then she can finally close the books on this failed relationship.

c.2008 The New York Times Syndicate (Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate)

SOUND OFF: THE LOWDOWN ON SHIPPING MARK-UPS

As long as the shipping cost is made known to the buyer, is it wrong for online-auction sellers to charge customers more than it actually costs to ship the items? According to an unscientific poll on my column's blog, 65 percent of my readers think that there is nothing wrong with excessive charges, as long as the details are disclosed, while 35 percent think that such a practice is wrong.

"Shipping charges are a profit center for virtually every cataloger or retailer, online or off," writes Eric McNulty of Brookline, Mass. "As long as the costs are clearly stated, there is no issue."

"I firmly believe that `shipping' costs should reflect only that -- the cost of shipping," writes Nancy Ludt of Huntington Beach, Calif., who sells needlework items on eBay to supplement her income. "Not man-hours, not supplies, but postage rates only."

"Often people forget the `handling' part of `shipping and handling,"' writes Tom Van Huss of Tustin, Calif. "Packing items for shipping can be time-consuming and can require materials that cost money."

"I do not buy from people who charge me for shipping and handling," writes Azra Daniel Francis of Windsor, Ontario.

Check out other opinions here, 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 and The Good, the Bad, and Your Business: Choosing Right When Ethical Dilemmas Pull You Apart, 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.

c.2008 The New York Times Syndicate (Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate)

Sunday, August 17, 2008

SOUND OFF: CABLE NEWS

You move into a new house. Before you have a chance to call your local cable-television company to activate your service, you hook up your television and find that the cable service is already active. You wait a month, thinking that perhaps you'll be billed, but two months pass without a bill, then three.

Is it OK to keep getting the service without notifying the cable company? And, even if you don't think it's OK, would you continue to use the service anyway without notifying the cable company?

Post your thoughts here by clicking on "comments" or "post a comment" below. Please include your name, hometown, and state, province, or country. Readers' comments may appear in an upcoming column. Or e-mail your comments to me at rightthing@nytimes.com.

You can also respond to the poll about this question that will appear on the right-hand side of the blog until polling is closed.

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.

c.2008 The New York Times Syndicate (Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate)

THE RIGHT THING: LOSERS KEEPERS, FINDERS WEEPERS

Yesterday I was at a local big-box hardware store to purchase some things we needed for our house. Among these was a large trash barrel, the really big kind with wheels and a handle that can be wheeled out to the curb on trash-pickup day.

The checkout clerk lifted off the cover of the barrel, either to make sure that another clerk hadn't mistakenly placed valuable goods inside or to confirm that my wife and I weren't trying to sneak out with more than we had paid for. We paid up, loaded the barrel into the back of our car and went on our way.

We made another stop at another store to pick up some other stuff that we needed, including a wiffleball, a wiffleball bat and some tennis balls. My wife had the efficient thought to carry these loose items inside the new trash barrel. When she lifted off the barrel's cover, however, she found that we had inadvertently been given two lids for the one trash barrel. Apparently the clerk never thought that we might be trying to filch goods on the outside of the barrel, rather than on the inside.

It was the store's mistake, of course, and we were quite a way from the big-box store where we had purchased the barrel. It would be a nuisance to make the trip to return the cover, so we returned home with it.

A few months ago a reader found himself in a similar predicament: He had brought his car into his dealership for repair of a problem with his car lights, which were not turning off and thus were burning out his car's battery. He lives 40 miles from the dealership, so he had his wife follow him in her car to drive him back after he'd left his car at the dealership.

Two days later the dealer called and said that the car had been fixed, so my reader rode back with his wife. He picked up his car and was relieved to be charged only $200. As they were leaving, however, his wife noticed that his taillights were not working. She called him on his cell telephone, and they drove back to the dealer and left the car again.

This occurred several times, resulting in many trips back and forth to the dealership. Eventually the dealer said that it would cost $1,200 to fix the problem.

The car was 10 years old so, instead of paying for the fix, they drove the car only in the daytime for the next week. The following weekend they traded in the car to purchase a new model.

As they were cleaning out the old car, however, they found many long screwdrivers and other tools that had been left in it by the dealership's mechanics.

"We kept them in return for the $200 we paid for a car that was never fixed," my reader reports. "Right or wrong?"

Wrong. As right as he may have been to be annoyed, the errant screwdrivers didn't belong to him. The right thing would have been to return them. Someone else's bad actions don't justify inappropriate actions in retaliation.

Since the dealer really didn't fix the problem for which my reader paid the $200, the right thing for the dealer to do is to refund his money.

And, in spite of the nuisance factor, as soon as I finish writing this column, I'm going to do the right thing and return the trash-barrel lid that isn't mine to keep.

c.2008 The New York Times Syndicate (Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate)

Sunday, August 10, 2008

SOUND OFF: POLLING FOR ANSWERS

Since black Americans running for state or national office regularly poll higher than their actual vote totals, I asked readers if it is ever OK to lie to a pollster. Readers were split, according to an unscientific poll on my column's blog: 59 percent said that it was a breach of ethics to misrepresent yourself to a pollster, 27 percent said that it was not and 14 percent said that it was unethical, but that they would do it anyway.

"Reluctance to reveal racial prejudice in an opinion poll is just an extension of political correctness foisted upon us by the liberal left," writes Gary Denys of Chatham, Ontario. "It's not unethical. It's only human nature to protect oneself."

Another reader writes that he first voted in the 1976 U.S. presidential election, and has nursed a grudge ever since.

"The TV networks were voicing their projections before the West Coast polls closed," he writes. "The news outlets revealed a breathtaking lack of ethics."

Ever since, he has taken his cue from the late newspaper columnist Mike Royko, who, during the 1984 U.S. presidential election, urged people to join him in "a noble cause" and lie to pollsters.

But H. Watkins Ellerson echoes the opinion of the majority of readers: "It is always unethical to misrepresent oneself to anybody," he writes. "One may (courageously) remain silent or otherwise evasively dissemble without lying."

Check out other opinions here, 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 and The Good, the Bad, and Your Business: Choosing Right When Ethical Dilemmas Pull You Apart, 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.

c.2008 The New York Times Syndicate (Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate)

THE RIGHT THING: DO I DARE TO EAT A LEMON?


Once a week a woman in Cypress, Calif., takes a stroll to the local liquor store to get her exercise and to buy her weekly Lotto ticket. While on her constitutional, she regularly passes some lemon trees whose branches extend their fruit out over the sidewalk directly in her path.

"I've never picked a lemon," she writes, "but I've asked my husband and he says that it would be wrong. If the owner of the tree was in his backyard, I could ask him for a piece, but usually that's not the case.

"Those luscious lemons just call out to me at times," she writes.

But picking a piece of fruit from the tree could be considered stealing, she admits.

"Is it illegal," she asks, "or could the owner sue me for taking a piece of fruit?"

Actually, it's the owner of the tree who could find himself on the wrong side of the law: "The City of Cypress does not have ordinances against picking fruit from a tree that overhangs a public sidewalk," says Khuong Truong, a code-enforcement officer for the city, but it does have one that "disallows vegetation to grow into or over the public right of way -- including alleys, sidewalks and streets -- to the extent that passage of pedestrians, bicyclists and motor vehicles is impeded."

Such conditions fall under the category of "public nuisance" and, if the lemon trees' owner lets their branches grow so unruly that they block the passage of pedestrians with their alluring fruit, he could be charged with violating the municipal code.

Supposing that there were no law to keep my reader from plucking a lemon, however, is it right for her to do so, knowing that the tree belongs to someone else?

No. Her inclination to ask the owner's permission is correct. If he's not there, she should wait for an opportune moment when he happens to be in his yard to ask him.

Or, if she simply can't resist the tart temptation, she should knock on his door and make the request. She'd have to be pretty hungry for the fruit to do that, but it's the right course of action if her desire tugs strongly enough.

The owner of the trees should make sure to keep them pruned so as to be in compliance with the city's code. Letting them grow wildly out over the sidewalk, within reach of passing pedestrians, not only plants temptation in their path but also could cost the owner if the city decides to cite him.

There may not be a city rule prohibiting her from taking a piece of low-hanging fruit, but my reader knows that the tree and its fruit belong to someone else. Even if the owner is wrong to leave the fruit so close to her grasp, it's still his tree. She should do the right thing and ask his permission.

c.2008 The New York Times Syndicate (Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate)

Sunday, August 03, 2008

SOUND OFF: SHOULD COLLEGES FOOT THE BILL?

With a $1.1 billion endowment, Berea College in Kentucky accepts only low-income applicants who pay no tuition. Berea is unusual in its mission, but there is increased pressure for all colleges and universities with large endowments to spend a set percentage each year to make college tuition more affordable. Tax-exempt foundations are required to spend 5 percent of their endowments each year, and some argue that colleges and universities should be required to do the same.

As reported in The New York Times, Sen. Charles Grassley (R.-Iowa) said that large, tax-free endowments "should mean affordable education for more students, not just a security blanket for colleges."

Are colleges and universities ethically obliged to spend part of their endowments each year to make college tuition more affordable? Or are they morally, as well as legally, entitled to do what they like with their money?

Post your thoughts here by clicking on "comments" or "post a comment" below. Please include your name, hometown, and state, province, or country. Readers' comments may appear in an upcoming column. Or e-mail your comments to me at rightthing@nytimes.com.

You can also respond to the poll about this question that will appear on the right-hand side of the blog until polling is closed.

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.

c.2008 The New York Times Syndicate (Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate)

THE RIGHT THING: BY THE BEAUTIFUL, BUDGET-BREAKING SEA

Given all the planning involved in orchestrating a family vacation, it's surprising that there aren't businesses specializing solely in vacation planning for weary parents. Add another family to your planned vacation, and the logistics become even more entangled.

Vacations can be costly, no doubt about that: The American Automobile Association's annual vacation-costs survey has pegged the 2008 average cost for two adults traveling together in North America at $244 a day for lodging and meals. That's a far cry from the $13 it averaged in 1950, when AAA first started tracking vacation costs. Even adjusting for inflation, that $13 would equal only $118 in today's dollars. And that's skipping travel costs, which fuel-price hikes have made higher than ever for drivers and air travelers alike.

In other words, when something goes wrong with your vacation planning, it can be expensive.

Back in January a family of three from Ohio agreed to rent a beach house for a week with a family of six with whom they were friends. They planned well ahead of their targeted June rental date. The first family's share -- for two of the house's six bedrooms, one for the husband and wife and the other for their son -- was going to be $1,648.

In April, however, the second family called to let them know that their son would be sharing a bedroom with the son of the first family.

"We expected to receive a $413 refund for half of our second bedroom," the mother of the family of three writes.

Less than two weeks before the vacation, to further complicate matters, the first family unexpectedly lost a parent, the son's grandparent. A week later another grandparent was suddenly hospitalized. That evening the first family called the second family to let them know that they wouldn't be making the trip. They asked if the second family might be able to find another couple to help recoup the cost. The family of six said, "no," and told their friends that they were sorry that they wouldn't be able to come along on the trip.

"End of story," the mother writes.

As you may guess, she's wondering whether her family ought to be refunded any money, given that the other family ended up having the whole beach house to itself.

My short answer: no.

However unfortunate the turn of events was for the first family, the second family is under no ethical obligation to refund any money unless either party could find a last-minute substitute who would take the first family's place and pay its share of the bill for the beach house.

If the agreement was that the $1,648 would cover the cost of two bedrooms, the first family was indeed entitled to be reimbursed when it lost half of one bedroom to the other family's son, and indeed the $413 has been refunded. In that case, the first family's loss was the second family's gain -- and the change was at the instigation of the second family.

If the second family had decided that it needed the whole house and, on that basis, had told the first family that it couldn't be accommodated, obviously a full refund would have been due the first family.

As it is, however, the first family was unable to enjoy the time it had paid for due to what are generally called "acts of God." They aren't the second family's fault, and there's no reason that the second family's finances should bear the brunt of the first family's bad luck. It's understandable that the first family chose not to come, of course, but it was their choice and not the second family's.

It would be the right thing -- not to mention generous and compassionate -- if the second family made every effort to find a replacement family who could offset some or all of the first family's costs. There is no ethical obligation to provide such a replacement, though, especially with less than two weeks to do it in.

Bottom line: Even if they had the whole house to themselves, it wasn't through their doing and they shouldn't be expected to cover the additional costs.

c.2008 The New York Times Syndicate (Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate)

Is employer responsible for expense if I might leave?

Every couple of years, Lil (not her real name, but let's call her "Lil") has to renew her professional license with her s...