Sunday, March 30, 2008

SOUND OFF: I KNOW WHAT YOU DID LAST NIGHT

There's a guy in Oklahoma City who videotapes male customers soliciting prostitutes. He then posts the video on his Web site in an effort to expose these men to the public.

His Web site links to a page on YouTube that features clips of his handiwork and gives him a share of ad revenue generated. He often sells his video clips to news and talk shows.

While his efforts have apparently not resulted in any arrests, presumably the potential shame of getting caught on tape will keep some customers off the streets.

Is this guy performing a valuable public service? Or is he infringing on the privacy of the people he tapes, given that he is not a law-enforcement professional? Does it matter that he realizes financial benefits from his activities?

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.

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: THE STORY OF SOMEONE ELSE'S LIFE

In a classic good-news/bad-news report, a recent survey suggests that 13 percent of teenagers believe that it's sometimes necessary, and therefore acceptable, to plagiarize schoolwork.

While the survey on teen ethics, which was conducted by Junior Achievement and Deloitte and involved 13-to-18-year-olds, did suggest that a reassuring 84 percent of teens firmly believe that it is never OK to plagiarize, it's still alarming that 13 percent felt that it was not only necessary but also justifiable.

The pressure is on high-school students to succeed, in short, and sometimes they use whatever means are available.

A large part of the pressure comes, no doubt, from wanting to put the best face on an academic record that will be presented to prospective colleges. Sadly, for some that best face may be built on a lie.

These proclivities are not limited to American teenagers. I was not surprised when I received an e-mail several months ago from a young woman teaching English in Bangkok. She had started working for a company that, in addition to teaching teenagers English, helps them work on their college applications.

The whole process, she indicates, makes her uncomfortable.

"All essays start and end with my boss," she writes, explaining that he comes up with the essay topic, makes an outline and then basically writes half of each essay before it ever gets to the adviser and teenage student to work on.

That practice is troublesome enough, but my reader discovered that one girl's personal statement contained "several exaggerations and some outright lies." The adviser works with the girl, so she found herself having to ask her if the things detailed in her college application essay actually happened.

"The sad thing is that this girl is really cool," she writes, and her true story would provide ample material to fill a winning essay.

My reader knows that the process is completely unethical, of course, and she's beginning to feel like a traitor to the educational values she holds dear. She's unsure, however, of what response would be appropriate.

"Do I need to quit completely?," she asks. "Or just quit working on college applications? I don't know."

This is, of course, a classic ethics quandary: Is it acceptable, or even possible, to ethically work for a company that you know to be unethical, even if your specific area of work is handled ethically?

The guy who runs the counseling service should be ashamed. It's unconscionable that he's writing essays for these students. He's taking their money while teaching them that dishonesty is the best route to college. If they have the ability to write an honest essay that will make the grade, he's depriving them of the chance to prove that to themselves. If they don't have that ability, he's helping them get into a college at which they'll probably be out of their depth.

In short, he's doing no favors for anyone but himself. Instead of embracing the lie-filled essay "written" by her daughter, the mother should have fired the company on the spot.

It may be possible to ethically work for a company that is incidentally engaged in unethical conduct, but not when the company is built -- as this one is -- on an unethical base. There's no getting clean by staying on in a different role at a business that is so far off any moral course. Regardless of whether or not the company's practices are technically illegal, by working there my reader was a moral accessory to a fraud.

The right thing, I would have told the young adviser, is to leave. As it happens, her discomfort caused her to reach the same conclusion even before I was able to offer my advice.

She found a job teaching preschool kids, where I trust that she is working to instill the value of honesty in her young charges.

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

Sunday, March 23, 2008

THE RIGHT THING: `SHAME ON YOU!'

As I was walking to the subway after teaching an evening class recently, I was stopped by a young-adult male. He began telling me a longish story about how he had come into town to stay with a friend -- only to find that the friend couldn't put him up, leaving him scrambling to raise bus fare home.

I had no cash on me, so my response was to tell the young man that I had no money and then point him toward a couple of shelters, within walking distance, that might be able to help him or guide him to help. At first he said, "That's no help."

As he was walking away, however, he shouted back, "Where's that shelter?"

It wasn't the first time I'd been approached by someone "looking for bus fare to get home." I'm assuming that these requests aren't all caused by one lousy friend who stiffs his house guests, but are instead a scam aimed at getting people to give money that will be used for something other than bus fare.

The practice apparently is as popular in Huntington Beach, Calif., as it is in Boston.

A reader writes that, as she was returning to her car one morning after grocery shopping, she was approached by someone who asked for change -- for bus fare home. The twist was that she was hearing this from a boy who looked no older than 12.

My reader usually doesn't give money to panhandlers, but she's a mother of three grown children and felt sorry for the boy. She gave him all the change she had on her -- but, as he ran toward the shops on the strip mall, she could hear change jingling in his pockets.

"He had a pocket full of coins!" she writes.

She sat in her car and watched as the boy entered a pizza parlor. She then followed him into the pizzeria, where she found him playing video games, surrounded by several friends.

"Shame on you," she said, and then asked him how he could lie about why he needed the money.

His friends snickered. The boy look mortified. And my reader, obviously a sympathetic soul, had second thoughts: Had she gone too far?

"What would you have done in my place?" my reader asks.

The question breaks down into ethical and practical components. On the practical side, I'd encourage her and all my readers to be cautious in confronting strangers. Making a point about right and wrong is important, but not so important as to be worth the risk of bodily harm over spare change.

My reader is, by her own account, "a very cautious person by nature," for which I'm grateful. There were many people around when she confronted the boy, so the risk was minimal.

On the ethical side, my reader need not fret over this encounter. She did the right thing in letting "the mother in her" get across to the boy that lying is not OK, no matter how much of a hankering one may have for the latest video game.

Would I have had the courage to confront the boy? I don't know. I'd like to think so. While it might not be the best way to teach ethical behavior, never underestimate the power of mortification on the adolescent soul.

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

SOUND OFF: JOB-HUNTING LIES

My readers uniformly agreed that it is OK to withhold information about your search for a new job from your current employer. They were equally of a mind, however, in drawing the line at outright lying.

Bill Spitalnick of Newport Beach, Calif., argues that employees should take their lead from employers, who would not let them know if they were planning to replace them. Should the employee inform his superiors that he is seeking other employment?

"The response is a definite `no,"' Spitalnick writes.

"Only when asked directly should one provide the information," Neal White of Atlanta writes.

Lisa Marie Doig of Windsor, Ontario, doesn't believe that it's wrong to withhold information about having applied for another job, but would go no further.

"Lying is another matter," Doig writes. "If your employer asks you point-blank if you applied for another job or are one of the finalists for a position, you should tell the truth. You've done nothing wrong by applying for another job, and you continue to be in the right up until you lie about it."

"Lying always diminishes a person," adds Phil Clutts of Harrisburg, N.C., "even if nobody knows about it but the liar."

Check out other opinions at "I'm Not Going Anywhere," 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, March 16, 2008

SOUND OFF: A GREAT DEAL MORE THAN JUST THE FACTS

The author of a memoir about growing up during the Holocaust and surviving, partly by living with wolves, has admitted that her story was a hoax.

One of the people who helped bring the hoax to light was the book's American publisher. Even before the memoir was published, the publisher had been told by experts that factual aspects of the story were troubling, but she published it anyway. Only after the author won a multimillion-dollar lawsuit against her -- for, among other things, not promoting the book aggressively enough -- did the publisher begin working to prove the memoir a hoax. When the author finally came clean, the publisher claimed vindication. (You can read David Mehegan's piece about this in The Boston Globe by clicking here.)

Was it right for the publisher to go after the author's veracity after the lawsuit, even though she had ignored professional advice when she published the book in the first place? Does it matter that she started her efforts only after the author sued her and won?

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.

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: `THAT THING'LL NEVER WORK'

It would be great to be able to invent the next big thing -- you know, the invention that would make the world beat a path to your door, the one that would make you so much money that you'd never have to work again.

Short of being able to come up with that trailblazing invention, however, perhaps the next best thing is to work for the guy who is making the next big thing.

A reader from southern California has been contracted to design some components for a guy's new invention -- and, he adds, "this fellow pays quite handsomely."

My reader has a dilemma, however: He believes that his employer is attempting to build a perpetual-motion machine, a machine that would put out more energy than it took in and therefore could operate forever. Such a device would solve the world's energy problems and be worth an incalculable fortune ... but it's also scientifically impossible.

"I can see aspects of what he's revealed to me that are, to his mind, of a proprietary nature," my reader writes. "But from my perspective, as a design engineer, I can see where his overall design couldn't ever possibly accomplish his goal."

The dilemma, as my reader sees it, is a straightforward one: Should he "sell out, continue to do what this guy says and get paid," as he puts it, even though he knows that the invention will never work, or should he tell his employer that it can never work -- which, he's certain, would signal the end of his gravy train since, as he concedes, the inventor "didn't pay me to criticize his invention."

What's the right thing to do?

A telling indication lies in my reader's choice of words: He would consider not saying anything to be "selling out."

True, the inventor hired my reader only to do a specific job, not to provide advice on the efficacy of what he is building. All the same, my reader feels compelled to tell his employer that he thinks his invention has as much chance of working as a time machine would. His employer is wasting lots of money, and not saying so doesn't sit right with my reader.

But what about the handsome pay? Why risk it? If he says nothing and does his job well, who's hurt by it? Shouldn't it be "No harm, no foul?"

The harm is, of course, to my reader's principles. That's why, unless his life or his family' lives depend on this cash he's receiving from the inventor, the right thing for him to do is to let the inventor know what he thinks. He doesn't have to aggressively denounce him, of course -- he might ask the inventor his intentions and then, if the inventor's plan is what he suspects, point out what he sees as flaws in the design plans -- but he can't be comfortable until he's made a good-faith effort to say what he thinks needs to be said.

The inventor may well decide that he wants to slog on, of course. He may decide to fire my reader, but he may also decide that he has no problem paying him for his work on this invention, despite his reservations about the design. He may conclude that my reader is a good worker in spite of his limited vision.

If so, my reader will have to decide if he wants to continue working on an invention that he's convinced will never work. As long as he does good work while he ponders, however, he'll be running on good ethical ground.


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

Sunday, March 09, 2008

THE RIGHT THING: VOTE FOR THE PEOPLE'S FRIEND?

Four years ago a reader from North Carolina had written a book and was trying to get it published. Over the Internet he met an older woman who generously offered him advice on the publishing process.

That exchange blossomed into a friendship that included lunches with one another and their respective spouses whenever either happened to pass through the other's hometown. She even included a short story that he had written in an e-zine she publishes.

They have maintained a healthy friendship, mostly through e-mail, ever since.

Now, however, she has asked my reader to vote for a short story of hers that is vying with 20 others in an annual online writing contest. She adds to her request, "if you think it merits your vote." It turns out that he's not sure it does.

"I read the story and found it too weird for my tastes," he writes. "While the other stories weren't very good, I thought they were more entertaining than hers."

Nonetheless, he's assuming that friends and family of each of the authors will vote for the person they know, rather than for the quality of that person's story.

"There's no money involved in winning," he writes, "just bragging rights."

He's inclined to vote for his friend's story, but he wants to know what I think.

"Should honesty be valued over friendship," he asks, "especially when the stakes aren't very high?"

People cast votes for many reasons, only one of which is that a given candidate is the best choice for a job or honor. In a mayoral election the question is "Who do you want to be mayor?," for example, not "Who would be the best mayor?" It's possible for someone to think that a qualified woman, who would be the first-ever female mayor, is a better choice for symbolic reasons, even if her opponent is even more experienced. And, yes, you might vote for a friend or relative, even if you thought he or she would not be the best mayor, out of loyalty.

My reader is in a trickier position, though, because this contest specifically wants people to vote for the best of the nominated stories. "Best" is subjective, of course, but the implied question is not, "Which story do you want to win this contest?" It's "Which story is, in your opinion, the best?"

In a perfect world, the organizers of the contest wouldn't have placed my reader in such a position. They would have withheld the authors' names and given the voters only the stories themselves to consider. My reader's friend could have written to tell him that she had an entry in the contest and asked him to vote -- but not told him what story to vote for. That would have removed the "vote for your friends" impulse and forced voters to focus on the literary merits as they saw them.

As it is, my reader is faced with competing values: loyalty to his friend vs. honesty about his literary taste. His inclination to vote for his friend's story, in spite of its dubious literary merits, suggests that his loyalty takes a higher priority, but his discomfort with the situation suggests that he knows it's not the best decision.

The right thing for my reader to do, under the circumstances, is not to vote. That way he won't cast a vote for a competing story, but won't compromise his integrity by voting for a story that he doesn't really believe deserves recognition. In a public election there is a civic duty to vote, but that's not true of a short-story contest. He's uncomfortable with either choice, so he should decline to get involved.

And no, the fact that many others may be casting their votes for extraneous reasons doesn't change the basic ethics of the situation. The right thing is the right thing, even if you're the only one doing it.

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

SOUND OFF: IS WRONG SOMETIMES RIGHT?

I mentioned a Web site launched by the Center for Public Integrity that allows users to search comments by members of the Bush administration for falsehoods relating to Bush's decision to go to war in Iraq. Readers were divided as to whether it is ever OK for national leaders to deliberately make false statements, not to mislead enemies but to mislead their own people, in order to bring about an undertaking that they believe will lead to a greater good.

George Zahka of Bradenton Beach, Fla., inclines to accept the practice.

"Leaders of all countries have been doing this from time immemorial," Zahka writes.

On the other hand, Kathy Kuczynski of El Toro, Calif., is outraged by it.

"I can't tell you how angry I am at this administration's cavalier treatment of the truth," Kuczynski writes. "I hope for truth from the next president, no matter who that may be."

Richard Collins of La Mirada, Calif., took me to task for mentioning a site that was partisan in tone, saying that he had been surprised and disappointed not to see similar dissections of comments by Tony Blair, Bill Clinton, Hillary Clinton and others.

"If you want to publish a link to a `Bush lied, people died' Web site," he advises me, "do so, but please have the integrity to say what it is."

Check out other opinions at "This Is For Your Own Good," 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, March 02, 2008

Update on Summits for My School

For those of you who have been following the hiking efforts of my nine-year-old grandson, Evan, since I wrote about him climbing Mt. Katahdin in the column, the support for his Summits for My School project to raise money to help his school become more environmentally efficient has been terrific.

As of today, he had received donations of $3,078 toward his goal of $5,000 for climbing ten 4,000-foot summits by the end of 2008. He's already climbed Mt. Tecumseh in January and now that the weather is bound to break he and family are planning for the rest of his climbs.

Several companies have offered to sponsor him with donations and equipment that will help him on his hike. LEKI, a manufacturer of high-end hiking poles that is now being auctioned off on eBay, is one of these companies. The funds raised will go toward Evan's goal. You can to the auction by clicking here. The poles are LEKI Ultralite Ti Ergometric Soft Antishock System Trekking Poles.

Other companies have offered to donate similar products and Evan's dad will be posting these on eBay when they arrive in the future.

SOUND OFF: OLYMPIAN DECISIONS

Movie director Steven Spielberg has pulled out of his commitment to serve as an artistic adviser to the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing. His decision comes after he tried and failed to convince China's president to exert his nation's influence on the government of Sudan to put a stop to the genocide in Darfur.

"Conscience will not allow me to continue with business as usual," Spielberg said in an official statement.

According to The New York Times, a spokesman for the Chinese embassy in Washington rejected Spielberg's decision as empty posturing.

"As the Darfur issue is neither an internal issue of China nor is it caused by China," the spokesman said, "it is completely unreasonable, irresponsible and unfair to link the two as one."

Spielberg and others nevertheless believe that the Chinese government could do more to influence the Sudanese government -- with which it has extensive military and commercial ties -- to accept peacekeeping troops into the region.

Was Spielberg's decision to step down in protest a legitimate one? Given his concerns, should he have refused to accept the appointment in the first place? Or does the Chinese government have a legitimate point in arguing that the Olympics should not be linked to its ability or willingness to exert influence on the Sudanese government?

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.

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: WHEN HELP FREEZES OVER

Jennifer Schwanke, of Columbus, Ohio, spent about $200 to buy a half-chest freezer at a large discount retailer. After paying, she asked the sales clerk if someone could help her load the freezer into her car.

It took a wait of about 30 minutes, but finally a young man came up to Schwanke and introduced himself as "the helper." They wheeled the freezer to her car, but as soon as the young man saw her vehicle, he stopped.

"There's no way we're getting this freezer into that car," he said.

The young man then stood and watched as she tried to lift the freezer into the back seat, into the front seat, into the trunk -- anywhere that it might fit, Schwanke recalls.

"Don't get that thing turned or it won't work when you get it home," he helpfully advised her.

Finally Schwanke gave up, and the young man said, "Well, ma'am, it looks like you're not going to get a freezer today."

Undeterred, Schwanke then asked the "helper" about other solutions. Did the store have a trailer that she could rent and hitch to her car? Could she buy some tie-downs to put the freezer on top of her car?

To each suggestion, the young man shook his head.

"No way," he said. "Sorry. Not going to happen."

"Faced with no other alternative," she says, "I returned the freezer to the store."

Needless to say, she wasn't happy about it.

"I was angry about how I was treated at the store," she says. "I felt dejected, deflated, frustrated."

She was unwilling to give up on her quest for a new freezer, however. She moved on to a different store, where she bought a similar freezer for a comparable price. It was delivered to her home within six hours.

Now comes the ethical quandary: When Schwanke made her abortive purchase at the first store, she was given a long strip of coupons that came out of a rapid-coupon printer. The coupons represent at least $50 worth of free food from other stores in the area.

Schwanke believes that she has no right to use these coupons, since they were given to her for purchasing a freezer that she returned almost immediately thereafter. A friend disagrees, however, arguing that, since the coupons are from food merchants rather than from the freezer store itself, they are intended to promote the food products regardless of who receives them or why.

Does it make a difference that she received terrible customer service from the store, and might have kept the freezer if she'd been given anything like real help?

As rotten as the service seems to have been, it should have no effect on whether or not Schwanke uses the coupons. It's apples and oranges -- one store's bad customer service and another store's coupons.

Is Schwanke right in thinking that she shouldn't make use of the coupons? Yes, she is. Having returned the purchase, the right thing for her to do was either to return the coupons or to toss them out. To redeem them would be ethically unacceptable, since they were given to her as a reward for a purchase that ultimately she did not make. Granted, the retailer and the food merchants probably would never realize that the coupons were being used by someone who didn't actually make a purchase. But Schwanke knows, and she knows better. While she might take advantage of the situation, her ethical compass guides her well in steering her in another direction.


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

Talking Politics Over Turkey

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