Sunday, October 26, 2008

SOUND OFF: IF IT'S COMPUTER-ASSISTED, IS IT ART?

Writing in The Wall Street Journal, Ben Worthen asked if sculptor Brue Beasley was "cheating" by using computer-assisted design to assemble a sculpture "virtually" before he actually sets out to sculpt the piece. Beasley tells him that artists have always found ways to make themselves more efficient.

"I can deal with a greater degree of complexity than if I was doing it by hand," Beasley says.

Worthen doesn't answer his own question about whether Beasley's approach is "cheating," so I'm putting the question to my readers: Are sculptors who rely on technology to ease the burden of creating art cheating? Or is it a legitimate part of the artistic process to make use of all available technologies? Are there limits?

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: IF THIS IS WRONG, I DON'T WANT TO BE RIGHT

Something curious is going on.

During recent weeks a number of readers responding to polls on my column's blog have told me that they think a given action is wrong -- but that they plan to keep on doing it anyway.

Granted, my polls are anything but scientific -- the sample is small and far from random, since it's the self-selected minority who have chosen to participate -- but still this is something new. I'm used to people defending their actions and arguing that, even if some people criticize them, there's nothing wrong with what they're doing. I haven't previously had many people simply state that they are consciously choosing to do something that they themselves consider to be wrong.

Often, the percentage of willful wrongdoers is small: 14 percent of readers say that they know it's wrong to keep an extra newspaper mistakenly taken from a vending box, but that they'll do it anyway. The same percentage say that it's wrong to lie to political pollsters, but nonetheless would do so. Similarly, 17 percent of my readers say that they know it's wrong to call in sick when not actually sick, but have done that very thing themselves.

The percentages are much higher in some instances. When asked whether it would be wrong to continue using cable-television service that they were erroneously not being charged for, 30 percent say that, though they know it would be wrong, they'd continue using it anyway. And back when Scrabulous was still available on Facebook -- before a suit from Hasbro, the makers of Scrabble, forced the creators to take it down -- a full 53 percent of readers said that it was not OK to play the game, given the alleged trademark violation, but added that they'd continue playing anyway.

These responses raise some intriguing questions.

Do these people really think that what they're doing is wrong? Perhaps not -- if they did, by definition, they'd be compelled to stop. It may be that they feel socially pressured to condemn their own actions, but that's a far cry from truly believing that they're doing something wrong.

To many people, it seems, an action that's wrong isn't meaningfully wrong if those harmed by it are not everyday people but rather "deep pockets" targets such as employers or large corporations -- a newspaper, say, or a cable-television company.

But that shouldn't make a difference: The wrongness of an action is inherent in the action itself, regardless of who may be harmed by it or how significant the harm might be to them. Shoplifting is equally wrong, for example, whether it's from a mom-and-pop candy shop or the biggest store of the mighty Wal-Mart chain. It's not from whom you steal that's wrong, it's that you steal.

And finally, ethically speaking, is it better or worse to acknowledge the wrongness of something that you intend to continue doing anyway?

Well, perhaps it's more honest to admit that you know your actions are wrong, but you score no ethical points by coming clean about engaging in what you know to be unethical conduct. It may even be worse -- someone who does something egregious but who honestly thinks it's right is, at least, ethically consistent. That's more than can be said of the "yes, but" crowd.

Obviously for some people there is a disconnect between what they say they believe to be right and the way they choose to act.

The right thing is for them to get clear on why they believe things to be wrong vs. right, regardless of how they think others will perceive them, and to act accordingly. If you truly believe something is wrong, you shouldn't do it. If some reason compels you to choose an action, some reason that seems more important than your reservations about its wrongness, then clearly you have decided that it is actually the right course of action.

If you continue to find yourself doing things even in the face of believing that they are wrong, your action apparently is out of sync with your values. If it is, then simply stop doing it. Moral compromise is no laughing matter, and it makes little difference whether it's done for a fortune in stolen gems or for an extra newspaper.

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

Sunday, October 19, 2008

THE RIGHT THING: IN THE CARDS

As the economy continues to founder, most people are struggling to find ways to cut their expenses. At the very least, they're being more careful than ever not to pay more for goods and services than they absolutely have to.

For example, customers who once might not have bothered to use food coupons or to register for grocery-store discount cards now are willing to consider any of these options.

Barbara Howard of San Clemente, Calif., realizes that supermarkets offer sizable discounts on some items if you use their store cards while shopping. While traveling recently, however, she found herself shopping at a market she previously had never used.

She figured that using a card would save her a few dollars, so she asked the man behind her in line if he'd mind sharing his card.

He did so willingly. When her order was run up, she paid in cash, returned his card, thanked him and left.

"But as I drove away," Howard writes, "I wondered if the right thing would have been to give him the money I saved."

Several years ago I responded to a reader who wondered if it was OK to lend her card to another shopper. I said that it was, but argued that, ideally, shoppers would sign up for their own cards or ask the checker to scan in a generic number rather than use someone else's card. The store keeps a tally of what each cardholder buys, in part to make special offers keyed to those purchases.

Still, even the stores are inconsistent in the way they handle this. My wife tells me that only last week a checker at our local supermarket asked her if she would mind letting the guy in front of her use her shopping card, since he had forgotten his own.

That isn't Howard's issue, however. She's wondering whether the lender of the card should have reaped the rewards his card garnered for Howard. She wants to know, in short, if she owes the stranger anything for his kindness.

She owes him nothing but gratitude. He loaned her the card, but it was the store that provided the discount, not him. His gesture may have been convenient, but it cost him nothing to make it -- so she wouldn't be repaying him, she'd be giving him a profit. If Howard were to pay him the difference, he'd be getting some of the store's money and she'd be paying the same amount she would have paid without the card. If that were the case, what would be the point of having borrowed his card in the first place?

The store gives the discount to encourage people to spend their money at that store. Howard was the one who spent the money, so Howard is the one who gets the discount.

That having been said, many of my readers believe -- and write to tell me so -- that grocery stores do the wrong thing for their customers by using discount cards at all. It disadvantages customers, they believe, by artificially inflating prices in a way that customers can avoid only by giving over their personal information to get a card and suffering the inconvenience of remembering the card every time they shop.

If grocery stores do boost their prices to facilitate a discount program, as some readers suggest, their customers might want to consider shopping elsewhere. But the stores have a right to set up their price structures as they see fit, and many other readers see nothing wrong in the no-cost discount cards, and appreciate the coupons and special discounts that come with them.

As for Howard's situation, her fellow shopper lent his card willingly and was in no way disadvantaged by doing so. He may even have been helped, if Howard's purchases give him extra points toward bonuses, as is the case with many store cards. She doesn't owe him any money.

The right thing for her to do is to return his card, thank him, gather her purchases and leave.

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

SOUND OFF: PRESSING THE KIDS

My readers were divided on whether the media crosses a forbidden line when it reports on the children of political candidates. In an informal survey on my column's blog, 46 percent of those responding thought that such coverage was out of line under any circumstances, while 35 percent thought it was acceptable when older children were concerned. Only 19 percent thought that candidates' children are fair game for the media across the board.

"I agree that children are off limits in most things," one reader writes, "especially the dirty game of politics."

"When someone is basing a political campaign, in any part, on `family values,"' another writes, "their own family values become fair play."

Sheri Nelson of Mission Viejo, Calif., thinks that the campaign issues don't matter.

"Children shouldn't be hounded by the media at any time," Nelson writes. "Neither should adults, for that matter."

But Jon Akutagawa of Costa Mesa, Calif., observes that "a child is supposedly a reflection of our teachings, a product of our experience."

If candidates have issues with their offspring, he says, perhaps it's because they cannot handle their own families.

If so, Akutagawa wonders, "Can that person then be trusted to handle their responsibility?"

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)

Friday, October 17, 2008

Workplace Ethics on Fox 25

Below is a clip from this morning's "Fox 25 Morning News" with anchor Kim Carrigan. Viewers questions on workplace ethics are answered.

video

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Post Your Workplace Ethics Questions to Fox 25

This Friday morning (October 17), I'm scheduled to appear on Fox 25's Morning News program to answer viewer questions about Workplace ethics. The segment should appear around 8:30 or 8:35 a.m on Fox 25 in Boston.

If you have questions, you can post them to Kim Carrigan's blog which you can find by clicking here. Post as many questions as you have to Carrigan's blog.

For those of you who missed the last ask the ethicist segment, you can view it by clicking on the video clip below.

video

Sunday, October 12, 2008

SOUND OFF: DUMP FINDS

In many communities that have a public dump at which residents leave their rubbish and recyclables, there is a swap shop. That's where residents leave useable stuff they no longer want -- books, games, china, glassware, inflatable devices, furniture and assorted curiosities. Residents can take anything they want from the swap shop and, aside from whatever fee there may be for using the dump, there is generally no charge for any of the stuff that's taken from the swap shop.

As long as you leave your share of goods to be swapped, is it OK to take goods from the swap shop to sell at a yard sale or on eBay? Or should you take only stuff that you plan to use personally?

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: FIRST CLASS SOME OF THE WAY

What a way to kick off a vacation!

Headed for Disney World with his wife and two kids, Alan Sechrest of Mission Viejo, Calif., was in Los Angeles International Airport, standing at an American Airlines electronic check-in kiosk, when an airline representative told him that they could get a first-glass upgrade for $45 a person.

Bingo! The $180 upgrade seemed well worth it for the five-hour flight to Miami, where they would change to a one-hour flight to Orlando. Who wouldn't want to arrive at the gates of the Magic Kingdom a little more rested after a long flight east?

But after telling the representative "yes," they discovered that the upgrade applied only to the short hop from Miami to Orlando.

"Had we known that," Sechrest told the representative, "we would have refused the upgrade."

The representative apologized and directed the family to the check-in counter so that the situation could be rectified and they could get back to their original coach status.

There, Sechrest says, the agent told them that he had put them back into coach and assured them that their credit card would not be charged.

His parting words, Sechrest adds, were: "But check your credit-card statement, just to make sure."

It wasn't until they were boarding the connecting flight in Miami that they found that their flight information had not been corrected: They had been left in first class for the one-hour flight.

"We never checked the boarding passes for the second leg," Sechrest admits.

They boarded the plane and rode the one hour in first class, but they weren't happy about paying $180 for a privilege that they had been assured had been fixed back in Los Angeles.

American Airlines has refused Sechrest's request for a $180 refund, telling him that, since he flew in first class on the final leg of his trip, he should expect to pay for it. Now he has contacted his credit-card company to see if it can offer a remedy.

Sechrest wants to know if it was ethical for them to request a refund from the airline.

"They sold us a product that we did not want and cannot return," he says, comparing the experience to "a car wash charging you for a wash and wax when you only asked for a wash. You received the wax job, but should you have to pay for it?"

Perhaps Sechrest should have refused to get onto the plane once he found out that he was expected to fly first class. But at that point, five hours into the trip, with wife and eager children in tow and his coach seats no longer guaranteed, was it fair to expect him to give up the guaranteed first-class seats that would get him to his final destination?

I don't believe so. The airline agent committed to fix the problem, but he didn't. It's perfectly ethical for Sechrest to request a refund.

American can, of course, deny his request, arguing that the Sechrests sat in the upgraded seats, even if they didn't want to and had been assured that the family had been reassigned to coach. They may be legally justified in doing so.

But the right thing for the airline to do is to refund Sechrest's money and to instruct its agents to do a better job of following through on their commitments to passengers.

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

Sunday, October 05, 2008

THE RIGHT THING: SEVERAL MORE FOR THE ROAD

When does a colleague's behavior rise -- or sink -- to the level at which it warrants being reported to your bosses? Does he or she need to do something egregious, perhaps illegal? Or can it simply be something that doesn't meet your own sense of propriety?

Unless driven by a desire to pay back someone for inappropriate actions or by an unhealthy dose of schadenfreude, employees rarely take joy in ratting out those with whom they work. That explains why one of my readers is struggling to decide what to do.

He is a consultant who was recently hired by a large company to complete a project in the field alongside another contract consultant. In the course of conversation, he writes, the other consultant "disclosed that her consumption of alcohol during a business trip was four to six drinks each evening. I observed such while having dinner with her."

He told her that he rarely drank alcohol while on business trips, in order to maintain his focus, and that he was uncomfortable hearing about her alcohol consumption and would decline to eat with her on future trips.

She seemed to have a hard time getting to work by 8 a.m. and required several cups of coffee to get going, my reader reports, and her production was considerably less than his. Nonetheless, her work has not been questioned by their employer.

The company travel policy states that alcohol consumed during a business meal is reimbursable "assuming the quantity and costs are within reason." Their job does not involve operating equipment, and he has never witnessed her driving after she had consumed alcohol.

My reader could refuse the work assignment with her, but that would cost him lost income. Aside from making her aware of his discomfort with her alcohol consumption, my reader asks, what other ethical obligations might he have?

My reader did the right thing by letting his colleague know that he was uncomfortable discussing how much alcohol she consumed during the business trip. He also was correct in removing himself from future situations that might cause equal discomfort.

But, having ascertained that she is not putting others in harm's way by driving or operating heavy equipment while intoxicated, he has done as much as he can ethically do.

If their employer doesn't have a problem with reimbursing her for her excessive drinking, it is not my reader's role to tell them that their policy is wrong. Likewise, if the employer regards her work as acceptable, it is not up to my reader to determine that she's not performing up to snuff, drinks or no drinks.

While I don't encourage or condone excessive drinking on business trips, it's beyond the scope of my reader's job as a consultant who is only a casual colleague, or of my job as an ethics columnist who doesn't know her at all, to say conclusively that she has a drinking problem and needs help. It would be a very good idea for her to seek help, even if her drinking is not yet affecting her work. But it's a decision that she will have to make for herself.

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

SOUND OFF: READ ALL ABOUT IT...FOR FREE

Many years ago my reader Janet Lohrman realized that she had accidentally taken two newspapers from a vending machine after paying for one. She decided to put another quarter into the machine in order to replace the extra paper.

Not all readers agreed with Lohrman's solution. In an informal survey on my column's blog, few advocated keeping the extra paper but many didn't think it necessary to spend another quarter to remedy the error.

Putting the extra newspaper on top of the vending machine was the choice of 50 percent of the respondents, with only 36 percent saying that they would do as Lohrman did and deposit another quarter. Of those who considered it wrong, 14 percent nonetheless admitted that they would chalk it up to good fortune and keep the extra newspaper.

That prospect vexes Shmuel Ross, of Brooklyn, N.Y.

"The reader was supposed to have taken one newspaper," Ross writes, "but instead took two. There's no `accident,' no `good fortune,' only negligence. Putting in another quarter is the only solution."

Barb Cutler of Orange, Calif., doesn't see it as negligence, but believes that an "honest mistake deserves to be rectified by either putting in an extra quarter or placing the paper on top of the vending machine."

Finally Phil Clutts of Harrisburg, N.C., recalls walking by a newspaper box, years ago, when a woman who was removing a paper from it smiled and asked him if he would like one too, as long as the box was open. Clutts declined, but still wonders if she thought it a moral act to rip off a corporate giant to help a total stranger.

He didn't see it that way, he adds, "but I certainly wasn't going to get on her case about it."

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)

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