Sunday, December 27, 2009

THE RIGHT THING: THE INSIDE WORD GETS OUT

A reader in New York recently began working for a major media company. Like most big companies, he reports, his company is "filled with political intrigue and behind-the-scenes maneuvering."

My reader recently discovered a Web site that appears to be operated by current or former employees of his company. It explores the workings of his company in great detail and, while almost all of the posters to the site do so anonymously, "they clearly know the people and issues they're writing about firsthand."

In some cases, my reader believes, the information on the Web site might be useful to him in his career with the company. In all cases, however, he finds the Web site fascinating.

"It gives you the story behind decisions that sometimes seem unexplainable," he says, "and a much better idea of what's going to happen in the future than the official releases by the company."

The Web site can be viewed by the general public, including the company's competitors. It's filled with accounts of confidential meetings and personal criticism of "people who can't answer back."

"While most of the stuff I saw there I knew to be true from my own experience," my reader writes, "there's really no way to be sure if a given bit of information is legit."

Still, my reader has been advised by colleagues that almost everybody in the company visits the Web site regularly and that senior management is well aware of it and takes advantage of its information.

"To not read it is to handcuff yourself within the company," one of my reader's colleagues told him.

While intrigued, however, my reader is not sure about the ethics of the situation.

On the one hand, he recognizes that the Web site is akin to water-cooler talk at work.

"This is stuff that employees used to say to each other at a bar after work," he writes. "The only thing that's new is the wide scope of it, via the Internet. But that feels like a big difference to me."

His company's thorough ethics guidelines don't address the situation at all, so he's torn.

"Is it ethical to even read the postings on the site?" he asks. "Is it ethical to let them influence the way I go about my job? Is it unethical for people to post there and, if so, does that make reading it unethical?"

Having examined the Web site myself, I think there's nothing wrong with my reader reading the material there and using it for whatever purposes he may find helpful.

If the site's posters were stealing proprietary information - internal financials, human-resources documents and so on - then they would have crossed an ethical line, not to mention a legal one. But if their postings are based on their own experiences, as my inspection of the site suggests, it seems fair play for them to raise these issues on the site. One man's food for thought may be another man's gossip, but there's nothing fundamentally wrong with mentioning it over the water cooler ... or over the Internet.

If it's ethically acceptable for them to make the postings, there is nothing unethical about my reader reading them, so long as he does so on his own time and weighs each one with a healthy dose of skepticism. If tempted to do some posting himself, he should bend over backward to make sure that nothing he posts could be construed as proprietary.

Whether he should let the site's postings influence the way he does his job is a question less of ethics than of common sense. As he points out, there is no way to be sure how much of the information is legitimate. I'd advise him to confirm anything he finds there with more reliable sources before he hangs his career on it.

c.2009 The New York Times Syndicate (Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate)

SOUND OFF: OPRAH'S KAROAKE MOMENT

Of the readers who responded to an unscientific poll on my column's blog, 52 percent believed that Oprah Winfrey was wrong to remove singer BeBe Winans from her talk show after several viewers complained about his appearing when domestic-violence charges brought against him by his ex-wife are still pending.

Winfrey had banned singer Chris Brown from her show after he battered the singer Rihanna, his girlfriend at the time, so the viewer complaints led to Winans being removed from the show. Several promotions showing Winans, as well as one of the taped shows, had already aired.

"Sounds like Oprah Winfrey used situational ethics," one reader writes. "She was willing to have Winans on the show until viewers protested."

"There was definitive and very public proof of what happened with Chris Brown," another reader writes. "She shouldn't have put him on until the case was heard and charges dismissed."

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 (Smith Kerr, 2006), is an associate professor at Emerson College in Boston, where he teaches writing and ethics. He is also the administrator of http://www.jeffreyseglin.com, a Web log focused on ethical issues.

Do you have ethical questions that you need answered? Send them to rightthing@nytimes.com or to "The Right Thing," New York Times Syndicate, 630 Eighth Ave., 5th floor, New York, N.Y. 10018.

c.2009 The New York Times Syndicate (Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate)

Sunday, December 20, 2009

SOUND OFF: MUTUAL INTERESTS

Last January the Securities and Exchange Commission enabled mutual-fund companies to begin sending a summary prospectus to their investors, rather than the full-blown prospectuses that they had previously received. As anyone who has invested in mutual funds knows, these prospectuses regularly arrive in the mail. And, as the vast majority of investors also know, the prospectuses almost invariably remain unread, resulting in reams of paper and postage wasted on a service that isn't used.

Given some high-profile investment meltdowns and scams during the past couple of years, investors should expect to receive and should be expected to pay attention to comprehensible information about the stuff in which they're investing. Most don't, though. Is it right for the SEC to continue to require these companies to regularly send these paper documents? Or is it wrong to require mutual-fund companies to send the prospectuses if few recipients read them?

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 with 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," New York Times Syndicate, 620 Eighth Ave., 5th floor, New York, N.Y. 10018.

c.2009 The New York Times Syndicate (Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate)

THE RIGHT THING: WHEN TO FOLD 'EM

One of my readers has been playing in the same weekly poker game for more than 10 years - "same guys, same place, same middling stakes," he writes - but these days it isn't the same. One of his poker buddies is showing signs of mental confusion, and his game has deteriorated.

"It was never good," my reader writes, asking that his name not be used to protect "the sanctity of the table." "Now it's worse."

The other player is losing money every week, a couple of hundred dollars each time.

"When I suggested to the guy who runs the game, an old friend of his, that perhaps we shouldn't be playing with him," my reader reports, "I was told that he enjoyed the game and who was I, or anyone, to deprive him of that?"

The whole thing makes my reader queasy, but he doesn't want to give up the game, which he also enjoys.

"So what's the ethical thing to do?," he asks.

It can be harrowing, of course, to watch a friend's mental health deteriorate. My reader's plight is compounded by the fact that he may be taking advantage of his friend's diminished faculties at the poker table. It's one thing to realize that a friend can't think as sharply as before, quite another to be pocketing a few bucks as a result.

Given the hand he's been dealt, my reader did the right thing by expressing his concerns to the game organizer, especially since he's an old friend of the player in question. When faced with a tough ethical choice, it's usually a good idea to consult with others who might be closer to the situation or who might be able to suggest alternative ways to respond.

But now that the organizer has made clear that he has no plans to cut off his weakened friend, my reader has a new choice to make. Should he continue on in the game, knowing that he might win a hand or two at the expense of a guy who's no longer at his best, or should he walk away?

So long as the aging player is aware enough of his surroundings to understand that he's losing consistently, there's no obligation for my reader to protect him. If he chooses to continue to play in a game in which he's no longer able to compete, that's his decision.

Therefore, at the moment, the question is simply one of my reader's feelings: Does the joy he gets from playing with his longtime poker buddies outweigh the uneasiness he feels about one player's situation? If the answer is yes, he should continue to play with a clear conscience. If the answer is no, he should withdraw from the game, also with a clear conscience.

Even if he continues in the game, however, this isn't a one-time decision. If the other player's capabilities continue to deteriorate, at some point my reader may want to reopen the issue with the game's host or to talk to some of the other players to get their sense of whether it's time to cut the fellow off.

For now, my reader reports, he has decided that, having spoken his piece, he will continue playing because the game brings joy to him and apparently also to his struggling friend.

In fact, shortly after our initial e-mail exchange, I heard from my reader again.

"Last night," he wrote, "my `diminished' player went on an insane rush - full houses, flushes, trips and quads falling into his fist with astounding regularity - and he won a couple of hundred bucks. Sure, he called his full houses `straights' and he gibbered, but he still won."

As it turns out, a good chunk of his winnings came from my friend's pocket.

"Sharp old me managed to lose about $160," he writes. "But that's poker."

c.2009 The New York Times Syndicate (Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate)

Sunday, December 13, 2009

THE RIGHT THING: WHEN A PARENT NEEDS HELP, BUT DOESN'T WANT IT

A reader writes that her mother is 77 years old, her father 85. Both suffer from dementia.

Her mother has been diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease. She shuffles when she walks and has forgotten how to crawl, which makes it difficult for her to get onto her knees in order to stand up after she has fallen to the ground.

"Her falls are soft lands so far," my reader writes, "but it is only a matter of time before she breaks a hip."

She is not a neat eater, but my reader is simply glad that her mother is eating at all.

Currently my reader's father retains responsibility for his wife's care, because he won't accept help from the caretakers his daughter has hired to help him.

Her father has always been "very judgmental" of other people and their appearance, and often quite vocal about it.

"I usually tell him that it is not a crime to be fat or disheveled or any nationality other than Caucasian," my reader writes.

Lately my reader's father has become verbally abusive toward his wife. As time progresses and her condition worsens, he grows more frustrated with the situation. In his wife's presence he expresses his frustration to his daughter about her mother's limitations and peculiarities _ how she wets the furniture or spills her drinks, can't walk right or is always packing to go somewhere when there is nowhere to go.

"He rolls his eyes and acts superior to her," my reader writes. "He is quite demeaning to her."

She interrupts her father during his outbursts and tells him that he is being rude to her mother, but within minutes he forgets and resumes his diatribe.

"I would like to shock him by being very rude to him," she writes, "but he would forget in minutes and start again. Perhaps, if I do it often enough, he might eventually get the point."

My reader feels a responsibility to respect her parents, and wonders when her effort to protect one of her parents from the other becomes a moral responsibility.

I don't know that being rude to her father in the hope of teaching him a lesson is a sound solution. As she says, her father may not remember the earlier episodes, let alone register the message that she is trying to send indirectly. There's also the risk that my reader's rudeness might become a vehicle for her own frustrations, rather than a means to an end.

The end of life brings with it many indignities and awkwardnesses, and with them come new ethical obligations and new perspectives on older ones. The obligation to respect one's parents is still there, but it takes new forms when a parent is struggling with dementia or extreme physical problems. If respecting one's parents conflicts with doing what is best for them, obviously their best interests must take priority.

In this case, if my reader believes her mother to be in danger, whether through abuse or through neglect, she is ethically obliged to protect her. Her obligation to respect her father does not extend to allowing him to bully her mother, especially when his doing so is clearly as much a symptom of his own disease as of his personality.

Her desire to respect her father's wishes and his role as her mother's husband is honorable, but it is incumbent on the daughter to do what is best for both parents, even if that means contradicting them or going against their own preferences.

If it becomes clear that his own medical issues make it impossible for her father to protect and care for his wife, my reader has a responsibility to shoulder that burden and ensure that every precaution is taken to protect her mother. If that means separating them or compelling her father to accept outside help, that is tragic but still the right thing to do.

We all have a moral responsibility not to stand by and do nothing if we see someone in danger and can do anything to help. That's all the more true - if also all the more complicated - if the person in question is a parent.

c.2009 The New York Times Syndicate (Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate)

SOUND OFF: DO AS I SAY, NOT AS I DID

Of those readers responding to an unscientific poll on my column's blog, only 38 percent believed that it was right for Washington and Lee University to invite Jayson Blair to speak at its Journalism Ethics Institute. Blair, a former New York Times reporter, has tried to shift careers to become a "life coach" since his fabrications and plagiarism wreaked havoc on his readers, his colleagues and the newspaper itself.

The majority of readers - 69 percent - considered the invitation to be ill placed.

"The major issue is that he was proven to be a liar and a con artist, which naturally provides grounds for wondering whether any advice he might offer now would be trustworthy," writes Shmuel Ross of Brooklyn, N.Y. "While my instinct is to pick up a pitchfork and torch and join the mob calling for the plagiarist to be burned, I'm not really in any position to make that call. I don't envy those who are."

Cynthia Dodd of West Haven, Conn., backs the university.

"His honest look into his own struggle can help people realize that any person, brilliant or not, white or black, rich or poor, can be sidelined because of a mental illness and, until a person comes to terms with the disease, they are often unaware that they are even sick," she writes. "I am very proud to think that a university would allow this lecture to go on."

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 (Smith Kerr, 2006), is an associate professor at Emerson College in Boston, where he teaches writing and ethics. He is also the administrator of http://www.jeffreyseglin.com, a Web log focused on ethical issues.

Do you have ethical questions that you need answered? Send them to rightthing@nytimes.com or to "The Right Thing," New York Times Syndicate, 630 Eighth Ave., 5th floor, New York, N.Y. 10018.

c.2009 The New York Times Syndicate (Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate)

Sunday, December 06, 2009

SOUND OFF: TAKE A BOW

When he visited Emperor Akihito of Japan in November, President Barack Obama bowed as he shook the emperor's hand. The State Department said that diplomatic protocol mandated the bow, which is a traditional Japanese courtesy, but some in the United States protested that an American president should never bow to any foreign leader. Republican Mike Huckabee, former governor of Arkansas and presidential candidate, labeled the bow "offensive."

Assuming that the gesture was in fact dictated by protocol, was it nonetheless wrong for Obama to bow to Akihito? Or was he right to honor Japanese tradition by bowing?

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 with 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," New York Times Syndicate, 620 Eighth Ave., 5th floor, New York, N.Y. 10018.

c.2009 The New York Times Syndicate (Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate)

THE RIGHT THING: WE WISH NEARLY ALL OF YOU A MERRY CHRISTMAS

"Holidays can be so good, and yet so bad!," writes a reader from southern California. "If families get along, great, it's all wonderful. But what about if they don't?"

Some members of my reader's family have asked that she not invite a particular other family member to holiday gatherings because, well, they can't stand that person.

"They hate this person so much," she writes, "that they want to X them out of holiday gatherings in my home."

My reader is torn about how to respond. She still has treasured memories of good times spent with this family member in the past, and says that it "tears my soul" to think about excluding this person. Nonetheless she's convinced that it would likely be better to do so, because her life with the rest of her family - including those who live under the same roof - means more to her than anything.

"I should mention," she continues, "that this person is not perfect. They like attention and speak louder than they should. They like to have people listen to them. They talk too loud during movies at the theater and embarrass me. They don't take no for an answer. And, above all, they come back and talk to you when you have asked them to leave."

She refers to the family member as "them," rather than as "he" or "she," because she doesn't want to write anything that might help acquaintances identify the person if they should happen to see this column.

"Is it ethical for people to ask to eliminate a family member from gatherings," she asks, "just because everyone doesn't get along with them?"

My reader's question is easily answered. It's far more difficult, however, to provide a solution to her problem.

There is nothing unethical about her family members asking her not to invite a particular other member of the family. It may be rude or ungenerous, but it's not unethical. They have every right to ask, the same way they have the right to ask my reader to invite an extra guest. And my reader has the same right to honor their request or to turn them down. It's her house and her party, so she gets to call the dance.

So, should she invite the objectionable relative? That's not so easily answered.

Certainly most of us have, through the years, known someone whose behavior and manners make us prefer not to have to deal with them unless we absolutely have to. If that person is a relative, well, it's even more unpleasant, because there are certain to be some family occasions at which his/her presence is unavoidable.

When we can't escape spending time with that person, most of us find a way to be gracious, regardless of our discomfort, and save our spleen to be vented after we're safely back home from the party. It would be wrong for us to allow our discomfort with that one person to turn us into someone who is equally obnoxious - or, worse yet, even more obnoxious - by deliberately being rude or hurtful. It's fine to ask someone not to do something that makes you uncomfortable, but to respond by trying to make them equally uncomfortable is to become the same type of person we loathe being around.

I can't answer my reader's question because it isn't an ethical question - she won't be ethically wrong whether she does or doesn't invite the problem relative. It's a question of her feelings. There is no perfect solution here. She's going to have regrets either way, and only she can decide which way will leave her feeling better about the situation.

The right thing for my reader to do is to make the decision with which she feels most comfortable. If her fond memories and her loyalty to her problem relative are so strong that she wants him/her at the party and is willing to put up with his/her dislikable qualities, then an invitation is in order. If those feelings are outweighed by her concern for the comfort of the rest of her family, she should let the problem relative find somewhere else to celebrate the holidays.

Whatever she decides, she should tell her family members and close the subject, rather than inviting further discussion. She's the hostess, so it's her call.

Hopefully they will do the right thing and honor her decision, even if it means having to be on their best behavior with a family member who they simply wish would go away.

c.2009 The New York Times Syndicate (Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate)

Sunday, November 29, 2009

THE RIGHT THING: WALKING A FINE LINE

"What are one's ethical obligations," wonders a reader from Columbus, Ohio, "when someone else is doing something wrong?"

My reader was driving along a fairly busy two-lane road, dutifully observing the posted 35-miles-per-hour speed limit. Up ahead of him he saw three people - two men and a toddler - start to cross.

"They were crossing the road roughly 75 yards away from the nearest crosswalk," my reader writes, noting that there was a traffic light at the crosswalk but not where they were.

"I saw them, but did not slow down or stop to let them cross the road," he writes. "They continued to walk, until they realized that I was not going to stop for them. So they stopped."

As he drove past them, the older of the men yelled something at my reader, who slammed on his brakes and got out of his car. Harsh words ensued on both sides.

The older man yelled at my reader for not letting them cross the road. When my reader pointed out that the three were not crossing at the crosswalk and therefore did not have the right of way, the gentleman accused him of putting the child in danger - when, in my reader's view, that is exactly what the two men themselves had done.

When my reader asked if he was attempting to teach the child to cross the street outside of the crosswalks, the older man called him an anatomically related expletive. My reader got back in his car and drove away.

Having cooled off, he still believes that, if pedestrians are going to cross outside of a crosswalk, it is their obligation to pick a time to cross that doesn't interfere with traffic.

"Did I have any obligation to stop and let them cross," he asks, "given that they were jaywalking?"

I agree with my reader that the two adults should have walked the extra 75 yards to the crosswalk before crossing the street. It would have been the best way to teach a young child how to cross a street, not to mention the most legal way to cross and the safest: Teaching a little boy to assume that cars will stop for him no matter when and where he may decide to cross a street could lay the groundwork for a tragedy.

But that's not the question my reader asked. He wants to know if he had any obligation to stop to let the jaywalkers pass, and here I don't agree with him: I believe that he should have stopped.

That he had the right of way is relevant from a legal point of view, but ethically it's beside the point. The fact is that for a very minor gain - the chance to teach the jaywalkers a lesson in traffic law - he took a very substantial risk. If he had misjudged the distance or his speed, or if the little boy or one of the other pedestrians had happened to slip or stumble, the results could have been catastrophic.

Since my reader had enough spare time to stop and challenge the man who yelled at him, it's clear that he wasn't rushing to some urgent appointment, and the fact that nobody rear-ended him when he slammed on his brakes to do so suggests that traffic wasn't heavy enough to make it dangerous to slow for the jaywalkers. He didn't let them pass simply because he was annoyed that they were abusing the right of way - and that's no excuse for a potential tragedy.

The right thing for my reader to do was to slow down, gritting his teeth at the injustice of it all, and let them cross. To endanger a child in order to prove his point that the other men were endangering a child doesn't pass the basic ethical requirement of proportionality. If he wanted to challenge the jaywalkers, the time to do so was after he had stopped for them, not after he had blown by them. By then their minor ethical lapse had been eclipsed by his major one.

c.2009 The New York Times Syndicate (Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate)

SOUND OFF: GREATER THAN ZERO

After initially suspending a first grader and requiring him to spend 45 days at an alternative school for having brought a camping knife to school _ he planned to eat his lunch with the knife's fork and spoon _ a Delaware school reassessed its position and suspended him for three to five days and required him to undergo counseling.

Of those readers responding to an unscientific poll on my column's blog, 65 percent believe that, based on the child's age and circumstances, the school was right to alter its ruling, while 35 percent believe that the school should have stuck to its zero-tolerance policy.

"School officials who come up with nonsense like `zero tolerance' policies have no business making rules for anyone," writes Maggie Lawrence of Culpepper, Va., "much less for children whose only intent with their so-called `weapon' is to eat their lunch."

"Our legislators need to drop these zero-tolerance overreactions and allow our schools the discretion they need to work properly," writes William Jacobson of Cypress, Calif.

"Let's have a little sympathy for the schools," another reader writes. "How high is up? How big is big? How sharp is sharp? Do we really need teachers measuring knives and making judgments about how sharp the blade is?"

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" (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(at)nytimes.com _ the (at) represents the symbol on your keyboard _ or to "The Right Thing," New York Times Syndicate, 630 Eighth Ave., 5th floor, New York, N.Y. 10018.

c.2009 The New York Times Syndicate (Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate)

Sunday, November 22, 2009

SOUND OFF: OPRAH'S KARAOKE CHALLENGE

Singer BeBe Winans taped several appearances on Oprah Winfrey's talk show. After promotions showing Winans aired, however, as well as one of the taped shows, some viewers complained about his appearance because domestic-violence charges brought against him by his ex-wife are still pending. Winfrey had banned singer Chris Brown from her show after he battered the singer Rihanna, his girlfriend at the time, and in response to the complaints Winans was removed from the show.

Was it right for Winfrey to ban Winans, given her long-standing concern about domestic abuse? Or was it wrong, given that he has denied the charges and the case won't be heard until January? Does it matter that he had already taped his segments for the show, or that the charges were widely known before he did so?

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 with 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," New York Times Syndicate, 620 Eighth Ave., 5th floor, New York, N.Y. 10018.

c.2009 The New York Times Syndicate (Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate)

THE RIGHT THING: DINING BY THE CLOCK

Every other Sunday, a reader in southern California heads to Hometown Buffet restaurant, the local franchise in a national chain that serves more than 160 million people a year at its buffet-style restaurants. He goes there to leisurely read his Sunday newspaper as he dines.

"I love the food and the atmosphere," he tells me.

Lately, however, he's been wondering whether his approach to dining there passes muster ethically.

"I time my arrival to occur just a few minutes before they stop serving breakfast and begin serving dinner," he writes. "I admit that I have no intention of eating breakfast."

He's there for roast beef, turkey, prime rib and other dinner items on the restaurant's all-you-can-eat buffet menu. By arriving in time to pay for breakfast and not dinner, however, my reader saves $4.

"I sit at my table and read for a few minutes before dinner is placed on the buffet tables," he writes. "That's when I get my food."

The only drawback to his well-wrought meal plan is that he has to wait a little while after arriving before he can enjoy his dinner.

"Customers who came later will be eating the same food as me," he says, "but paying a bit more."

My reader stresses that Hometown Buffet does not have any rule prohibiting what he's doing.

"Basically you pay and then sit down," he says, "and eat all you want from the buffet tables while you are there."

He wants to know if there's anything wrong with his dining strategy.

According to Hometown Buffets spokeswoman Diana Postemsky, my reader is right in thinking that the company leaves such judgments to the discretion of its diners.

"The vast majority of our guests come to our restaurants for a great meal and go home satisfied, looking forward to the next time that they visit," she tells me. "For over 25 years our guests have been the best judge of what is fair and appropriate, a system that has worked exceedingly well for us."

This question evokes another from several months ago, when I wrote in a column that I saw no ethical lapse in couples who share a refillable drink at a restaurant rather than buy individual beverages. Some readers took issue with my assessment that there is nothing wrong with such a practice unless the restaurant clearly indicates a one-refillable-drink-per-person policy.

I stand by my assessment, though, and apply the same thinking here, fully aware that a new flood of readers' wrath may soon pour down upon me.

In my opinion my buffet-loving reader is on even safer ethical ground than the drink-sharers. He is not sharing his meal or sneaking sides of roast beef out of the joint. He is merely timing his visit, much the way a senior crowd might flock to the early-bird specials at a restaurant, to take the fullest advantage of Hometown Buffet's offerings. If he can save four bucks in the process, more power to him.

The restaurant places no limits on how much a patron can eat nor on how long a visit can last, and it doesn't clear its dining rooms between meals. Unless it changes these policies, my reader need have no qualms about enjoying his fortnightly Sunday meal. And the right thing for Hometown Buffets to do is to continue to rely on its system of letting its customers determine what's "fair and appropriate," so long as it "works exceedingly well" for all concerned.

c.2009 The New York Times Syndicate (Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate)

Sunday, November 15, 2009

THE RIGHT THING: TAKING THE HIT

About a month ago I was sitting at my desk at my home office in Boston when the phone rang. It was my insurance broker.

"Mr. Seglin," my broker said, "we just got a call that your parked car has been hit."

Not the kind of call that one enjoys getting, but this one could have been much worse.

It turned out that some fellow had lost control of his steering and rammed full speed into the back of my vehicle.

My insurance broker had been called by an officer of the Boston Police Department. She wanted to make sure that I got the note that the driver had left tucked in the driver's-side door of my car.

My broker e-mailed me an incident report, and I walked over to assess the damage and fill in the form.

Most of the right rear side had been crumpled, as had the back bumper, and the taillight was broken. But it was nothing that couldn't be repaired.

And indeed, as my broker had said, the young driver who had hit my car had left a note with his contact information and his insurance-company information tucked in the door. As I was filling in the report, an older gentleman came over and handed me a Post-it note with the police-cruiser number on it.

I was happy that the driver had left me a note, of course, because it meant that I could get the car repaired without having to pay the deductible on my insurance.

The appraiser for the insurance company came out the next morning to assess the damage. He observed the same damage I had noted, but also remarked that the front bumper seemed to be damaged as well. I hadn't noticed the front-bumper damage originally, but I did point it out when I spoke to the body shop about the repairs.

A few weeks passed, and all seemed to be going well with the repairs.

Then I got a call from the insurance adjustor, questioning whether the damage to the front bumper had happened in the original accident, noting that neither I nor the appraiser had reported it initially.
"Did the front-bumper damage happen as a result of this accident?," the adjustor asked.

It would have been easy to simply say that it did. I hadn't spotted it before, and it was consistent with the car having been pushed forward into another car by the impact from the rear. But the truth was that I didn't know. I hadn't noticed it in my own inspection of the car after the accident, and it was possible that this fairly minor damage had occurred sometime previously.

"I don't know," I told the adjustor. "But I only noticed it after your appraiser pointed it out to me."

After a few days of hemming and hawing from the insurance company, the appraiser went back out to the body shop to reassess the front-bumper damage. He gave the body-shop people no clue whether or not he had concluded that the damage was the result of the accident.

But a few days later the appraiser called.

"Good news," he said. "We're covering the damage to the front of your car."

Rather than respond smugly, I thanked him. It was, after all, a rare occasion in life in which everybody did the right thing.

The appraiser did the right thing in pointing out some damage that I had overlooked, though it would have saved his company money to keep quiet about it. I did the right thing, if I say it myself, in acknowledging that I had no idea if this damage was the result of this accident, though it would have been to my advantage to insist that it was. The adjustor did the right thing in having his appraiser reassess the damage to resolve the conflicting information, rather than simply using my uncertainty as an excuse not to pay.

I can only assume that the appraiser's failure to list that damage on his report was a simple oversight, but in the end nobody was hurt by it.

And, lest we forget, everybody else in this story - the driver who left me his information, the office who went the extra mile to make sure that the information got to me and even the bystander who jotted down the police-car number - did the right thing.

That's very gratifying, especially in a situation that often brings out the worst in people.

c.2009 The New York Times Syndicate (Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate)

SOUND OFF: OUT OF THE PAST

On Sept. 26 Swiss authorities arrested Oscar-winning director Roman Polanski, a French citizen who was wanted in the United States on an old conviction for having sex with a 13-year-old girl: In 1978, in California, Polanski had pled guilty to one count of unlawful sex with a minor, but fled the country before being sentenced.

Of those readers responding to an unscientific poll on my column's blog, 88 percent believed that the nature of Polanski's crime requires that he pay the penalty, even 32 years after the fact and despite the fact that his victim has long since forgiven him and called for the dismissal of all remaining charges.

"He should finish whatever jail sentence he has," writes Carol Ludovise of Orange County, Calif. "He deserves no special treatment."

Mary Beth McCurdy of London, Ontario, agrees.

"American authorities should definitely pursue extradition of this predator," McCurdy writes. "The passage of time should in no way diminish the serious nature of this crime."

"The victim has publicly stated that she has forgiven Polanski," notes William Jacobson of Cypress, Calif., "not because he has done anything to deserve it - he hasn't - but rather because she didn't want this issue to destroy her. The public charges are not hers to forgive, though, and charges, once filed, have no statute of limitations and so will continue until justice is served."

"If Polanski were a poor, American black," Marilyn Johnson adds, "would we be asking this question?"

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.2009 The New York Times Syndicate (Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate)

Sunday, November 08, 2009

SOUND OFF: NEWLY MINTED ETHICS

Disgraced former New York Times reporter Jayson Blair, whose fabrications and plagiarism wreaked havoc on his readers, on his colleagues and on the newspaper industry as a whole, has tried to shift careers to become a "life coach." Recently Washington and Lee University's Journalism Ethics Institute invited him to deliver a talk called "Lessons Learned" in which he would discuss his misdeeds and what he has learned from them. The university presents Blair's talk as an opportunity for students to hear from someone who can speak to the "pressures and temptations" that face young journalists.

Is it right to offer a forum to someone whose professional transgressions may serve as a life lesson to future journalists? Or is it wrong to give a platform to someone guilty of such misdeeds?

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 with 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.2009 The New York Times Syndicate (Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate)

THE RIGHT THING: `HERE'S MONEY FOR X, BUT NOT FOR Y'

According to a survey conducted by The Chronicle of Philanthropy, the largest charitable organizations in the country are expecting their greatest drop in donations in the 17 years the journal has been collecting such data.

The expected drop for 2009 is 9 percent, after an uptick in contributions in 2008 of 1 percent, which itself was down from the 5-to-6-percent donation increases that these organizations had been experiencing for years. The latest data from Canada, collected in 2007, suggests that the Canadian rate of charitable giving was already flat even before the economy took its turn for the worse.

Not great news for organizations already pressed to continue to fulfill their charitable missions as funding gets scarcer.

It's reasonable to assume that donors, finding their own dollars stretched thinner, are looking longer and harder at the organizations to which they contribute. Issues of effective use of contributions come into play. Is an organization using too much of its money for overhead and not enough for the cause it was set up to champion? Is money going to efforts other than its primary mission? It's easier to check on such things nowadays with the help of Web sites such as www.charitynavigator.com, which evaluate how charities use their funds.

How much control, however, should you expect to have over your contribution once you give it to a charitable organization?

Sure, the money should never be used for a purpose that strays from the charity's stated mission. But what if only some parts of that mission are to your liking?

That's what's bothering a reader in Columbus, Ohio.

"Recently," she writes, "I found out that a charity I contribute to, which advertises itself as fighting a disease, gives some of the donations it receives to an organization which I do not want to support."

She e-mailed the organization to raise her concerns, but never received any response.

"If on future donations I include a request that any donations from me be used for the disease the group fights but not be donated to the other organization," she asks, "would the charity be obligated to honor my request?"

It's not unreasonable to hope that a charitable organization would take the time to respond to the concerns of its donors and indeed to honor any special requests that they may have. It's reasonable, but it's not mandatory.

A contribution made to the general funds of an organization can be spent as that organization sees fit. So long as that charity responsibly uses the money to champion its stated cause - rather than, say, funding terrorism or lavish lifestyles for its executives - it cannot be expected to wall off various parts of its activities because individual donors might favor one activity but not another. Given that different people have different likings, it could create an organizational and logistical nightmare.

This is a problem which has long vexed the federal government and, though individual taxpayers may ask that their money not be used to finance, say, wars or social programs with which they disagree, in reality all the money goes into one pot from which all federal programs are funded. Colleges face the same problem and often allow dedicated giving, especially to large donors.

In the case of charities, prospective donors are certainly within their rights to ask questions about how their money will be used, and the right thing for the charity to do is to respond to these queries - if not out of ethical concerns, at least because a donor who feels ignored is less likely to give again. My reader ought to have gotten a response to her e-mail, even if the answer wasn't what she wanted to hear.

The charity didn't ask me for advice, though, and my reader did.

The right thing for her to do is to donate her money to charitable organizations that do not spend money on things she finds distasteful. Rather than try to change the mission or practices of an organization that uses its funds in a way that she doesn't like, my reader would be better off investing her time and her funds in a charity that does.

c.2009 The New York Times Syndicate (Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate)

Sunday, November 01, 2009

THE RIGHT THING: GRANDMA PUT ONE OVER ON HIM

America is aging, they tell us, and apparently so are its con artists.

That's the word from a reader living outside Columbus, Ohio, who plaintively writes, "I was robbed by Grandma."

My reader and his wife held their first-ever yard sale in early September. The grandmother in question appeared as a customer, accompanied by her daughter and her grandson, who called himself "Blaze." Because the grandmother had selected several items for purchase, my reader gave her a discount on her purchases.

"I even threw in a couple of odd ball boxes to go with the items she was purchasing," he writes.

When the items were all gathered, the grandmother asked if she could pay with a check. My reader hesitated for a moment, but she assured him that she was local and so was her bank.

"So I trusted Grandma," he writes.

He helped Blaze, his mom and his grandmother load their items into their car, and they sped away.

Traffic was slow at the yard sale, so my reader decided to drive into town and cash Grandma's check, leaving his wife in charge at home. He pulled up to the bank's drive-through window, handed the endorsed check to the teller and, instead of the cash he expected, got a shock.

"Sorry," the teller told him. "There are no funds available for this account."

"You can imagine how I felt," he writes. "Talk about shock and awe. I just got hoodwinked by a grandma at our yard sale."

The teller gave back the check, and my reader noticed that there was a telephone number printed on it. When he called the number, however, he didn't get Grandma. The person who answered told him that the number had long since been reassigned, and added that she had received at least six calls that afternoon from people who had received bad checks.

When he returned home, red-faced, my reader got a scolding from his wife, who said that the experience was his own fault for accepting a personal check.

"Well, excuse me for trusting people," he writes. "Especially a grandma. I mean, she was with her daughter and grandson! What kind of example are you trying to set here, Grandma?"

Every day since the yard sale, my reader has called the bank to see if funds have been deposited to cover the check. Nothing.

He can't help wondering if his wife is right, that it's foolish to trust people, especially when it comes to taking personal checks.

"I mean, when you can't trust a grandma, whom can you trust?" he writes.

My reader's central issue here is not an ethical one. It may or may not be foolish to be scammed by a silver-haired grifter, but it's not unethical. She was the only unethical one in this story and, if she were to write for advice, I could certainly offer her a few pointers.

As far as my reader is concerned, his only ethical obligation is to report the incident to his local police. There's clearly the potential for widespread check kiting here, and other area residents should be alerted.

Personally, I don't think my reader's experience with this grandmother - if she really is one - should tarnish his trust in people. That one person took advantage of him does not mean that he should expect the same from all people or even most people. Every day millions of personal checks are cashed and clear.

That said, his wife has a point that accepting personal checks at yard sales from people he doesn't know is a risky business. Adopting a general policy of not accepting checks wouldn't be a declaration of distrust in humanity, merely a prudent precaution against the occasional bad apple.

Or he could continue to accept checks, realizing that now and then he'll probably get stung. There's no ethical mandate either way.

I myself would favor a no-checks policy, which doesn't have to be unduly harsh. The next time a grandma says that she doesn't have the cash for her purchases, he should offer to set aside her items for an hour or two while she goes home for the money or visits a bank.

And if he never sees her again, I doubt that would bother him much.

c.2009 The New York Times Syndicate (Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate)

SOUND OFF: PANTS ON FIRE?

Of the readers responding to an unscientific poll on my column's blog, 81 percent believed that Rep. Joe Wilson (R.-S.C.) was wrong to shout "You lie!" when President Barack Obama recently addressed Congress on health care. Wilson later apologized to the president for his outburst.

"Rep. Wilson was wrong to make the outburst in the joint session of Congress," one reader writes. "That he was correct - the president did not tell the truth - does not make the impulse appropriate."

"Wilson's apology does not make right his wrong outburst," writes William Jacobson of Cypress, Calif. "It was a breach of decorum that was wholly uncalled for."

The final word belongs to editorial cartoonist Randy Bish of The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, whose cartoon was sent to me by Max Maizels of Richmond, Va.: "If a man yells `You lie' in a room full of politicians, how do they know who he's talking to?"

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.2009 The New York Times Syndicate (Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate)

Sunday, October 25, 2009

SOUND OFF: SHOULD `ZERO' MEAN ZERO?

After initially suspending a Delaware first grader and requiring him to spend 45 days at an alternative school, for having brought a camping knife to school in order to eat his lunch with the knife's fork and spoon, the school has re-evaluated its position. Now he will be suspended for three to five days and undergo counseling.

The original punishment reflected the school's zero-tolerance policy for students who come to school with weapons of any kind. The revised policy came about after widespread media attention prompted the school to decide that a child's "cognitive level" should be considered in determining punishment in such cases.

Given the student's age and innocent intent, was the school right to alter its stance? Or is the zero-tolerance policy best, given that the camping knife could still have caused serious harm?

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 with 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.2009 The New York Times Syndicate (Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate)

THE RIGHT THING: NOT RECOMMENDED

The honor code for the United States Military Academy is a model of clarity.

"A Cadet will not lie, cheat, steal or tolerate those who do," it says.

When the lines are clearly drawn and it's simple to recognize lying, cheating or stealing, a West Point cadet should know what to do. But what about when the act in question falls into a decidedly gray area? How does a cadet make the call? And to what extent should a prospective cadet hold herself to the same standards?

One of my readers is the parent of a young woman in exactly that situation. My reader's daughter is a high-school senior applying for admission to four U.S. military service academies, for which purpose she has solicited letters of recommendation from a number of teachers she has had - necessary because each academy requires letters from both English and math teachers.
The daughter's junior-year math teacher recently retired, and the new math teacher deferred to her predecessor, rather than write a recommendation for a student whom she really hasn't had in class yet. That was fine ... at first.

The retired teacher wrote one hard-copy letter. The other institutions require electronic recommendations, however, so he is on the list to recommend her to the other three academies.

"Today she received an e-mail requesting a $20 check from this teacher who is not `agile' on the keyboard," my reader writes. "He asked that the check be made out to his daughter for formatting and writing the letter."

My reader feels that there is something amiss with his request, but she's wondering how to handle the situation ethically and, ideally, to make it a bona-fide "teachable moment" for her daughter.

Adding to the problem is that she has little time to ponder the issue: The deadline for recommendations is Nov. 1.

If he finds the technology too baffling, the former math teacher would be well within his rights to decline the request to write an online recommendation. No teacher is obligated to write a recommendation for a student. In fact, if a prospective recommender did not think highly of a student's academic work, she might be doing him a favor by declining - though that's not the case here.

Regardless of his intent, however, it is inappropriate for him to request any compensation for writing a recommendation for a former student. If my reader's daughter forks over the $20, whether to the former teacher or to his daughter, a reasonable observer might conclude that she was buying a recommendation, rather than receiving it on the merits of her work. My reader is right to be uncomfortable with the situation, and right to worry that it might not pass muster with any military academy's honor code if it were to come out.

The right thing for my reader and her daughter to do is to explain these concerns to the teacher and ask him to forgo the $20. If, out of concern for his daughter or for any other reason, he doesn't see it this way, they should thank him and find another teacher to write her math recommendation. Perhaps, under the circumstances, the new teacher would be willing to talk with her predecessor and write a recommendation combining both viewpoints.

It may be hard to find a new recommender on such short notice, but it's a worthwhile effort. It's not too soon for her daughter to be living up to the standards of the academies she seeks to join, and this experience should be helpful to her in considering future gray-area situations that may arise.

The retired teacher didn't ask me for advice. If he had, though, I'd have told him that, if he's having trouble with the online technology but wants to write the letter, the right thing for him to do would be to seek assistance from the school. Quite likely, someone in the guidance office would be willing to help him input his recommendation and/or give him a tutorial for future reference.

As for the school, the guidance office should make clear to all teachers that asking for compensation for recommendations, regardless of the rationale for the request, is unacceptable. A teacher asked for a recommendation can fairly say "Yes" or "No," but not "If ... "

Incidentally, speaking as one who has written his share of recommendations, it's perfectly all right for a student to pay for postage for a hard-copy recommendation, ideally by providing a stamped, addressed envelope for that purpose. Postage is steeper than it used to be, and some teachers end up writing dozens of recommendations. The commitment of time and attention is enough - no recommender should have to foot the bill to send a letter, although many of us end up doing so.

c.2009 The New York Times Syndicate (Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate)

Sunday, October 18, 2009

THE RIGHT THING: THE RIGHT CANDIDATE WITH THE WRONG IDEAS

How many of you, I wonder, deplore the state of education in your country ... but adore the teachers who work with your kids at your local school?

How about politicians? As a group they rank low in positive ratings, but as individuals they keep getting re-elected. Do you hate politicians ... but love your local representative?

Years ago, when I was dissecting the results of a poll about workers' attitudes toward work, the findings suggested a similar disconnect: Workers thought that workers' situations were miserable ... but the majority of them were satisfied with their own jobs.

Benjamin R. Barber, a political scientist whom I interviewed at the time, referred to this phenomena as a "halo effect."

"You know," he said, "people hate Congress except for their own congressperson."

Barber's observation came to mind when I received an e-mail from a reader asking me a question about a friend whom he described as "very conservative" in his politics.

"My friend can't stand the politics of his liberal U.S. senator," my reader writes, nothing that he's particularly unsympathetic to the senator's stance on gay rights.

Years ago, however, when the friend faced a lawsuit that threatened to make him responsible for a deceased family member's debts, he turned to his senator for help after exhausting all other resources. The Senator quickly intervened, and the suit was settled in the friend's favor - "for which," my reader writes, "he is very grateful."

As a result the friend continues to vote for this senator every time she's on the ballot, even though he dislikes everything she stands for.

My reader understands that his friend might see voting against this particular senator as "biting the hand that feeds you," he writes. "But who's to say that another senator might not have been able to accomplish the same thing?"

Wouldn't it have been better, he wonders, for his friend simply to tell others about how his senator had helped him out and write her a sincere note of thanks - but nevertheless to vote in accordance with his conscience?

My reader suggests his friend should write something along these lines: "I appreciate that you, like all good members of Congress, serve your constituents regardless of their political positions, but since I am diametrically opposed to virtually everything you stand for, I'm sorry that I cannot in good conscience vote for you in the next election."

"Where should the line be drawn between standing by values central to your very being and ignoring them in gratitude for a moneysaving favor provided by a big shot that you otherwise regard with contempt?" he asks. "What's the right thing to do?"

My reader makes a good point. If you believe that an elected official in no way reflects your personal values, you shouldn't vote for him or her.

That's not really the case with his friend, though. Political beliefs reflect values, but they aren't the only values out there. Americans have a long history of voting for candidates whom they admire as people, even if they are unaware of the candidates' positions on particular issues or are opposed to those positions. Sometimes one set of values trumps another.

Clearly his friend places a higher priority than does my reader on the values reflected in his senator's effort to help him. Gratitude and loyalty weigh more heavily for him, and political compatibility less heavily, than they do for my reader.

Our values are shaped early in life. While the priorities we place on our values may change, depending on where we are in our lives, the values themselves hold pretty steady throughout. My reader's friend hasn't changed his principles as a result of the favor his senator did for him _ he's simply revealed them.

My reader's friend didn't ask me how to vote, and if he did I would never try to tell him. If he's decided that the help he got from his senator makes her worthy of his vote, then voting for her is the right thing for him to do.

As to my reader, I'd advise him to lighten up on this. We all cast our votes for a variety of reasons, and those reasons are our own. The important thing is to vote, not to vote for any particular candidate or for any particular reason.

My reader's friend is meeting his societal obligation, and my reader should leave it there.

c.2009 The New York Times Syndicate (Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate)

SOUND OFF: LYING ON BLOGS

Of those readers responding to an unscientific poll on my column's blog, 36 percent believed that was OK for Julie Powell, the based-on-fact character in the movie Julie and Julia, to make up anything she wants on her blog. It is her personal expression, they said, and is read only by those who choose to read it.

Most of the respondents - 63 percent, to be exact - disagreed.

"I don't know which is sillier, the premise for the movie or the attempt to cover up the recipe failure and the machinations with the spouse and her boss using the supposed personal nature of a personal blog," writes Charlie Seng of Lancaster, S.C.

Dagmar Roman of New Windsor, N.Y., agrees.

"A lie is a lie is a lie," Roman writes. "No matter if it's to your boss or in a blog. Once I find that someone has lied, for whatever reason, I can never entirely trust them again."

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.2009 The New York Times Syndicate (Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate)

Sunday, October 11, 2009

SOUND OFF: THE LONG MEMORY OF THE LAW

On Sept. 26 Swiss authorities arrested Oscar-winning director Roman Polanski, a French citizen who was wanted in the United States for having sex with a 13-year-old girl. In 1978 Polanski pleaded guilty to one count of unlawful sex with a minor in California, but fled the country before being sentenced. Given that the victim of his crime has publicly forgiven Polanski, is it wrong for American prosecutors to continue to pursue his extradition? Or does the nature of his crime require that he pay the penalty, even 32 years after the fact?

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 with 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.2009 The New York Times Syndicate (Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate)

THE RIGHT THING: LABELED A TARGET

Several years ago, when I was an editor for a magazine, a photographer who worked there gave me an old-fashioned, oversized mailbox that he had spray-painted gray for a photo shoot that had accompanied a column I wrote. It's the type of mailbox you attach to a stake in the ground, and it came complete with a red flag for the mail carrier to raise when making a delivery.

I thought it would be nice to attach the mailbox to my house, even though that wasn't its intended purpose, so I drilled a few holes in its side and screwed the box into the shingles to the left of the top step of my front stoop.

The problem is that, when a great deal of mail is stuffed into the box, the screws sometime pull away from the house and the box falls onto the concrete step below.

This is particularly annoying to me when unsolicited mail is the culprit, so I have no fondness for all of those tokens sent by charities in an effort to entice you to contribute, including greeting cards and personalized mailing labels.

A reader from Calgary, Alberta, probably has a different kind of mailbox, but has the same kind of question: If an unsolicited charity sends you "a nice packet" of personalized address labels to convince you to donate, but you don't donate, is it legitimate to keep and use the labels? Or, he asks, "Do you have to throw them in the trash?"

Given their tendency to overtax my mailbox, I wouldn't use the word "nice" to describe any of these unsolicited items. Clearly, however, my reader has no such aversion and would like to use the labels, if he can do so without stepping over the ethical line.

"Part of me says that, whether or not I donate, the company would figure this into their marketing strategy," he writes. "The other part of me says, `Donate or deep-six it.'"

The charitable organization sending those lovely labels obviously would appreciate his donating if he's going to use them, but he's under no obligation to do so. Obligations are assumed through mutual consent, not imposed, and there's no such agreement here. The labels came unsolicited and without any way to return them if he chooses not to donate. Moreover, the charity that sent the labels, like most such charities, in no way suggests that a donation is essential to keep the labels. They are a gift _ a gift made in the hope of prompting a gift in return, but nonetheless a gift.

Some such labels bear an inscription implying that the sender has given to the charity, which would send an insincere message if used by a non-donor. That's not the case here, however. The labels simply feature his name and address.

When I told my reader that it is perfectly OK for him to use the labels, whether or not he donates, he added an extra question: "What do you do, if I might ask?"

Sorry, I have no Solomonic solution to offer.

"I can't stand those labels and never use them," I told him, "so I throw them out whether I donate to the charity or not."

The right thing for him to do is to use the labels if he wants to and to donate to whatever charities he finds worthy. The two have nothing to do with each other, whether or not the charity in question wants him to think so.

c.2009 The New York Times Syndicate (Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate)

Can reader turn lost vacation into charitable deduction?

The reports of the effects of Hurricane Maria hitting Puerto Rico were devastating. Electricity lost. Homes destroyed and streets flo...