Sunday, September 06, 2009

SOUND OFF: WHERE'D YOU GET THAT MONEY?

Financier Bernard Madoff has been sentenced to 150 years in prison for swindling billions from investors, millions of which he gave to various charities. Of readers responding to an unscientific poll on my column's blog, 52 percent believed that unsuspecting charities that benefited from Madoff's crimes but had no knowledge of his misdeeds should keep every cent they received. It was one of my most closely divided surveys, however, with 47 percent feeling that the charities have a moral obligation to give back the money.

"Unless the charities had reason to suspect that the money was tainted," writes Phil Clutts of Harrisburg, N.C., "they don't `owe' it to the deceived Madoff investors, many if not most of whom, after all, were seeking almost unconscionable profits."

"The charities had no way of knowing the circumstances of how the funds were earned," agrees Charlie Seng of Lancaster, S.C., "so the charities don't owe the Madoff investors anything. We seem to have, as a society, reached the point where anyone who has ever suffered a reversal in fortunes, for whatever reason, feels that they must be made whole."

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)

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