Sunday, August 30, 2009

SOUND OFF: OUT OF BOUNDS?

On Aug. 13 the Philadelphia Eagles signed a one-year contract with Michael Vick, former quarterback for the Atlanta Falcons. As nearly everyone knows, Vick had been released by the Falcons after being arrested for involvement in illegal dogfighting. Vick served a 23-month prison sentence for his crimes, and will remain on probation for three years.

Some observers argue that Vick's crime was heinous enough that he should not be allowed to play professional football again. Others insist that, having done his time for the crime, there's nothing wrong with him signing with any team that will have him. What do you think?

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: DO WHAT I MEAN, NOT WHAT I SAY

A reader in the state of Washington planned to move to a furnished condominium in southern Florida, one owned by a friend of hers.

For several years the friend had tried to rent out the condo seasonally, but without any luck, leaving it to sit idle for at least 10 months of the year. She offered to rent it to my reader, at whatever rent she was paying for her apartment in Washington, from October through May. The arrangement was to start this October.

"She sent me an e-mail at the end of July to the effect that it was settled," my reader writes. "The place was ready and waiting for my arrival."

It seemed like an ideal arrangement. The condo owner could visit my reader occasionally, even when she didn't use the apartment herself, while my reader could rent the place at a price far below market rates. What could go wrong?

"We discussed and agreed that the rental agent needed to be told that the place was no longer available," my reader writes, "which she said she would do."

As it turns out, she never did.

The two talked almost every week, and my reader told her friend about the progress she was making in packing for Florida and planning the drive from the West Coast. She had given notice to her landlord, rented storage space and given away furniture. She even told her friend that she had lined up someone else to rent her apartment in Washington.

"Then one morning, recently, she calls me to say that something incredible happened," my reader writes.

The friend had forgotten to tell her rental agent that the apartment was unavailable, and the agent had found a couple who wanted to rent the place for the same eight months. At full price.

"My friend asked me what she should do," my reader writes. "I told her that she should go ahead with the rental, because I did not want to be the cause of a loss of the full rent."

While the friend apologized, she ultimately decided to go ahead with the new, full-price renters.

Though she had told her friend to do this, my reader is nonetheless upset and disappointed. She believes that it was wrong for her friend to ask her what to do, and blames her friend for the various complications she has to unravel, now that she's staying in Washington.

She has every right to be upset and disappointed at losing out on the apartment she had agreed to rent. Her friend obviously should have contacted the rental agent as she had promised to do.

When the other offer appeared, however, her friend was not wrong to ask my reader's opinion on what she should do. Asking for help with a tough decision is never a bad idea _ if only because it keeps ethics columnists in business.

The failure here, obviously, was on my reader's part. If she felt that her friend would be wrong to take advantage of the new opportunity, which clearly she did feel, she ought to have said so. By not saying so, and indeed by giving her friend the opposite advice, she forfeited the moral high ground here.

Her friend did her the dirty, yes, but she did it with her own permission. I can't blame the condo owner for taking her friend's advice at face value.

The right thing for my reader to do, when her friend asked, was to say that she ought to stick to the agreement they had. She might also have reminded her friend of all the preparations she had made for the move.

It would have been wrong for the friend to jump at the chance for a higher rent as soon as she heard from the rental agent. It might have been best for her to simply turn down the second offer, but I don't blame her for turning to her friend for advice. It's a pity that my reader responded with insincere advice that not only cost her her place in the sun but also put their friendship in jeopardy.

Had my reader told her friend what she really thought, she probably would have ended up spending the next eight months in that condo in Florida, instead of in high dudgeon in Washington.

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

Sunday, August 23, 2009

THE RIGHT THING: STOP SPREADING THE NEWS?

What's the right thing to do when the ethical obligations of citizenship seem to conflict with professional objectivity?

A reader in North Carolina serves as an unpaid committee of one handling communications for the board of his homeowner's association. In this capacity he has collected the e-mail addresses of the 60 or so members of the association in order to distribute the HOA newsletter, in which he conveys announcements of events, security concerns or anything else of "probable resident interest."

My reader is not a member of the HOA's board of directors, but his efforts have had the board's approval.

"I have had nothing but positive feedback on my efforts as the chairman of the one-person Communications Committee," he says.

He has no idea how others in his upper-middle-class community feel about health-care reform, but he says that, having actually read some of the proposed reform bills winding their way through Congress, he has "serious reservations" about them. He has been thinking about getting together a group of his neighbors to discuss the issues of the day, and in particular health care.

He'd like to explore his neighbors' interest in getting together for such a purpose, to see "if anybody had any ideas on how best to express our opinions," and is considering using that e-mail list - but not the newsletter itself - to see what people think.

In the past my reader has been approached by people who wanted the HOA's e-mail list for commercial purposes, and he always has turned them down, pointing out that the e-mails are available on the community Web site.

Given these past refusals, he wonders if it would be "ethical for me to send out an e-mail _ disclaiming any HOA board involvement _ to see what interest it generates."

He recognizes that to do so would open him to possible criticism, and has considered instead printing a flyer and distributing it by hand, at his own expense, to gauge his neighbors' interest.

My reader's worries about the appropriateness of using the e-mail addresses for his own purposes is creditable to him. As long as he makes clear what he's doing, however, there's no reason that he shouldn't use the e-mail addresses. After all, as he says, they are available to any member of the association - including himself - on its Web site.

He is wary of using the newsletter or its e-mail list to advance his own personal views, and rightly so. If he were to send the members an e-mail laying out his position on health-care reform or, worse, if he put his opinions into the newsletter itself, that would indeed be overstepping his bounds.

The whole purpose of the newsletter is to announce upcoming events and issues of interest to the broader membership, however. If he proposes to organize a community meeting to discuss health-care reform or any other public issues, there's no reason not to use the newsletter to publicize that meeting.

If some other member were staging it, he'd obviously include it in the newsletter. Sensitivity about conflict of interest does not extend to denying himself the basic rights of membership.

The right thing for my reader to do is to organize the meeting, working to ensure that it is not merely a platform for his views but rather an exploratory session to which those with views on any side of the issue are welcome. He can then announce it in the newsletter, confining himself to the when-and-where of the meeting and its general topic, and not laying out any pros or cons on the issues involved.

To do so will not only steer clear of ethical issues where the newsletter is concerned, but also fit well with the ethical obligations of citizenship.

At the meeting itself, of course, he is free to lay out his own feelings on the issue.

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

SOUND OFF: PAYING TO REMEMBER THE KING OF POP

Of the readers who responded to an informal poll on my column's blog, two-thirds thought that Michael Jackson's estate should cover the cost of his multimillion-dollar memorial service, which was held at the Staples Center in Los Angeles. Only 8 percent thought that the City of Los Angeles should foot the bill.

"It appalls me that the city would allow this to go forward," writes William Jacobson of Cypress, Calif., "without a whimper beforehand on who would pick up the tab, in the shadow of the Lakers parade, where the city specifically said that they would not pick up the tab (and that it) needed to be paid for out of private donations _ and was."

"The expenses to the City of Los Angeles connected to the Michael Jackson memorial services should be paid by the Michael Jackson estate," writes Jan Bohren of Dobbs Ferry, N.Y., "but the city has an obligation to tell any party what the expenses might be prior to the event."

"What about the media giants who filmed and televised the memorial?," another reader asks. "Shouldn't they step up and help foot the bill through donation of royalties?"

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, August 16, 2009

THE RIGHT THING: IT TAKES A THIEF

Two years ago, while she was at a hockey game, a reader had her car broken into.

"There wasn't a lot for them to steal," she writes, "but they did get my collection of CDs that was in the car."

As bad luck would have it, she had only recently started listening to CDs in her car, but had grown used to leaving them there.

"Then they broke in and took them all!," she writes.

Altogether she lost 20 to 30 of her favorite CDs. None of what was stolen was covered by her insurance company, nor was the cost of replacing the broken window, because of her policy's high deductible. If she replaces the CDs, therefore, she will have to shell out for duplicate copies of music that she's already bought.

"I've been avoiding buying new ones to replace the lost ones," she writes. "I just didn't want to spend the money, because I knew I would be afraid to leave them in the car again."

Recently, however, she has begun to think about investing in an MP3 player for her car. She'd like to load onto her MP3 player some of the music that was on the stolen CDs, but money is tight right now and she's reluctant to spend the money to replace the stolen CDs.

You can probably guess where this is going: My reader's husband suggested that she borrow those same CDs from the library, make copies of them and then download them to her MP3 player.

"His reasoning was that, because I had already paid for the original CDs and it wasn't my fault that they were stolen, I wouldn't be infringing on the copyright," she writes.

She's not convinced, however.

"I think it would still be wrong," she writes. "I think I still need to pay for new copies of the music.

"What do you think?"

Longtime readers of my column may remember that I have addressed the acceptability of making unauthorized copies of copyrighted material - such as CDs but also books, DVDs, computer programs etc. - in the past. My stance has been consistent: There is no ethical justification for copying and making use of the work of others without either obtaining their permission or paying for the privilege of doing so.

Borrowing a legitimate copy from a library or from a friend is fine, so long as you plan merely to listen to it and then return it. Making illegal copies of your own, or downloading someone else's illegal copies, is not. It's stealing from the record company and from the artists who created the music and are entitled to royalties.

This is the first time, though, that I've had a reader tell me that she's considering duplicating CDs because her legal ones were stolen. Nor have I previously encountered the husband's argument that having legitimately purchased the original CDs and lost them through a sad twist of fate justifies making illegal copies of the local library's holdings.

Nice try, but those facts don't change the ethics of making illicit copies. It's still wrong.

My reader's husband is guilty of the all-too-common tendency to regard intellectual property as somehow less "real" than physical property. If the thieves had stolen my reader's car, I doubt that her husband would be encouraging her to steal someone else's car to make up for it, though it's not her fault that her legitimately purchased car was stolen. He probably wouldn't want her to shoplift replacement CDs. But somehow stealing someone's song doesn't seem the same as stealing someone's car or someone's CD.

It is the same, though. The right thing for my reader to do _ as she appears to realize - if she wants to replace her stolen music is either to buy new copies of the CDs or to buy the individual songs online so that she can play them on her MP3 player.

It's sad that she was the victim of a theft, but she's right in thinking that the answer to her problem is not some thievery of her own.¶

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

SOUND OFF: SURFING FOR SERMONS

Jeff Strickler, a religion reporter for The Minneapolis Star-Tribune, recently wrote about a number of online Web sites that provide ministers of various denominations with either outlines or fully written sermons to be delivered as their own. These online offerings are a new twist on the older tradition of printed books of sermons to which ministers can refer for inspiration.

Assuming that the writers of the sermons on these Web sites have given their permission for their work to be used in this way, is it OK for ministers to take advantage of these databases? Does it make a difference whether or not they acknowledge that the sermon is partially or entirely someone else's work?

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)

Sunday, August 09, 2009

THE RIGHT THING: CAN MOM CHANGE MY ALLOWANCE?

"Am I being greedy?"

That's how a reader in New York begins his e-mail message to me. He asks because, according to his mother, he is indeed being a greedy son.

His 75-year-old mother has decided to begin distributing her assets to her three children while she is still alive. She began the process nine years ago, and told her offspring that she would give the money based on "a principle of equality."

Until recently my reader had received $5,000 a month from his mother. His sister received $6,000 a month and his brother $4,000 a month.

My reader and his brother are currently unemployed. The brother received an interest-free loan from their mother for a real-estate deal, something my reader says he also asked for but was denied. His sister owns a sizable business and has significant assets of her own, including homes and cars.

From 2003 through 2005, my reader says, he received $6,000 a month, the same as his sister. His mother lowered the number, however, because his expenses were lower than those of his sister, who pays private-school tuition for her children.

Now, because of the recession, their mother has decided to stop giving any money to my reader or to his brother. She continues, however, to give $6,000 a month to their sister to cover her children's tuition.

Seeing this as unfair, my reader told his mother that, if she is going to distribute the assets of her estate to his sister, she should do the same for him and his brother.

His mother's response: Don't be greedy.

"Am I really greedy?," he writes. "Any greedier than my brother or sister?"

Is he being greedy? I don't know - that's a question of motivation that only he can answer. I'm not even prepared to make a judgment call on whether he's acting greedy, which is a slightly different question.

The ethical question here is whether the mother of these three adult children is acting fairly in the way she's doling out her assets or whether her son is justified in feeling that he's being discriminated against.

I don't believe he is. It's her money, and she is entitled to distribute it any way she wants, whether in her will or while she's still alive.

So she isn't acting unethically, which isn't to say that she's acting wisely. By doling out cash disbursements to her children on an ongoing basis, by giving different amounts to different children and by changing the ground rules as she goes along, she's inviting rifts among her children and between her and them. Whether she's consciously manipulating them by making them dependent upon her or merely failing to see the consequences of her approach, it's a recipe for problems.

None of which changes the fact that this choice is hers and hers alone to make. There is no rule that says that what you give one child, you must give another. It would be unreasonable to ask my reader not to feel slighted when a monthly check goes to his sister but not to him, but he isn't being cheated. He's not entitled to any of her money simply because he's her son.

In retrospect, the right thing for the son to do would have been not only to live on the substantial stipend he has been receiving for the past nine years but also to put a little aside in case the well ever ran dry.

As it is, the right thing for him to do is to be grateful for what he has been given, to appreciate anything he may be given in the future and, in the meantime, to figure out a way to stand on his own two feet. If he can manage that, his cutoff of funds may be the best thing his mother ever gave him.

His mother didn't ask for my advice. If she had, though, I'd have told her that the right thing for her to do is to make a decision about what she wants to do with her money, make that decision clear to her children and then stick to it. She's free to do with her money whatever she likes, but even the least popular decision will cause less turmoil than a constantly changing plan.

If her children don't like the way she's going about it, though, they would do well to learn to live within their own means, insulating themselves from their mother's whims, over which they do not now have and will not ever have any real control.

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

SOUND OFF: BEHIND THE VEIL

Sixty-five percent of the readers who responded to an informal poll on my column's blog believe that President Nicolas Sarkozy of France was right to tell his country's parliament that "The burqa is not welcome on French territory." They share his assessment that that garment, worn by some Muslim women to cover their entire bodies, is "a sign of enslavement and debasement."

"I, for one, applaud Sarkozy for his courage in standing up against this anathema to personal freedom," one reader writes.

"President Sarkozy made the right choice in expressing that France is no place for burqas," agrees Sjoerd Bakker of Ontario. "Numerous freethinking, well-educated Muslim women and men ... have proven the argument that the burqa is not a religious symbol but a device for repressing women's rights and freedom."

But Maggie Lawrence of Culpepper, Va., disagrees.

"If any person wants to cover themselves from head to toe in public, I don't care, as long as they aren't disguising their identity for the purpose of crime," Lawrence writes. "For Sarkozy to say, `The burqa is not welcome on French territory,' strikes me as smug and self-righteous."

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, August 02, 2009

SOUND OFF: TAINTED FUNDS

Financier Bernard Madoff has been sentenced to 150 years in prison for swindling billions from investors. In his blog for The New York Times, Steven M. Davidoff notes that many unsuspecting charities may have received money from Madoff, money that was not rightfully his.

If these charities benefited from Madoff's crimes, Davidoff wonders, do they have a moral or legal obligation to give back the money? Or, if they had no knowledge of his misdeeds, should the charities keep every cent?

What do you think?

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: WELCOME HOME, THERE'S THE DOOR

After a year's tour of duty in Afghanistan, a member of the National Guard recently returned home to the United States.

It wasn't his first tour overseas, and he expected that, as in the past, he would be able to return to the civilian job he had left.

But, according to a regular reader of this column in whom he confided, he discovered that his regular job had been filled in his absence and that his employer had no other job for him.

"I was surprised to learn this," my reader writes, "because I thought that, by law, his employer had to offer him the same job or a similar one when he got back."

What makes this an ethical issue, rather than a legal dispute? Well, the guardsman's civilian employer was ... the National Guard itself.

Perplexed by his situation, the guardsman went to speak with the judge-advocate group designated by the National Guard to handle re-entry issues. He was told that his understanding of the law was correct: If they meet the eligibility requirements of the Uniformed Services Employment and Re-employment Rights Act, members of the National Guard returning from active duty are entitled to re-employment in the civilian job they had before leaving to serve.

"They told him that he indeed did have a case," my reader writes. "But, since his old civilian job was also with the National Guard, they advised him not to pursue it, because it might hamper his long-term career with the Guard!"

She is "simply incensed," my reader adds, "that someone who has served and continues to serve honorably is treated so horribly."

Her ethical question is not whether the National Guard is wrong for not providing him with the opportunity to return to the job he had left.

"That's pretty obvious," she writes.

Her question is rather what, if anything, she should do about it.

"On the one hand," she writes, "I can sympathize with his plight and mind my business. I do not want to jeopardize his career. On the other hand I feel pretty strongly that what has been done to him is not only wrong but also against the law.

"What are your thoughts?"

It will be no surprise that, as almost anybody would, I agree with my reader that it's unconscionable that the National Guard - or any employer, for that matter - would not honor its legal obligation to hold a returning serviceman's job while he served his tour of duty for his country.

It makes matter even worse that those who are designated to protect his rights appear to be advising him not to exercise those rights in order not to make waves.

That said, my reader's proper course of action is to do nothing.

The guardsman has made clear to my reader that, because he would like to continue to serve in the National Guard, he has "made peace" with the issue and plans to look for another job elsewhere to support his young family.

He told his story to my reader in confidence and asked her to keep it to herself, so she has an obligation to honor that request.

Yes, it stinks that he returned home to find that the job he had every reason to believe would be waiting for him had vanished, especially since it was the National Guard itself that failed to respect his service. But it is up to him to decide if he wants to pursue what is rightly his or to let the matter ride.

Like my reader, I think that the National Guard has failed to live up to its standards and that the judge advocate has acted shamefully, but it isn't up to either of us to decide what should be done, because we aren't the injured party.

If this young man came to me and asked me for advice, I would tell him that I believe he should try to get his job back, not only for himself and his family but also for the sake of other guardsmen who might face the same situation in the future.

He isn't the one who came to me, though. That was my reader, who is not directly involved in the situation. The right thing for her to do is to stand aside and let the guardsman decide his future for himself.

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

College food fight gets messy

This fall, a teenager, let's call him Ken, has been settling in as a freshman at a large state university. Three months in, he appe...