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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)