Sunday, January 31, 2010

SOUND OFF: LOOTER OR HERO?

In an article he wrote for the Web site True/Slant, Jerry Lanson - a colleague of mine at Emerson College - took issue with The New York Times for referring to "looting" at a collapsed grocery store in Haiti after the recent earthquake. Lanson questioned whether it counts as looting if you're acting to feed yourself and your family by taking food "that will rot in time from the shelves or floor of a collapsed grocery store." He went on to write, "One man's looter is another's humanitarian or mother or father."

Is it wrong to refer to those who took food from collapsed grocery stores in the aftermath of the Haitian earthquake as "looters?" Or does the word accurately describe the action, regardless of the circumstances?

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.2010 The New York Times Syndicate (Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate)

THE RIGHT THING: CAN PAY, BUT WON'T

One of the byproducts of the recent financial turmoil has been a precipitous drop in home values in the United States. As a result some homeowners are finding that the value of their houses is less than the amount they owe on their mortgages.

A reader from West Virginia writes inquiring about the ethics of homeowners who default on mortgages that they can still afford to pay, but choose not to, because the underlying property values have dropped so precipitously that it is financially preferable simply to walk away.

"Is this kind of `strategic default' blameworthy because it constitutes a failure to keep a promise?" my reader asks. "Or, since the borrower is willing to accept the contractually mandated consequences of defaulting, is it simply a reasonable economic response to the invisible hand of the marketplace?"

My reader is not asking whether a cost/benefit analysis justifies doing something illegal or dishonest, as one reader did recently after I wrote a column in which I held that falsifying or embellishing information given to a landlord is wrong. After that column appeared, one reader e-mailed: "I had a professor ... who once told me that `The cost of not lying on a resume exceeds the cost of lying.'"

His professor's point, that reader wrote, was that, if you don't lie in such circumstances, you're less likely to get the job. If you do lie, "then your cost is limited to losing the job you couldn't have gotten times the relatively low probability of being found out."

So, he concluded, "lying is the recommended policy."

From an ethical perspective, such a policy is bankrupt. "Whatever works" is no foundation for an ethical philosophy, and this approach is likely not only to land you in a job that you're incapable of doing well but also to deprive some qualified candidate of the job. Even if it works, which seems unlikely, it's still not close to ethical.

My West Virginia reader's question, however, makes no suggestion of lying or skirting the law. The practice he describes is unquestionably legal. The question is, is something ethical simply because it's legal?

If a homeowner cannot afford to make payments on her mortgage and cannot sell her house at a price that will yield enough cash to pay off the mortgage so that she can move on, she may be left with no choice but to default on the mortgage and turn over the house to the bank. There's obviously nothing wrong with this from an ethical standpoint.

A key component of my reader's question, however, is that he's talking about homeowners who "can still afford to pay, but choose not to." It may be a reasonable economic decision to walk away from the property - after all, who wants to get stuck making payments on something that's no longer worth what you're paying for it? - but is it ethically acceptable?

I think not. A mortgage agreement is not a promise to do one of two things, either to make the payments or to give up the house. It's a promise to make the payments, period. Giving up the house to the bank is a penalty for not keeping the promise, not one option within the promise.

In this regard the situation is comparable to the law: The fact that the law provides a penalty for, say, stealing someone's car doesn't mean that a person can ethically choose to steal the car if he is prepared to accept the penalty. The requirement of the law is not to steal the car, and the implied promise of citizenship is to obey the law, not to weigh the costs and benefits of breaking it.

Every mortgage comes with the risk that the value of the home may go down during the course of the mortgage, and the homeowner knows that going in. It's true that, for a number of years prior to the current crisis, home prices reliably increased, but there's never any guarantee of that.

The homeowner promised to make the payments, in return for which the bank advanced the purchase price of the house. The bank has lived up to its share of the agreement, and the right thing for the homeowner to do, if he can afford to make the payments, is to live up to his end.

From a practical point of view, to default on the obligation would wreak havoc on his credit rating - but, even if that weren't the case, he still has made a binding commitment. He should honor that commitment as long as he's financially able to do so.

c.2010 The New York Times Syndicate (Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate)

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Real Simple Ethics Quiz

Real Simple magazine features a column on everyday ethical challenges I wrote for the magazine's "Expertise" section.

On it's website, the magazine has developed an online quiz that corresponds to the column in the magazine.

You can take the online quiz by clicking here.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

THE RIGHT THING: IT'S MY PARTY - SHOULD I PAY IF I DON'T WANT TO

You're at a party at your friend's house. Well, a reader of mine is at a party at her friend's house. It's a swell event, a birthday party for the friend's roommate.

All is going well until one of the party guests spills a drink on the friend's month-and-a-half-old netbook computer, which had set her back about $300. The spilling guest offers to pay to replace the netbook, but the friend really doesn't think that he can afford to do so. Five or six others at the party, including the roommate whose birthday is being celebrated, offer to chip in for a replacement.

"Is it ethical for my friend to actually take any money from anyone for a new netbook?" my reader asks. "My friend feels guilty about taking any money, and I'm conflicted as well, so we'd love to know what you think as an ethics expert."

My reader wonders if such offers are actually meant to be accepted, or if they are more of a courtesy.

"There really seems to be some kind of social pressure not to take money from friends," she writes.

The short answer to my reader's question is that there would be no ethical lapse if her friend took the money offered to replace the netbook, whether it came from the person who spilled the drink or from the group en masse.

If you wreck something, offering to replace it is the responsible thing to do. Other guests have no obligation to chip in - but they have no obligation not to and, if they make the offer and the friend accepts, it doesn't reflect poorly on anyone involved. The friend certainly is not under any obligation not to accept, and should not feel any shame if she does.

It's possible, of course, that the people offering to help out are secretly hoping that their offer will be declined, but we can't go through life looking gift horses in the mouth. We have to assume that, in general, our friends mean what they say unless we have good reason to suppose otherwise.

A good rule of thumb is that if your gesture to help out someone - financially or otherwise - is a hollow one, don't make it. Assume that what you say will be taken at face value, and don't make any offers you don't want to carry out.

The right thing for my reader's friend to do is to start by exploring other alternatives, however, before cashing in on the spiller's offer and/or that of other guests. I advised my reader that her friend might want to check to see whether this sort of damage might be covered by her apartment insurance or by the netbook's warranty. Her apartment insurance doesn't cover such an accident, as it turns out, and the warranty makes no mention of coverage for damage by water - or other beverage. It doesn't say that such damage would not be covered, however.

It might have been simpler to take the pooled funds from her guests and be done with it, but the right thing was for my reader's friend to check with the manufacturer to see if it might replace the netbook or repair it at minimal cost. Her friends' offer should be a last resort, not a first resort.

Ultimately, my reader reports, her friend ended up returning the netbook to the manufacturer and did indeed get a replacement under the warranty - "so it all worked out in the end without anyone having to pay. Hurrah!"

Hurrah, indeed.

c.2010 The New York Times Syndicate (Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate)

SOUND OFF: LESS PAPER IN MUTUAL INTEREST?

Of the readers who responded to an unscientific poll on my column's blog, 52 percent said that it was right for the Securities and Exchange Commission to continue to require mutual-fund companies to regularly send paper copies of prospectuses to investors in their funds, while 48 percent said that it was wrong if, as is generally the case, few investors actually read them.

"It is a mutual-fund company's responsibility to provide financial details in prospectuses," writes Jennie of Boston, "regardless of how many investors actually pay attention to them."

Susan H. observes that she "has received the half-inch-or-more-thick documents and allowed them to pile up without reading them," but still believes that "summaries of prospectuses should not be considered wasteful. It is in the court of the investor to decide if he wants to read them or not, but the companies should continue to provide them."

"E-mail is the way to go," another reader writes. "This huge bound book that I receive is not being utilized for the energy that it took to produce it ... Let's push this to eventually being paperless."

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.2010 The New York Times Syndicate (Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate)

Sunday, January 17, 2010

SOUND OFF: THE NEED TO STEAL?

Shortly before Christmas the Rev. Tim Jones, an Anglican priest at the Church of St. Lawrence in York, England, caused a bit of an uproar when he told his parishioners that it is sometimes OK for people to shoplift.

Jones explained that it was "justified (only) if a person in real need is not greedy and does not take more than he or she really needs to get by," the Associated Press reported. He also stipulated that any such shoplifting be done only "at large national chain stores, rather than small family businesses."

The reverend later told the AP, "The point I'm making is that, when we shut down every socially acceptable avenue for people in need, then the only avenue left is the socially unacceptable one."

Given the kind of extreme situations that Jones cites, is shoplifting the lesser of two evils? Or is it simply wrong to shoplift, regardless of the circumstances?

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.2010 The New York Times Syndicate (Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate)

THE RIGHT THING: IT'S CRAFTY - BUT IS IT RIGHT?

A reader in Ohio is an active member of the craft group at her senior center. As a member of the group, she regularly purchases craft supplies for herself from a local business - and gets a 30-percent discount, so long as one of the specially assigned members of her craft group vouches for her purchase. She pays no sales tax, since the senior center is a not-for-profit entity that provides services to senior citizens and is therefore tax-exempt.

"I recognize that a business may sell its products to anyone at any price it likes," she writes, "but I think that, when individuals of a tax-free entity purchase materials for their own use, they should pay the sales tax."

She has raised her concerns with the people who run the craft group, only to be told that it is a long-standing practice that no one wants to address for fear of losing the discount.

"What do you think?," she asks.

My reader is correct that, while a business can decide how to offer discounts, it has to follow state regulations when it comes to collecting sales tax. That decision is made by the state, not by the individual business. Thus, while it's entitled to set its prices as it sees fit, it has to collect the appropriate sales tax for whatever it charges her.

Unless, of course, the purchase is made on behalf of a tax-exempt organization such as the senior center.

The heart of my reader's question is, is it legitimate for her to take advantage of the senior center's tax-exempt status in buying materials for herself?

My field is ethics, not nonprofit tax law, so it's possible that the State of Ohio might disagree with my opinion. But I think she raises a good question, one that shouldn't be brushed off by her companions at the senior center. Fear of losing a benefit by raising a concern about its legitimacy is hardly a strong ethical stance.

It seems to me that the central question here is what my reader is doing with the craft materials she gets at a tax-free discount price.

If she's buying them in bulk and reselling them on eBay, obviously it's an abuse of the system. It's also an abuse, though not as serious a one, if she's sharing the materials with friends who don't happen to be members of the senior center or simply using them for her own purposes.

If, however, she is using the materials for craft work that she does in connection with the senior center, I'd say it's entirely legitimate. Regardless of who technically owns the materials, they are obviously part and parcel of the group's work, and there's no reason that the senior center's tax-exempt certificate shouldn't apply.

The best way to make sure that everything is according to Hoyle would be for the senior center to purchase the materials itself, utilizing its tax-exempt status, and then resell them at cost to the members of the craft group. This approach would avoid even the appearance of abuse, and would ensure that individual members couldn't take unfair advantage of the center's status.

My reader did the right thing in raising the question with the craft-group organizers. The right thing for them to do is to examine the process to make sure that they are getting what they are entitled to - but also to make sure that they aren't running afoul of the law.

c.2010 The New York Times Syndicate (Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate)

Sunday, January 10, 2010

THE RIGHT THING: HOW MUCH SHOULD A LANDLORD BE TOLD?

This past August one of my younger readers moved from Texas to Boston to begin a graduate-school program. Four months into the semester, he has failed to find housing.

His first living situation saddled him with two roommates who opted not to pay their share of the second month's rent. My reader covered the rent, spent the next three weeks fighting to get back the money they owed him and then moved out.

He rented a moving van and moved 40 miles west of Boston to Milford, Mass., where he stayed with a friend who had offered to put him up for a few weeks while he sought a more permanent apartment.

After two weeks of making the daily 40-mile commute to attend class, to work and to look for an apartment, my reader finally found one in a Boston neighborhood not far from his school. His new roommate had lived in the apartment for four years, and assured him that he "was not moving anytime soon."

My reader moved in on Nov. 1, and two weeks later the new roommate announced that he was moving in with his girlfriend.

When the landlord heard that his long-term tenant was moving out, he announced that he planned to raise the rent and no longer wanted to rent to college students. This left my reader without recourse, since the landlord's agreement was with the roommate who was moving out, not with him.

Now my reader is looking for apartment No. 3.

"Most landlords base their decisions on renting history," he writes. "While they can't legally discriminate based on race, religion, gender or sexuality, they can discriminate based on financial stability, work stability or any other characteristic that implies that a tenant will be a challenge _ too loud, too drunk, too weird."

My reader doesn't see himself as falling into any of those categories, describing himself as quiet, professional and responsible, and adds that he makes every effort "to amend any behavior that might result in a complaint of some sort."

Even so, when he begins explaining his rental history in Boston, his potential landlords seem to fall silent.

"I get the feeling that they see me as a risk," he writes.

Because his recent bout of instability seems to him not at all his own fault, my reader is tempted to lie about his rental history. He could tell prospective landlords that he's been commuting from west of Boston, using his friend as the perfect "planted" reference and omitting any reference to the first two apartments.

"But my frustration about my current predicament makes me want to confess my experiences," he writes. "Somehow I want them to know that, if they intend to rent me their apartment, I expect a certain amount of integrity that I have not seen in my previous situations."

My reader has every reason to expect a landlord to treat him with integrity. That's one reason it's better to have a formal lease with a landlord, rather than an informal agreement with a fellow renter: The lease is a contract that the landlord must honor in every detail. The informal agreement is worth no more than the paper it isn't printed on.

He should not lie to a landlord to secure housing, however. It's OK not to fill in the landlord on every sordid detail of the past few months, but not to misrepresent himself or his recent living arrangements. Using his friend in Milford as a reference is fine, so long as the friend doesn't lie about the living arrangement - say, by suggesting that my reader has been there for significantly longer than he actually has.

If it's more effective to provide references from when he lived in Texas, my reader should do that.

Renters want stable housing at a fair price, while landlords want responsible tenants who pay their rent on time. These aren't incompatible desires. The right thing is for my reader to be honest, and to limit the discussion to the basic facts - denouncing other landlords isn't a good way to make a landlord want him as a tenant.

He's entitled to expect a landlord to honor whatever commitment he makes, and he'll be well advised to get that commitment in writing.

c.2010 The New York Times Syndicate (Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate)

SOUND OFF: TO BOW OR NOT TO BOW

In November, when he visited Emperor Akihito of Japan, President Barack Obama bowed as he shook the emperor's hand. Of the readers who responded to an informal poll on my column's blog, 72 percent believed Obama to be right in honoring Japanese tradition by bowing, while 28 percent believed him to be wrong.

"Obama's gesture was a respectful and inoffensive nod to diplomatic protocol," writes Rick Kenney of Hampton, Va., "and he was right to honor Japanese tradition by bowing."

On the other hand, Charlie Seng of Lancaster, S.C., believes that "the president, as the head of the United States, should bow down to no one."

"Give me a break!," writes Joe Read of Anaheim, Calif. "Anyone who thinks that a mutual bow between leaders intending to show respect to one another is a sign of subservience by either one of them must be very insecure and is certainly off-base. A slight bow, nod or tip of the cap is not genuflecting or kneeling and kissing his ring!"

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.2010 The New York Times Syndicate (Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate)

Sunday, January 03, 2010

SOUND OFF: SAMPLING ETHICS

Many big-box retailers and supermarkets set up stations at which customers can taste food samples, obviously hoping to convince them to buy a particular product. It's not uncommon for a customer to be able to get a sample of soup, meat, snack food, dessert and a small beverage during a single visit.

Not everyone will care for the sample enough to want to buy the product, of course, but is it OK to sample even if you have no intention of ever buying, say, the smoked-apple turkey sausage or the brown-sugar crumble pecan pie? Or is it wrong to use up the store's samples if you know that you won't even consider a purchase?

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.2010 The New York Times Syndicate (Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate)

THE RIGHT THING: GIVING, BUT TO WHOM?

What's the right thing to do when it comes to donating money to charitable organizations?

A reader from North Carolina is torn about how to allocate the money he gives. He has categorized his typical giving into three groups - causes for the needy, political causes and "other," which encompasses contributions to organizations such as the U.S. Olympics Committee, the Boy Scouts and the United Services Organizations. He doesn't consider himself a religious person, and none of his money goes to a church, synagogue or mosque, but he has given to some church-supported organizations.

The question is how to divide what he can afford to give between those three groups. It's a tricky one because, like the rest of us, he doesn't have enough to give what he'd like to every cause he deems worthy.

"I know it boils down to one's individual preferences," he writes, "but can you offer a perspective?

"For example, let's say that I have $1,000 to give to whatever organizations I see fit," my reader continues. "I could give it all to the impoverished, the blind or any number of disadvantaged people in this country or others."

It might seem fair to divide the money equally among all deserving organizations, but each day's mail brings him about a dozen requests from such groups. If he were to split the $1,000 among all of the organizations he'd like to help, each would get about $10 before his money ran out.

"That's a lot of inconvenience and postage," he writes, "unless I pay online by credit card, which I'm disinclined to do."

In the bigger picture, however, my reader wonders if his money might have a greater impact in the long run if he donated it to political causes, individual politicians or organizations that promote those politicians.

"The elected politician's vote might benefit many more people over the long haul," he explains, "making my $10 contribution to a starving child in Africa almost irrelevant."

My reader's concerns show the importance of making thoughtful, intelligent choices in the causes to which we choose to donate. It's admirable to give to charity, but it's more admirable to do so intelligently, with awareness of who and what you're supporting. That the values of the recipient should match those of the donor is clear, but there's more to it than that.

Web sites such as www.charitynavigator.org do a good job of detailing how much of a charitable organization's budget is used for overhead costs. For those who want to dig deeper on not-for-profits based in the United States, Web sites such as www.guidestar.org provide access to a not-for-profit's 990 Form, a document filed with the Internal Revenue Service that gives a detailed breakdown of the organization's income and expenditures, such as the salaries of its top administrators.

As for his question, he's right that this is ultimately a question of individual preference. While it is praiseworthy to give to charity, there is no ethical imperative to do so _ someone who does not give to charity at all is not unethical. Assuming that one does give to charity, however, there is no ethical imperative to do so "fairly." The millionaire who leaves her entire fortune to the Girl Scouts has not acted unethically in not giving half to the Salvation Army.

To guide him in discovering his true preference, I suggested a simple test for my reader: Ignoring the process by which he decided what to give, he should simply total all that he has given and how it breaks down between the various choices. How comfortable is he with the outcome?

In 2009, my reader tells me, he gave "considerably more" than the hypothetical $1,000, and it broke down to 47 percent for the needy, 43 percent for political causes and 10 percent for "other."

There's nothing wrong with this per se. Upon looking it over, however, my reader found himself really uncomfortable with the current breakdown, "preferring by far to contribute to those who are in need."

The right thing for my reader - and other generous donors - to do is to distribute their donations in the way that leaves them the most comfortable with the outcome. No formula is better or worse than another. This is, as he says, about feelings.

In my reader's case, that means giving more to those who are in need. Another donor might invest more in political action.

They both stack up well by any ethical measure.

c.2010 The New York Times Syndicate (Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate)

Don't let the personal get in the way of the bigger picture

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