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Sunday, May 30, 2010

THE RIGHT THING: THINKING OUTSIDE THE BOX

On the corner of Farmington Avenue and Kenyon Street in Hartford, Conn., on the sidewalk between the Burger King and Ichiban restaurants, stands a machine that sells copies of The New York Times. This machine is where one of my readers, J.M., buys his copy of the paper each day.

When the daily paper's price was raised from $1.70 to $2.00, a new plate was screwed onto the machine above the coin slot. It read: "$2.00, Quarters only."

Shortly after the price increase, however, my reader inserted six quarters and two dimes, the old $1.70 price, into the machine.

"Voila!," J.M. writes. "It opened!"

When he repeated the same experiment on several other newspaper machines a few blocks up the road in West Hartford, he got the same results.

For more than a year, therefore, J.M. has been buying his New York Times every Monday through Friday at the reduced rate of $1.70.

"Can I transfer responsibility to whomever is in charge of that newspaper box," he asks, "and justify my theft by saying that the Times should know better? Or have I been stealing 30 cents a day from the Times for more than a year?"

J.M. is admittedly uncomfortable with his decision. He points out, for example, that he would never think of ripping off the newsstand at the Bradley Airport, where people pay on the honor system.

"It's the honor system," he writes, "and it just wouldn't be right."

Even so, he says, he's holding on to the slim hope - even though he knows that my column is a product of The New York Times Syndicate, and that therefore I am a representative of the company - that I might advise him to forget about it, since those operating the machines should know better.

J.M. is right, I do have an obvious conflict here, given my somewhat tenuous connection to the papers being sold in the boxes. I would hate to think that his 30 cents a day was coming out of my pay.

Even so, I'm fairly sure that my answer would be the same even if I wrote for another company. The ethics of the situation are clear, not only to me but also - given his reference to "my theft" - to him. Though he would obviously like "permission" to keep getting his paper at a discount, his practice is wrong and he should stop.

There should be no difference in the way he treats the faulty box and the way he treats the airport vendor. An unfixed glitch in the dispenser allows him to pay less and still get his paper, but he knows that the correct price is $2.00. It's not as if the machine would accept only the wrong amount - I'm sure that, if he deposited eight quarters, the box would give him his newspaper promptly.

Paying less, simply because he knows that others may also be paying less, is no different from cheating the honor system up the road simply because others may be cheating it as well.

It would have been a nice gesture to report the defective machines to the newspaper company, but he wasn't ethically obligated to do so. He was obligated to pay the right price for his newspaper, and that's the right thing for him to do now.

And, yes, since he knew from the start that he was paying too little for his newspaper, he ought to send a check for the difference to the Times Company. For a year, that would amount to $78 - it does add up.

J.M. also notes that he's keeping track of the time that elapses between his confession to me and when the box finally gets fixed. He wants to find out, he says, "how closely you in the ethics section are connected with the information-sharing apparatus at the Times."

We'll have to see on that. In the meantime, though, J.M. should pay up.

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

SOUND OFF: E-BOOK THIEVES

Of the readers who responded to an unscientific poll on my column's blog, 59 percent believe that it is wrong to download electronic copies of a book without paying, even if they have paid for it in another format, while 41 percent disagree.

"When you buy a book, you are purchasing a very limited license to enjoy the content in the form presented," writes William Jacobson of Cypress, Calif. "You are not purchasing the right to download that content in any other format, unless it is specifically stated as part of the sale."

Ken Gagne of Worcester, Mass., thinks that "it's fair to create your own translation of a product you own for personal use, such as scanning a book to put on your Kindle or digitizing a CD to load onto your iPod."

He draws the line, however, at downloading additional copies of a book simply because you have paid for it in another format.

"To enjoy the fruits of someone else's translation efforts means making the investment in their version of that product. To do otherwise is still piracy."

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.

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, May 23, 2010

SOUND OFF: BORDERLINE BASEBALL

Last month the Arizona State Legislature passed a bill designed to crack down on illegal immigrants within the state, a bill with harsh provisions that were criticized by President Barack Obama and others.

Sen. Robert Menendez (D.-N.J.) has sent a letter to the Major League Baseball Players Association, asking its members to boycott the 2011 All-Star Game, which is scheduled to be played in Phoenix.

Would it be right for the union to take a stand on the Arizona immigration bill? Or is it wrong to mix baseball with politics?


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: OUTING THE ANONYMOUS ONLINE

Many of the newspapers that carry my column allow readers to post online comments in response, as I also do on the blog I write for the column. The newspapers generally require readers to register some basic information before they can post comments under their chosen screen names. Once they have their screen names, however, it's easy for readers to post anonymous comments, since screen names generally do little to identify the poster.

I could require readers to do similarly on my blog, of course, and I also could set up a moderating feature that would prevent any comment from being posted on the site until I had reviewed and approved it.

I could do so, but I've chosen to do neither. I do ask readers to include their names in whatever they post, but it's not mandatory, and they are free to post anything they want in response to a blog post. The only posts I delete are spam messages trying to sell cheap pharmaceuticals or other products unrelated to the blog.

While I allow readers to post anonymously, I'm not a fan of hiding behind a screen name to express a strong opinion, or even a lukewarm one. If the opinion is worth hearing, I believe, its author ought to be willing to stand behind it.

In his book Integrity (Basic Books, 1996), Stephen L. Carter talks about three steps that are essential to integrity: The first is discernment, the second is to act on what you discern and the third is to state openly what you have done and why you have done it.

Anonymity falls short of Carter's mark, in short, and I agree with him. An opinion expressed without a signature suggests that the author herself is to some degree ashamed of it. There are plenty of counterexamples in which anonymity is acceptable - say, in criticizing a totalitarian government which might punish the truth teller severely - but online commentary in a free society isn't one of them.

All of which brings me to a question I recently received from a reader in Boston.

"If someone posts a comment to an article or video online under a `nom de Web' instead of her real name," the reader writes, "and someone else comes along and recognizes that she's probably the author of that comment, is it ethical for him to give her full name in his response?

"Given the wingnut factor in many of these threads," she adds, "98 percent of the people posting comments do so under something other than their real names, so what would motivate someone to make public the identity of another commenter?"

I'm in no position to explain the motivations of someone who "outs" an anonymous poster. Perhaps the outer felt it important that the poster stand behind her comments, though that premise holds up only if the outer himself gave his name. Or perhaps he hoped to see someone whom he disagreed with shamed into taking responsibility for a view he found objectionable. Your guess is as good as mine.

I see no virtue in outing an anonymous poster, even if you are certain of his or her identity, and I don't think it's ethical to do so. If a site allows for anonymous postings, and if there is no legal or safety issue involved, then those posts should remain anonymous. It is not up to other posters to revise the site's rules, and of course there's always the possibility of doing harm by an incorrect "outing."

That said, I strongly believe that, regardless of the policy of a given site, the right thing for posters to do is to stand behind their comments by identifying themselves. It's too easy to toss brickbats when no one can hold you accountable. To be willing to affix your name to the convictions you express is a sign of integrity and gives your opinions added weight.

If the thought of revealing who you are makes you hesitant to post a comment, probably you should rethink your posting.

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

Sunday, May 16, 2010

SOUND OFF: WHEN KIDS DO THE CRIME

Of the readers responding to an unscientific poll on my column's blog, 74 percent believe that it is OK to publish photos of teenagers younger than 18 who have been charged as adults, while 26 percent believe that newspapers should withhold such images, as they do with those of other juveniles charged with crimes as such.

"It's not OK to publish pictures of minors, regardless of what they are charged with," Katie writes, voicing the minority view. "The accused may have acted as adults, but they are still under parental supervision (supposedly) and deserve some measure of privacy."

Charlie Seng of Lancaster, S.C., sides with the majority and goes even further, taking issue with the whole idea of withholding the identity of teenagers charged with crimes.

"I have never been one to advocate allowing teenagers to get away with heinous crimes without having both their identities and their photos published," he writes. "Our laws preventing this are wrongheaded and based on times when kids in this age group hardly ever acted in this manner. Maybe, if they were embarrassed with being given notoriety in this manner, both they and their complicit parents would be shamed into ceasing this type of activity."

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.

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, May 09, 2010

SOUND OFF: E-TEMPER TANTRUMS

It happens all the time at work: Rather than talk directly to someone, you hide behind your e-mail and fire off an indignant broadside, calling out someone for some perceived wrong to your professional self. All too often, however, the exchange escalates. The recipient insists that you have your information wrong and demands an apology, which in turn leads you to call the recipient "petulant," among other things.
Is it ethical to use e-mail to express ideas - and especially attitudes - that you would be reluctant to express in person? Or should e-mail be limited to the expression of ideas and attitudes that you'd be comfortable conveying face-to-face?


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: UNETHICAL SENIORS

Several weeks ago I wrote a column in response to a reader who wondered if there was anything wrong with letting others use the senior discounts he enjoys at his local movie theater, golf club and so on. I believed that it was wrong for him to "share the savings" with others who were not seniors, as it would also be wrong for him to get a child to buy his movie tickets to take advantage of a children's price.

A reader from Columbus, Ohio, responded with a note that he agreed with me - OK, that he "perhaps" agreed with me - but I was ignoring the real ethical question raised by the earlier letter.

"The larger issue here is age discrimination," he writes.

My reader's problem is not with the misuse of senior discounts, in short, but with senior discounts themselves.

"I know senior discounts are everywhere and are accepted by most people," he continues, "but I think age discrimination is wrong ... The rest of us pay more if seniors get a discount."

Seniors may think they deserve the discount, my reader adds, but he doesn't think so.

"They already get tax breaks, Social Security, Medicare and pension benefits that younger persons will never get," he writes. "The argument that seniors are poorer is no justification for age discrimination."

He concludes that senior discounts are legal only because politicians pander to senior votes, and wants me to speak out against these "unethical senior discounts."

I hate to disagree with my readers, but in this case I must. I see nothing wrong with such discounts.

A senior discount is not an effort to punish the rest of us for not being old enough, but rather an attempt to improve business. Having noticed that seniors - who have distinctive spending habits, including greater brand loyalty and a tendency to patronize the same businesses regularly - are a valuable market, various movie theaters, golf clubs and other businesses have decided to encourage their patronage by offering them a discount. If instead or in addition they also offered discounts to students, military veterans, repeat customers or the like, as many do, that too would be a strategic decision, not a discriminatory one.

I like to think that such discounts are motivated by the desire to recognize a group for some merit - defending our country, supporting the business or, in the case of seniors, a lifetime of contributions to our society - rather than by political pandering. Even if they're intended to curry favor with a particular group, though, that's OK. There's nothing wrong with a movie theater that's trying to build an audience at a local college deciding to offer a special price break to students, for example.

A benefit extended to members of one group is not automatically a discrimination against members of another. It would be unethical to deliberately charge seniors more or, for that matter, to deliberately charge people younger than 64 more. But to establish a base price that applies to all and admit exceptions for certain groups is not to discriminate against everybody else. A restaurant that gives away food to the homeless is not discriminating against people with homes.

Those paying full freight may not like it when a group to which they don't belong receives a break on prices, but not liking something doesn't make it unethical. The right thing for my reader to do is to accept that some businesses place particular value on elderly citizens and offer them price breaks as an enticement to use their goods and services.

If this doesn't sit well with him ... Well, he's welcome to patronize establishments that don't offer such discounts or, if he can't find one, to stay home from the movies. If enough customers are of a similar mind, senior discounts will soon be a thing of the past.

I don't think that will be the case, however, so instead I'm hoping that my reader will live a long, healthy life and, in the fullness of time, be in a position to avail himself of senior discounts for many years to come.

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

Monday, May 03, 2010

THE RIGHT THING: WINNING ISN'T EVERYTHING ... OR IS IT?

After a vigorous game of touch football in the backyard with my two grandsons - ages 8 and 11 - and their dad, my son-in-law turned to me and said, "There's a real value to these games ending with tie scores, don't you think?"

Did either of us deliberately miss a play to ensure that the game would end in a tie? I don't believe so. I certainly didn't. But we didn't go out of our way to aggressively pulverize the opposing team either.

Which raises the question: Is it ever OK to throw a game or hold back your effort, to keep the peace and/or to boost the egos of your opponent?

When the individuals involved are adults playing with 8-year-olds, the answer may be obvious. But a reader from North Carolina writes with a more ambiguous case.

A friend of his plays pool once a week with three of his buddies. Two of the guys are a bit better than the other two, so they pair off opposite each other to make the games competitive.

"Recently," my reader writes, "my friend and his partner were just killing the other guys, so they handily won the competition in the usual number of games played."

The guys also regularly shoot a final game "for all the marbles," however. Whichever pair wins that final game is deemed "the champs," regardless of how many games each team has previously won.

"My friend felt sorry for having easily dispatched his opponents that night," my reader writes, "so, when he had a chance to win the final game too with a couple of well-placed shots, he took a more difficult path to doing so, claiming that, if he executed the first shot properly, it would work to his advantage in setting up the final shot."

My reader's friend confided in him, however, that he actually thought that first shot a risky one and was hoping that he would miss it.

"He did, and the other team won," my reader reports. "We're not talking big bucks here - maybe a couple of beers."

Even so, my reader doesn't know if his friend did the right thing.

"What do you think?" he asks. "Is it a greater good to lose on purpose to boost the spirits of your friends?"

I think not. Losing on purpose, even with the goal of boosting the spirits of your friends, does not represent a "greater good." For one thing, it's not honest.

For another, it often doesn't work: It's a rare friend who doesn't recognize when a friend is deliberately throwing a game. That realization can have the opposite of the intended effect, dampening the less-accomplished player's spirits even further.

Treating your friends like 8-year-olds is seldom a good idea, in short, unless you happen to be 8-year-olds.

In this case, however, that doesn't seem to be what happened. My reader's friend didn't throw the game, deliberately trying to miss his shot. If his account is to be believed - and why shouldn't it be? - he made a good-faith attempt to make a difficult shot when he might have attempted an easier shot. Figuring that, given his winning streak, he could afford to introduce a bit more panache into his game, he took a chance that didn't pay off.

He may have hoped that his risk would backfire, allowing his opponents to save face. As long as he didn't deliberately miss the shot, though, he didn't do anything wrong.

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

SOUND OFF: THE PROM GOES ON

Constance McMillen, an 18-year-old senior at Itawamba Agricultural High School in Fulton, Miss., sued her school district after it canceled her senior prom. The cancelation was due to McMillen, who has come out as a lesbian and wanted to take her girlfriend to the prom and to wear a tuxedo.

Of the readers who responded to an unscientific poll on my column's blog, 59 percent believed that the question of whom to bring to a high-school prom and what to wear should be left entirely to the students, while 41 percent believed that a school board should be permitted to establish guidelines as to appropriate dates and dress for a school-sanctioned event.

One reader feels that, if this is a public school, it needs to update its policy. A private school can set whatever policy it wants, however, because "the parents are paying to have their children go to a school that offers things more in line with their thinking, whether we like that or not."

"Given that this is 2010," another reader writes, "and women can wear pants any other day of the year, why shouldn't a girl be allowed to wear a tux to her prom if she wants to?"

Still another writes, "If the young woman's parents are aware of her choice and are OK with it, it is no one else's business."

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.

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)