Saturday, April 29, 2006


In a recent episode of the television medical drama "House," the doctors are faced with a troubling decision. A patient has less than a day to live if she doesn't receive a liver transplant, and her partner has offered to donate a portion of her liver. But the patient has told the doctors that she had been planning to leave her partner because she was "tired of her."

The lead doctor warns his colleagues not to tell the donor of her partner's intentions. When one of the other doctors argues that not to disclose the information would be unethical, the lead doctor responds by saying that it's not medical information and that to disclose it might hinder their own ability to save their patient's life.

What do you think? Should the doctors tell the donor of her partner's intentions, in case it would affect her decision to make the donation? Or is it right to withhold the information, given that the patient might die if the liver is not donated?

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In the board game Monopoly, there's a yellow Community Chest card that reads, "Bank error in your favor, collect $200." I never think twice about pocketing the windfall -- it's another chit on my way to total board domination.

But board games are not real life, alas. What's the right thing to do when a real-world bank error results in money that isn't yours turning up in your bank account?

I'm pondering this not because I'm fresh off a late-night Monopoly marathon, but because Audrey Coming of Placentia, Calif., e-mailed me recently to report that, in balancing her checkbook a few Saturdays ago, she happened upon a real-life echo of the Community Chest free-money card.

Coming was surprised to notice that she had two outstanding debits: one for $12.19 on Nov. 30 and one for $13.39 on Feb. 16. She recognized both transactions: She had used her ATM card on those dates to make some purchases at a couple of area stores.

"When I called my bank," she writes, "a young lady told me that the electronic transfers usually go through the same day. When she looked at my record, she saw no debits showing for those two transactions."

When Coming asked what she should do, the young lady advised her to wait until June. If the charges hadn't gone through by then, she said, Coming should add those amounts back into her checkbook and forget about them.

Coming found these instructions very disturbing, she writes, perhaps because "I am 77 years old and was raised in a different time." She knows that she made the purchases, which means that the stores will be out the money if her account is not debited for the charges.

"It has happened not once but twice," she writes, "and I'm wondering how many other people it has happened to. The poor merchants will be out a lot of money in a year's time.

"Should I go back to the stores and pay them a second time, which will mean spending extra time and gas, or should I just drop the subject and do as she told me to?"

Letting the stores know that their charges were never debited would definitely be the right thing to do. Coming needn't drive to the stores to do this, though. In fact, she would be more likely to actually reach the people who handle the stores' bookkeeping by placing a couple of telephone calls than by visiting in person.

The stores' managers may decide not to put through the charges, or they may decide that Coming's honesty is worth their eating the unrecorded charges. But those are choices that should be left to the managers themselves.

If Coming does nothing, most likely her checking account will never becharged, and she will be the beneficiary of somebody else's mistake. It would be understandable if, having notified the bank, she simply rebalanced her checkbook and moved on. But her ethical resistance to the idea of not paying what she owes is a good instinct, and one worth listening to.

Meanwhile, Coming concludes, she's looking ahead: "I think from now on I will pay with a check instead of using my ATM card."

Saturday, April 22, 2006


One version of the American dream has it that everyone has the opportunity to work his or her way from rags to riches. But some readers who have observed friends raking in a few extra bucks by taking advantage of debatable opportunities have questioned whether, in their effort to prosper, these friends have crossed a line.

"To make a little extra money, some friends of mine bought computer parts on sale through a discount Web site and then resold them at a slight profit through eBay," writes J.M. of Malden, Mass.

Even though the original sellers didn't explicitly prohibit reselling, the practice makes J.M. "a little uneasy."

It shouldn't. J.M. may believe that somehow the original sellers are being taken advantage of by her friends who are able to eke out a few more dollars from the items, but they're not. Those original sellers got the price they were looking for. If her friends are industrious enough to find another buyer who is willing to pay a higher price, more power to them.

D.R. from Orange County, Calif., also is uneasy about a friend who told her that she has found a way to make "free money."

The friend "works over 20 credit cards at one time, transferring balances from one card to the other, and then invests the `free money' from the credit-card companies in high-yielding certificates of deposit."

If I'm understanding this correctly, what D.R.'s friend is doing is this: She gets a cash advance from a credit card, which ordinarily she would have to pay off by the end of the month or incur monthly interest. Instead, however, she uses a second credit card to pay off her first card, transferring the new balance to that second card. A month later she uses a third card to pay off the second card's balance, and so on and so forth.The goal is to keep the balance owed moving so fast that it never sits on one card long enough for her to have to pay interest on it.

Meanwhile she takes the actual cash and invests it in a high-yielding certificate of deposit. Ultimately she plans to cash in the CD, pay the last credit card's balance and pocket the CD's interest for herself.

It's a foolhardy investment strategy, though. When she reaches the end of her chain of credit cards, she's going to have to either pay off her balance or begin paying interest on what she owes. That interest rate maybe in the high teens, depending on which state the credit card was issued from.

But what if she can successfully put off that day for, say, three years, juggling 36 credit cards and never slipping up and incurring any interest? How much does she stand to make? A three-year high-yielding certificate ofdeposit pays only 3.6 percent interest at banks in her area. If the CD compounds interest daily and she starts with a cash advance of $1,000, all of that work, every month for three years, will yield her ... $114.

If she cashes in the CD before the three years are up, though, she'll be assessed a penalty that likely will cost her whatever interest she earned. And if she misses a single payment along the way, her costs will likely outweigh whatever little bit she might have earned. That's a great deal of risk for not much reward.

Does that make D.R.'s friend unethical? No. Using a credit card to payoff the balance on another credit card is not prohibited, and one is free to use a cash advance for any legal purpose one sees fit. This strategy is unwise, but not unethical.

The lesson: Not everything that's ethical is intelligent. In chasing your piece of the American dream, the right thing to do is not only to do what's right, but also to take every precaution to make sure that you aren't walking into a potential nightmare.


Is it OK to tap into wireless connections that are not your own if they're not password-protected or otherwise secured? My readers were split. (See original Sound Off question and more responses at

"If a neighbor is broadcasting a signal into your home," writes James Bone of London, Ontario, "then you have every right to tap into it."

Ed Chenal of Placentia, Calif., disagrees.

"Since the use of a wireless Internet connection has a value," he writes, "using someone's connection without permission is theft."

When Sheryl Dunfield Brown of Huntington Beach, Calif., found that her computer had picked up her neighbor's wireless connection, she didn't think twice. She asked her neighbor if she could "borrow" his signal, and he graciously agreed.

Finally Peter Caton of Rockfield, Ill., was baffled when he heard that an Illinois man was recently fined $250 for accessing an unsecure wireless network.

"If a business or residence wants to keep people out of the network," he writes, "they should either secure the network or set up some kind of warning that alerts people to the fact that their network is not open tothe public.

"If none of these steps is taken, I just cannot understand how anyone can be convicted for accessing an unsecure wireless network."

Saturday, April 15, 2006


Sheriff Thomas Hodgson, who runs the Bristol County House of Corrections in Massachusetts, does not believe that prisoners awaiting trial should receive different treatment than those convicted of crimes.

"I don't make the decision why they're sent here," Hodgson told The Boston Globe. "It's not our place to say whether they're innocent or guilty."

But public defense attorney Colleen Tynan told The Globe that to suggest that pretrial detainees "have asked for the incarceration they're facing because of their pretrial detention is really to exaggerate the position these people find themselves in."

As a result, she fears, their rights may be violated.

Do you think that, because prisoners awaiting trial are presumed innocent until proven guilty, they should be treated differently from other prisoners who already have been convicted?

Post your comments below by clicking on "COMMENTS" or send them to Please include your name, your hometown and the name of the newspaper in which you read this column. Readers'comments may appear in an upcoming column.

Do you have ethical questions that you need answered? Send them to or to "The Right Thing," New York Times Syndicate, 609 Greenwich St., 6th floor, New York, N.Y. 10014-3610.


Let's say that you're given a valuable gift, but you suspect that it might not have been acquired honestly. Should you think twice about keeping it, even though you really, really like the gift?

Several months ago Bonnie Drago of Windsor, Ontario, was in her church basement, helping to prepare the food and decorations for a baby shower. It was raining outside, and the service upstairs in the church's chapel had recently concluded.

A young man, soaking wet, came into the basement and asked Drago when Mass was scheduled to take place. She told him that it had already concluded, but advised him that a service was to be held an hour later at another church nearby.

She asked if he needed a ride to the other church, but he declined.

"I thought he looked a little dejected," Drago writes, "so I approached him and asked quietly if he needed some help. He said `yes."'

Drago served him some hot chicken that she had been preparing for the baby shower, and then handed him $10. The young man appeared surprised. As he turned to leave, he took a watch from his pocket -- "a very good man'swatch from an expensive jewelry store in our city," she says -- and said that he had found it. He handed it to Drago, told her to keep it and then took off out the door.

Drago has no idea who the young man was, where he came from or where he went. She wondered if the watch had been stolen, and now she wants to know if she should check this out with the store.

Her conscience is prodding her to call the store, give the owner the serial number on the back of the watch and ask if anyone has reported itmissing.

"But I really did not want to get involved," she says and, besides, "my son would really like to have it. What's the right thing to do?"

Drago's conscience serves her well. If she suspects that the watch was purchased or otherwise "acquired" from a particular jewelry store, then calling the store to see if the watch has been reported missing is a good first step.

If Drago is truly concerned that the watch may have been stolen, then the right thing for her to do would be to go to the Windsor Police Service and tell them that, though she was given the watch as a gift, she wants to make sure that it wasn't stolen.

I talked to Staff Sgt. Ed McNorton of the Windsor Police, who told me that the police can run the serial number to see if the watch has been reported stolen. If it has been, she will have to turn it over. If it hasn't, however, she will leave with the watch.

If she turned it in as a "found" object, however, it would be sold at auction, McNorton adds.

Sure, by doing the right thing, Drago runs the risk of losing the watch. But all she'll really be out is the $10 and the plate of chicken that she gave the young man. Since she expected nothing in return for her generosity, she doesn't lose anything if she doesn't get to keep the watch, and if it turns out to be free and clear, she'll have not only a swell timepiece but also a clear conscience.

Thursday, April 13, 2006


Should juvenile offenders be named by the press after they are convicted? In a case that occurred in Charlottesville, Virginia, there is a raging debate going on. Some stations named the older (though under 18) boys convicted but not the younger ones. Some named no one.

Lisa Provence, writing in The Hook, Charlottesville's weekly paper, quotes me:

"Jeff Seglin, however, who writes an ethics column for the New York Times syndicate and teaches professional ethics at Emerson College, doesn't buy the 'public figure' debate as legitimate for outing the 15-year-old. And he questions whether anything is gained by publishing the two names, other than removing suspicion from someone else.

" 'Heinous crimes' might be a reason to publish, but this case doesn't sound like that, says Seglin. 'Why not tell the story and protect the kids and their families?'" Seglin observes.

Provence's full story with details of the case is at

Saturday, April 08, 2006


We all know that selling a house is tricky, but sometimes problems arise in areas which we hadn't foreseen.

C.S., a reader in Sunbury, Ohio, was trying to sell her house. She entered into a three-month contract with a real-estate broker. In exchange for paying the broker a smaller commission if her house sold, she agreed to pay advertising costs.

The three months passed, and her house didn't sell. The contract expired, and C.S. got a bill for $2,300 to cover the cost of advertising her home.

By the time the bill arrived, C.S. was busy trying to sell the house on her own, and had placed an advertisement in the local newspaper. A prospective buyer saw the ad and made an appointment to see the house.

"While I was showing the house," C.S. writes, "the woman asked if I had had the house listed with a specific real-estate company. When I said that I had, she went on to tell me how she had called them six times and left three messages, without a return call."

Given this revelation, C.S. is having second thoughts about the broker's bill.

"Do I owe the broker the full $2,300?" she asks. "Were they unethical in not responding to this person's inquiry?"

It's not unusual to be disappointed in a product or service that we've purchased, because not every venture delivers the benefits we'd hoped for. For example, an executive-search firm may not turn up any offers for you, even after you've plunked down a pretty penny. It's tempting to withhold a final payment if the results haven't been what you'd anticipated, but so long as the service was in fact rendered, it would be wrong to withhold payment, regardless of the outcome.

But C.S.'s case is not a clear-cut one. On the face of it, she agreed to pay for the advertisements, the advertisements were in fact placed and therefore she owes the money. But if she can prove that the broker did not return telephone calls from people responding to the ad she was paying for, she has a legitimate right to withhold payment. Her agreement to pay for the advertising assumed that the broker would follow up on the ads. If that job wasn't done, then she shouldn't have to pay for it.

Because C.S. suspects that the broker didn't do her job, the right thing for her to do is to contact the broker, tell her what she was told by the prospective buyer and ask to see any logs of telephone calls that were received in response to the original ad.

If the broker admits that not every call was responded to, then C.S. is entitled to at least a reduced fee for the advertising. Not responding to such inquiries would have been both unethical and unprofessional.

It might well turn out, however, that it's impossible to prove definitively whether there were calls to which the broker didn't respond. If that's the case, and if the broker can demonstrate that she did respond to other calls that came in, C.S. should honor her agreement and pay up.

If the prospect who told her about the unreturned calls ends up buying her house, of course, C.S. can bask in the knowledge that, by not returning telephone calls, her former broker lost the commission that she might have earned on the sale.


I asked readers if they thought that Dianna Abdala was wrong to turn down a law firm's job offer by e-mail, whether William Korman, the lawyer offering the job, was wrong to scold her for doing so, whether she was wrong to question his abilities as a "real lawyer," whether he was wrong to ask if this was the foot upon which she wanted to start out a professional career, whether she should have responded "bla, bla, bla" and whether he should have circulated their e-mails to his legal colleagues.

There seems to be general agreement that Abdala was, if not actually wrong from an ethical standpoint, at least ill-advised.

"Her e-mails show immaturity and a tremendous lack of judgment," writes Lisa Metzger of Orange County, Calif.

"I consider Mr. Korman's response appropriate, given the apparent inconvenience to him," writes William Severns of Cambridge, Ohio. "It was to Ms. Abdala's benefit that someone advise her early in her professional career as to appropriate behavior."

Some felt, however, that Korman also was out of line.

"I agree with William Korman that Dianna Abdala's e-mail response to a job offer was unprofessional," writes Michelle Geissbuhler of Worthington,Ohio. "However, he trumped her in immaturity by responding in kind and by circulating the resulting exchange among his peers."

"If this isn't a put-on or hoax," writes John Minton of St. Louis, "then`can't fix stupid' would seem to fit."

The e-mail exchange between Korman and Abdala can be found by To add your own comments, click on "Comments" below. Please include your name and hometown in your comment.

Saturday, April 01, 2006


Don Hull of Costa Mesa, Calif., writes that he is "outraged when police use entrapment tactics to catch lawbreakers, primarily because, to do so, they must commit crimes themselves in the process."

Among other examples, he cites police posing as prostitutes to catch unwitting customers or as under-age kids to trap online pedophiles.

Do police officers cross an ethical line when they pose as something they're not in order to catch a criminal? How about when they break a law to catch lawbreakers?

Send your thoughts to or post them here by clicking on COMMENTS below. Please include your name, your hometown and where you read this column. Readers'comments may appear in an upcoming column.


I don't knit, but apparently 36 million other people do.

That's according to Alice Fixx, director of communications for the Gastonia, N.C.-based Craft Yarn Council, which tracks such things. Those 36million people account for roughly $800 million a year in yarn sales from the 3,000 independent yarn stores around the country. It's a boom industry whose growth shows no signs of abating.

One of my readers from Santa Barbara, Calif., is an avid knitter. She buys her yarn from her local craft store, and the store's policy had always been to give refunds on unused skeins of yarn. After a recent change in the store's ownership, however, she was told that yarn could no longer be returned for credit.

"I was buying more yarn," she writes, "so I quietly slipped two new skeins into the bag with the two old skeins, and paid for six instead of eight skeins."

By putting two new skeins in with the bag of yarn she had brought from home, hoping to exchange them, she effectively shoplifted those two skeins.

"This was probably illegal," she writes. "Was it also unethical?"

Again, I'm no knitter, but it doesn't take a knitter to know when someone has dropped an ethical stitch.

In slipping two skeins into her bag and walking out without paying for them, my reader was guilty of shoplifting. There's no "probably" about the legality of it. Good rule of thumb: It's illegal to steal stuff from stores.

But her question about whether it was also unethical raises an intriguing point. If she decided that the new owner's change of policy was unfair to her, since she had purchased the yarn with the understanding that it was returnable, could she justify her actions as setting right what the owner had put amiss? Could hers have been an act of civil disobedience designed to correct the imperious rules thrust upon unwitting knitters by an unexpected change of ownership?

Hardly. Such a justification would also make it OK to slip an extra book into your satchel when you're at the bookstore, since the store has raised its prices and the title you had planned to buy is now more expensive. Why not take matters into your own hands to make up the difference?

Because it's stealing. That's why not.

In the famous Heinz dilemma, posed by psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg, a husband must decide whether to break into a drugstore to steal a medicine that could save his wife, assuming that he cannot afford the exorbitant price the druggist is charging. With his wife's life at stake, the husband steals the drug.

Heinz's action can be defended on the grounds that the magnitude of saving someone's life justifies even a willingness to break the law if it's the only way to do so. There is no corollary in the knitting world, however. Knitting may be a popular hobby and its devotees may be passionate about it, but there is no moral justification for stealing yarn simply because you're unhappy with a change in the store's policies.

It was reasonable for my reader to ask the store's new owner to honor the returns policy that was in place when she bought the yarn. Once the new owner refused to stray from his new policy, however, the right thing would have been for her to pay for any yarn she took out of the store.

If she doesn't like the store's new policy, the answer is not to steal from the store. Instead she should take her business to any one of the other 2,999 independent yarn stores in the United States that has a policy more to her liking.