Sunday, January 30, 2011

The great toy train robbery conundrum

When my now-12-year-old grandson, Evan, was a toddler until he was 6 or 7, he was heavily into wooden Thomas the Tank Engine trains. He knew the names of all of the trains — and it seemed as if there were an endless number of them — and he knew which ones he wanted to add to his collection next.

Evan would save up his money and, when he had enough, he would buy another train. For years he was focused on these trains and rarely was distracted by other toys he wanted to buy for himself. He was also riveted to a series of videos we kept on store for him called “I Love Toy Trains.” His family once took a trip to Steamtown, a National Historic site in Scranton, Pa., that featured real steam engines and train cars on its grounds and a museum chock full of everything you could imagine dealing with trains.

Trains, it seemed were his passion.

Evan’s devotion to trains at that age was not unique. An e-mail from a reader near Boston reminded me of Evan’s once consuming devotion.

“We already own a ton of trains,” my reader wrote. “Mostly through Craigslist, we have scored unbelievable trains.” When last Christmas rolled around, she did not want to buy her son any more trains. He had enough, she figured.

But she broke down and went to Toys R Us with a 20 percent-off coupon she had received in the mail with the intention of buying him the GeoTrax Christmas Deluxe Edition that retailed for $129. It was on sale for $99. With the coupon, it would run her $80. “OK,” she figured, “that’s not too bad. I’ll do that for him.”

She brought her one huge item up to the register where the cashier scanned it, took her coupon, and asked for $21.94. “I just swiped my card, took the box, and walked out of there.” The cashier was talking to a co-worker “and not paying attention either,” my reader writes.

She put the package in her car and settled into the front seat. It was only then that she read the receipt: “Ken & Barbie Accessories” that scanned for $19.99.

“I realized it was totally not my error,” she wrote. “It was theirs, but I don’t quite know what I was supposed to do.”

Even though it was the store’s mistake, the right thing to do would have been to point out the error to the store. Clearly, it’s the store’s error, but my reader knows that — rather than having been some extra-special Christmas-time discount — the price she paid was for a less expensive item. Just as if she had been handed back too much change from a cash purchase, the right thing is to set matters right. It presented little hardship to do so, particularly since she was still sitting in the store’s parking lot.

Given that the store made the error in coding the prices for its products, it’s unlikely that my reader was the first person to be charged $19.99 for a $99 item. The store management would have been wise to recognize this, acknowledge its error and offer to honor the price that was erroneously charged. After all, she’d be pointing out an error that would save the store bundles on any further errant ring-ups. It’s rarely a bad idea to reward customers for their honesty — particularly when it’s your mistake.

Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of The Right Thing: Conscience, Profit and Personal Responsibility in Today’s Business, 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


Tuesday, January 25, 2011

"Ordinary Ethics" on "All Sides with Ann Fisher" WOSU

"All Sides with Ann Fisher" discussing Joshua Edwards, the naked man who begged for shelter and froze to death in Columbus last week. Joe Blundo's column give background on the story. Joe appears on the show. I join the discussion around minute 14.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

The good buy earrings

Twenty years ago, a reader from Charleston, S.C., bought a pair of diamond earrings. For years, she enjoyed wearing them. But earlier this year, she lost one of the diamond earrings.

My reader might not be able to recover the sentimental value of the earring, but fortunately for her, she’s been able to recover its cost. “We’d had the earrings insured for more than 20 years,” she writes.

Her insurance company offered her a cash settlement of $5,000 for the lost earring, which was the amount for which it had been insured.

My reader had gone to a jewelry store to have a jeweler examine the remaining earring and was told that the lost earring could indeed be replaced for $5,000. That would give her an earring that would match the size, clarity, and setting of the earring that remained from the pair.

After receiving the insurance check for $5,000, my reader visited two other jewelry stores to see about trading in the remaining earring to upgrade her pair, or to replace the lost earring. A jeweler at one of the stores told her that he could replace the lost earring for one that matched the remaining one for $2,400, far below the price the earlier jeweler had cited — and far less than the amount the insurance company had given her for her loss.

“Should I repay the insurance company the $2,600 difference?” she asks.

If my reader is seeking legal advice, she’s come to the wrong place. I’m not a lawyer, nor am I a specialist in insurance matters. And I’m even less of an expert on diamond jewelry.

But what my reader seems to be asking is a question that falls squarely in the ethics arena, which is my turf. She believes that there might be something wrong with choosing to buy the replacement earring from the less-expensive source rather than go with the $5,000 priced replacement, unless she makes up the difference to her insurer.

If the policy was indeed a cash settlement that didn’t require replacement, my reader has absolutely no obligation to replace the earring at all, let alone return any cash if she can find a cheaper substitute. She could decide to spend the $5,000 on something else, or to bank the money if she doesn’t want a replacement. She’d only be obligated to pay it back if she happens to find the lost insured earring.

Even if she finds the lost earring, paying back such funds is not always as simple as it might seem. Another one of my readers reports that he has been trying without success for almost 40 years to repay his insurance company what they paid him for his wife’s diamond engagement ring after it showed up a couple of years after he reported it lost.

The right thing for my reader to do is to base her decision on whether she wants to buy a replacement earring. If she does, she is free to spend as much or as little of the insurance settlement as she deems necessary . . . and she can do so with a clear conscience.

Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of The Right Thing: Conscience, Profit and Personal Responsibility in Today’s Business,” 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


Sunday, January 16, 2011

Does a comeback kid owe those he harmed along the way?

Most everyone loves a comeback story. That’s borne out by Ted Williams, the homeless man in Columbus, Ohio, who quickly gained attention after a video of him by The Columbus Dispatch’s Doral Chenoweth went viral earlier this month.

In his younger days, Williams, now 53, had been a radio announcer. You only need to listen to a few seconds of Chenoweth’s interview with him to get an earful of his powerful voice. Williams had ended up homeless after run-ins with alcohol, drugs and the law.

But now, he and his cardboard sign declared in the video, he was clean and trying to rebuild his life.

People took notice of Chenoweth’s video that was posted on YouTube. Within days, it received millions of hits. (The original posting has since been pulled from YouTube since it is copyrighted by the Dispatch, on whose site it can still be seen.)

Rapidly, offers began to pour in for Williams — radio interviews, a voiceover offer from the Cleveland Cavaliers, an advertisement for Kraft Macaroni and Cheese, appearances on the network morning talk shows, a feeler from Oprah about doing something on her new cable network, and more. A tearful on-air reunion was staged in New York City between Williams and his estranged 90-year-old mother.

But with the upside of the attention came more details about Williams’ arrest record for theft and forgery — crimes, he told interviewers, he had committed to support his drug habit. He served some jail time for his transgressions.

Regardless of the background, the Cavaliers and others stood by their offers and most commenters on various news websites genuinely wanted to see Williams turn his life around. It’d be good to believe he’s on the path to doing so.

As he sorts through the offers and begins his new life, a question raised by some observers is why this fellow deserves a second chance when there are other out-of-work voiceover professionals who managed to steer clear of drugs and crime. It’s a good question, but such concerns don’t negate the fact that Williams has every right to try to improve his life and that people who want to have every right to help him do so.

While the jail sentences he served may represent a debt paid for some crimes he committed, a question looms, however, of whether Williams has an obligation to repay the people from whom he stole over the years. He may not have a legal obligation to do so and he might not be able to recall everyone he stole from nor how much over the years. But now that he finds himself in a position where his opportunities for income might be steady, is he ethically obligated to set right his past actions?

If he truly wants to start clean and establish that he is a new man trying to set things right, I believe he has such an obligation.

Once the hubbub dies down and he’s able to get established in a home and on a job, the right thing for Williams to do is to try to figure out all of the people over the years from whom he has stolen and then reach out to them to offer a plan for restitution.

Most everyone loves a comeback story. When that person’s comeback involves helping those he harmed along the way to be made whole as well, it’s a story we can love even more.

Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of The Right Thing: Conscience, Profit and Personal Responsibility in Today’s Business, 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


Sunday, January 09, 2011

Appreciating teachers in an era of shrinking resources

A public school teacher from Ohio writes that every fall, a local office-supply superstore has a teacher appreciation day. Teachers are given free supplies, discounts on certain items and the opportunity to purchase more items at a sale price than the general public can. Teachers also can get a reward card that earns cash back or free copying services for purchases they make in the store.

My reader recognizes that the office-supply store has made a business decision to use these appreciation days as a way to get more teachers into its stores. “Because of budget cuts in districts throughout Ohio,” he writes, “teachers are spending even more of their money to buy things they feel they need in their classrooms. From the teacher’s perspective, it’s a win-win situation.”

My reader assumes that the store is hoping that by attracting more teachers to shop there that that will in turn translate into more of their students shopping at the store, as well.

Granted, teachers may become more familiar with the items stocked by the store because they shop there, but my reader wonders if it is unethical for teachers to recommend to students and parents that they buy their school supplies at the store. “What about the teacher who buys school supplies in quantity from the store at a discount and then resells them to students at a higher price?”

There’s no question that budgets for most public schools around the country are being squeezed. (In the interest of full disclosure, I should mention that I serve as the chair of the board of trustees for a public charter school outside of Boston.) Many teachers dip into their own pocketbooks to pay for supplies and items that were once routinely supplied by the school system. Parents too are often expected to pony up cash for participation in educational endeavors that once were better funded.

If a teacher recommends a particular store to parents for their children where they can purchase supplies, such an action doesn’t seem to cross ethical lines as long as the teacher is not receiving any payment or reward for doing so.

But if the teacher is making a profit by buying goods cheaply and then selling them at a higher price to his students, that seems to cross a line. The discount given to the teacher is presumably for him to be able to afford to buy the items he needs to use in the classroom, not to make a profit from students. If he wanted to sell the items to the students for whatever it cost him to buy them, as long as that doesn’t violate any agreement with the office-supply store, that seems fair game.

Some teachers are finding that websites like that allow them to list the supplies they need for a given project so anyone can decide to donate are a good outlet for finding ways to fund projects that otherwise might go unfunded. (Readers of the book Waiting for Superman, which relates to the recent documentary on public education, will find that they receive a $15 coupon in the book which they can use to donate to any project listed on

The right thing is for teachers, parents and administrators to be creative in how they approach teaching in an environment of shrinking budgets. But no teacher worth his salt would ever see such opportunities as a way to turn a profit on his students.

Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of The Right Thing: Conscience, Profit and Personal Responsibility in Today’s Business, 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


Sunday, January 02, 2011

Use me, but don't steal me

A regular reader of my column from New York believes he has me all figured out when it comes to the ethics of selling used records or CDs. It’s clear from how he opened his e-mail to me that he’s read my previous columns about making or downloading unauthorized copies of music or movies.

“You’ve made your stance clear,” he writes. “Your position (with which, incidentally, I agree) is that this is nothing more or less than theft of intellectual property of the artists, producers and distributors of these works. If you want the music, you should pay for the privilege...and pay the rightful owners.”

But my reader wants to know how my clear stance squares with the sale of used records, CDs and DVDs.

If you buy used CDs or DVDs at a garage sale, over the Internet or at a used-book store, he writes, you’re getting the same music or movie, but not a penny goes to the owner of the intellectual property, only to the owner of the physical recording.

“Assuming the original owner bought the recording legally, is this OK?” he asks. “What if it has changed hands several times?” Is it OK only if the recording is no longer in print and thus not acquirable from the original distributor — or is that simply a rationalization? It’s not OK to steal a 1952 Cadillac, for example, simply because they don’t make them anymore.”

He wants to know if it’s OK to buy a used CD or DVD that is still available new if you’re buying it specifically to save money, “that is, getting it cheaper in large part because the seller doesn’t have to pay the royalties that the original record store did?”

“As I write this,” he observes, “it seems as if your position clearly would be that buying used records does not pass ethical muster...but can you really believe that everyone who ever bought a used record or DVD — or, heck, a used book — is guilty of unethical behavior?”

While I appreciate my longtime reader’s loyalty, his assumption is wrong. There is nothing ethically wrong with a rightful owner of a CD or DVD that was purchased legally selling that copy to someone else for whatever price he paid. While it may frustrate me a bit to see used copies of my books for sale in bookstores and online knowing that I will not see a penny from the subsequent sales of the books I write to make a living, the person who purchased the book originally is free to sell his copy once he is finished with it.

Selling a used copy is a far different situation than making an unauthorized copy where the creator and copyright owner is never paid for the work copied.

My reader’s parallel example of the 1952 Cadillac doesn’t hold up. Selling a used copy of a CD, DVD, or book would be more akin to selling a used 1952 Cadillac rather than stealing one. The transfer of legal ownership of used cars happens all the time. So too should used CDs, DVDs, and books be able to change hands whenever the rightful owner decides it’s time to part with the goods.

The right thing is to pay for that which you want to own and then decide what you want to do with it after you own it.

Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of The Right Thing: Conscience, Profit and Personal Responsibility in Today’s Business, 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