Sunday, October 30, 2011

Whose past is it, anyway?

How much should our pasts haunt us?

Not long ago, a publication hired the college classmate of a reader to author a regular column on a range of topics.

When the reader saw the announcement about the column, he was "bowled over." Could this be the same person, he wondered, who had been accused of plagiarism back at school and whose friends rallied to his defense until it became clear he was most likely guilty? The same person who admitted to filling out surveys himself to avoid going door-to-door to get answers from the respondents he was supposed to be interviewing for his summer job? The same guy my reader bailed out of jail one summer after he had been arrested for shoplifting?

My reader acknowledges that because these incidents happened decades ago, his memory could be inexact.

He also acknowledges that people's pasts should not haunt them forever. "Youthful indiscretions and even crimes and misdemeanors for the most part should not be held against someone," he says. "On the other hand, does not the type of behavior I've described disqualify him from being a columnist?"

He wants to know if the public deserves to know the past of such an adviser. "Does the publication deserve to have the opportunity to at least review these recollections? Or, since I cannot prove the details, and I fully recognize the faultiness of memory, should I let them all rest?"

In cases like this, it was the responsibility of the prospective columnist to inform his editors about anything - past or present - that could affect the work he is to do for the publication. If the columnist classmate of my reader didn't do this, he should have.

The public does haves a right to know about anything that might create the impression of a bias or conflict in a writer's work. From what my reader has revealed, it's hard to know whether the classmate has such a bias. But I would think that disclosing to his readers the type of experiences my reader relates would make for rich material. If he tackles it honestly, he may very well build trust with his audience.

If the publication doesn't know about its columnist's past, I believe it has the right to know about anything that might affect the credibility of his work.

The right thing? The publication should have adequately done its due diligence and the columnist should have disclosed any information in his past that could call his work into question.

If my reader is truly flummoxed over how such a person landed this job and can't rest without learning the details, the right thing would be for him to call his classmate and ask.

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

Do you have ethical questions that you need answered? Send them to

(c) 2011 JEFFREY L. SEGLIN. Distributed by Tribune Media Services, Inc.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

What's not mine is not mine

Several years ago, my best friend went furniture shopping for his tiny studio apartment in Manhattan. He was in the market for a small chest of drawers - well, large enough to store most of the clothes he couldn't fit in the less-than-ample closet, but small enough that he could lug it home five or six blocks from the department store to his walkup.

Having selected the most inexpensive, yet presentable dresser he could find, he picked it out fully assembled, carried it to the checkout stand, and then proceeded to pay. As he reached the exit, the drawers began to open a bit. One of the drawers was loaded with a menagerie of stuffed toy animals.

He'd already paid for the dresser and figured he could high tail it out of the store with no one the wiser. But the temptation was momentary. He returned to the register and informed the clerk. The stuffed animals were removed and my best friend went on his cumbersome way, dresser in tow.

I was reminded of his find after listening to a recent episode of "This American Life," a weekly radio show produced by Chicago Public Media. The story was about a fellow who, after police returned his stolen car (after a surreal ordeal), found the trunk contained a chest full of expensive tools, a big ring of master keys that could open many cars, and other assorted goods the car thieves left behind. It was never reported whether the fellow returned the goods that clearly weren't his and that clearly had been used for illicit purposes.

"Shouldn't he have returned that stuff?" my wife, who was listening to the show with me, asked.

The fellow had already been through quite a bit, having at one point spotted his stolen car being driven by the thieves and tailing them while talking to a 911 operator until the crafty thieves eluded him. (Police caught them later that night.) Surely, he had been through enough and couldn't he construe that the unexpected deposit in his car's trunk made up a bit for his troubles?

Who would be the wiser if he just kept the stuff?

The legality of possessing sets of master keys to other people's cars aside, there's no ethical justification for the victim keeping the goods. Regardless of the fact that the police didn't discover the stolen objects in the car, the right thing would be for the fellow to contact the police and return anything in his car not owned by him.

If character is how we behave when no one is looking, then the "no one would be the wiser" justification holds no weight.

The car owner should return the tools, the keys, and the other contraband and be grateful that unlike some car theft victim,s his vehicle was returned at all - and intact, to boot.

Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of The Right Thing:Conscience, Profit and Personal Responsibility in Today's Business," is a lecturer in public policy and director of the communications program at Harvard's Kennedy School.

Do you have ethical questions that you need answered? Send them to

(c) 2011 JEFFREY L. SEGLIN. Distributed by Tribune MediaServices, Inc.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Thankless returns

Occasionally, I run across someone's lost wallet.

My response has always been to do what I could to find out the name of the wallet's owner and then return it. The response from the rightful owner has ranged from appearing chagrined to have to meet me at a nearby subway station (where I'd found the wallet) to recoup her rightful belongings, to a gentleman who sent my family a gift certificate to a buffet at a Chinese restaurant after he received his wallet in the mail.

Does how people respond dictate whether we should do the right thing? Should it?

Things had not been going particularly well for a reader from Southern California. She had been unemployed for quite a while. Finances were tight and she'd overdrawn her checking account by $196.

As she pulled her car into the bank's parking lot, she found a space that was directly adjacent to the ATM. There, scattered in the space right next to her car were 10 $20 bills. The $200 could not have come at a better time, she figured, so she tucked them in her pocketbook and drove home.

The next day, however, she grew concerned for the person who might have lost the money. She went to the bank and asked its manager if someone had reported any money missing.

"Luckily," she writes, "they had gotten a call." The customer had described exactly how much and where the money had been lost.

At the manager's request, my reader left her name and number with the bank. With her permission, the manager was going to forward the money to the customer along with a note containing the name and number of the woman who had found it and returned it to the bank.

"I didn't return the money expecting anything," my reader writes. "But a thank you would have been nice. The woman never even called to say 'thank you.'"

My reader grew angry over the lack of an acknowledgment for her good deed.

"Especially given my own financial dire straits," she writes, "I was seriously regretting my decision to give the money back."

Returning found cash can be trickier than returning a lost wallet, since cash rarely has any identifying characteristics on it. Still, my reader went out of her way to see if she could get it to its right owner.

Sure, she could have used the cash herself and no one would have been the wiser. But she knew that the money's owner might be agonizing over the loss. Clearly, the owner was concerned and notified the bank.

My reader did the right thing by trying to find the rightful owner of the money. The owner was wrong not to express her thanks.

A small courtesy to acknowledge an act of kindness would have gone a long way toward reaffirming my reader's faith in people's goodness. She can rest easy knowing that her own act is a reflection of the quality of her character.

Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of The Right Thing:Conscience, Profit and Personal Responsibility in Today's Business," is a lecturer in public policy and director of the communications program at Harvard's Kennedy School.

Do you have ethical questions that you need answered? Send them to

(c) 2011 JEFFREY L. SEGLIN. Distributed by Tribune MediaServices, Inc.

Sunday, October 09, 2011

Does society have a responsibility to care?

A reader was taken aback while watching the Republican presidential debate in Tampa, Fla., recently. During the debate among contenders for the Republican nomination for the U.S. presidency that was sponsored by CNN, U.S. Rep. Ron Paul made clear he didn't believe it was right to let sick people die, but he argued that those who are sick should take responsibility for themselves.

As the exchange between Paul and moderator Wolf Blitzer continued, Paul was asked if a young man who might fall into a coma should be left to die. A handful of audience members at the debate shouted "Yeah."

My reader was motivated to write because of "the disgraceful cheering that took place" at that debate. Still, the reader believes the question was a fair one: "Does society have the obligation to care for someone who shows up at a hospital room without medical insurance? Does society have an obligation to care for him?"

But my reader would like to reframe the question a bit. "If a person possibly expects society to give him medical care sometime in the future, is he obligated to prepay in some way?"

He explains that one way this might manifest itself is whether someone is obligated to donate blood if he expects society to be able to provide it for him at some point in the future. He argues that since the current system of voluntary blood donation seems to supply enough blood, a person who doesn't donate could say he shouldn't have to because there is no shortage.

"But," my reader continues, "that's not the situation with organ donation." He notes that there is a shortage of organs available for transplantation and people die waiting for them. "Therefore," he asks, "shouldn't a person who expects or hopes that society will find an organ suitable for him if he needs it sometime in the future be obligated to be an organ donor if he should die suddenly?"

Absent the vitriol, my reader circles back to the question similar to the one raised at the Republican debate: "Is a person who expects society to give him medical treatment obligated to make arrangements to pay for it?"

Yes, of course, we'd like to think that people would be able to take responsibility for their health care and pay for the services they use. We'd also like to think that those who might draw on particular services in the future choose to give back if the opportunity arises so that others can draw on similar services.

But if the underlying question my reader poses is whether those who don't have the resources to pay or those who haven't taken the time to donate blood or fill out organ-donor cards should be denied services, the answer is no.

We've decided that, as a society, it's inappropriate to turn away those who are in need of medical or emergency services that could save their lives, even if they can't afford such services. That decision reflects an ethical choice we've made about how we're going to live together. Those who shouted "Yeah!" to a suggestion that we let folks die rather than provide health care fall distinctly outside of the agreed-upon norms.

A goal of having everyone take responsibility for their health and contribute to those efforts of which they might afford themselves in the future is a good one. But having such a goal doesn't remove the responsibility of caring for those who might not have been as prescient, responsible, or capable to make the same decisions before they find themselves in need.

Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of The Right Thing:Conscience, Profit and Personal Responsibility in Today's Business," is a lecturer in public policy and director of the communications program at Harvard's Kennedy School.

Do you have ethical questions that you need answered? Send them to

(c) 2011 JEFFREY L. SEGLIN. Distributed by Tribune MediaServices, Inc.

Sunday, October 02, 2011

Many happy returns (Y2K edition)

Eleven years ago, the world was in a bit of a tizzy over the prospects of the calendar turning from 1999 to 2000. Predictions littered the landscape of a major technology meltdown that resulted from chips in computers somehow finding themselves baffled as the old century gave way to the new.

Business folk loaded up on stuff that enabled them to back-up their data. Consumers, worried the year switch might result in the meltdown of the municipal power grids, stocked up on flashlights, foodstuffs, and portable electric generators.

Doing my own part, I decided to prepare for the Y2K meltdown by avoiding my laptop for the month and instead pecking out my writing on a 1916 portable Corona typewriter. My findings? Slower writing, but fewer interruptions . . . essentially a wash.

But questions linger for many about how some people prepped in the wake of the hype and fear and dire predictions about the collapse of industries and services.

A reader in Ohio is still wondering about the actions a family member took to gird his loins against the ravages of Y2K. "Fear led my brother-in-law to take actions I considered unethical," he writes. "He disagrees."

A few weeks before 2000 hit, the brother-in-law bought a portable generator from a local merchant. He made the purchase knowing that the merchant had a 30-day return, full-refund policy. His plan was to keep the generator in its box unopened and then return it for a full refund if he hadn't needed to use it.

A week after 1999 gave way to 2000 without incident, the brother-in-law returned the generator and received a full refund.

"I told him his actions were unethical because he bought the generator in bad faith," my reader writes. "Moreover, he denied the merchant the opportunity to sell the generator to a legitimate customer."

My reader asks: "Was his behavior ethical? I say not."

If the merchant offered a 30-day return, full-refund policy, the brother-in-law did not do anything wrong. Just like his customers, the merchant knew that Y2K was upon him and that there might be some folks who would load up on stuff only to return it after the year turned, they didn't need the stuff, and they were still within the 30-day period. If the merchant didn't want to risk such returns, he could have changed his policy.

The brother-in-law's actions are decidedly different from the practice of purchasing, say, an expensive item of clothing, wearing it once, but leaving the label on so the item can be returned the next day. In such a case, the item is used and the customer is trying to disguise this fact to get a full refund. The brother-in-law, however, never opened the item and therefore could return it under the agreed-upon policy with absolutely no guilt.

My reader questions whether his brother-in-law's intent changes the situation. No more than the intent of the merchant in not changing his return policy during the 30 days leading up to Y2K. Perhaps the merchant thought the risk of getting returns was worth it since some of his customers might decide to hold onto their purchases even when Y2K-ageddon never struck.

It doesn't matter. What matters is that the customer and the merchant each honored his side of the deal and could enter the new century with a clear conscience.

Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of The Right Thing:Conscience, Profit and Personal Responsibility in Today's Business," is a lecturer in public policy and director of the communications program at Harvard's Kennedy School.

Do you have ethical questions that you need answered? Send them to

(c) 2011 JEFFREY L. SEGLIN. Distributed by Tribune MediaServices, Inc.