Sunday, August 25, 2019

How many delicious deals are too many?

There are now dozens of home meal kit services. The concept seems simple enough. Subscribers receive a box of all the fresh ingredients they will need to be able to prepare a set number of meals during the week.

While each meal kit service seems to try to position itself a bit differently from the next, it's hard to imagine all of them will attract enough subscribers to become profitable and survive.

Nevertheless, they persist. And with that persistence comes a barrage of reduced price or free trial offers. The offers vary. Sometimes, a week's worth of ingredients is offered for free if a prospective subscriber will consider signing on for a longer term.

It's possible, I suppose, to move from one meal-kit service to another for several months without having the pay anything. Whether it's OK to take advantage of competing free trial offers like this is what a reader we're calling Ben wants to know.

Ben has used at least three meal kit services now, all on a trial basis. He and his partner have enjoyed preparing the meals together. Some they've liked better than others, but Ben has always enjoyed the fact that the food has been free.

Up until now, Ben just accepted a trial every few months when he happened upon one. But now he wants to know if it would be wrong to try to string together as many free trials as he can to see if he can get free food for a good meal several times a week.

Ben's question reminds me of a reader who once asked me if it was OK to switch from one cable television and internet service provider to another when the attractive introductory pricing elapsed. The reader was fortunate that there was more than one cable and internet service provider in his area to choose from. Every two years or so, he indicated, he looked into switching services to see if he could get a better price.

My response to Ben is the same as it was to the cable switcher. As long as he is not lying to any of the companies or misrepresenting himself on any application for free trials, there is nothing wrong with attempting to get as good a deal as possible.

I would imagine that if the meal-kit companies keep good records that, eventually, they might refuse more than one free trial per customer, but given the number of meal-kit companies out there now, it might be a while before Ben finds himself circling back around to a company he'd already tried.

Another thing for Ben to consider is whether he wants to put all the time in that it might take to track down offers and to keep track of what he's getting when. There's nothing, I suppose, to keep Ben from signing up for two or more trials in the same week, but then he might find himself with far more food than he and his partner can consume.

It may feel to Ben as though he's getting away with getting something for nothing (because he is), but the right thing is for him to be honest in his dealings with the meal-kit companies. Bon app├ętit. 

Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of  The Right Thing: Conscience, Profit and Personal Responsibility in Today's Business and The Good, the Bad, and Your Business: Choosing Right When Ethical Dilemmas Pull You Apartis a lecturer in public policy and director of the communications program at Harvard's Kennedy School. 

Follow him on Twitter: @jseglin

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


Sunday, August 18, 2019

Weighing the greater good

Occasionally, I give over the space of my column to draw your attention to a book or story that seems relevant and particularly timely to any thoughts about doing the right thing.

In the past, readers have asked me what some of the influences have been on how I think about answering ethical questions posed or thorny challenges featured in the news or our daily lives. For some time, Ursula K. Le Guin's short story "The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas" has struck me as particularly astute at pointing to the limitations of how to structure an idyllic society built on the notion of the greatest good for the greatest number of people.

The notion of the greatest good is the underpinning of utilitarian theory. Proponents see it as a method of making decisions and taking actions which maximize the prospects of a good life for most of a group of people. On the surface, it's a noble endeavor.

But Le Guin, who spent a lifetime exploring alternative societies in her rich body of work, poignantly addresses the tradeoffs involved in utilitarian theory. If we are part of the majority that benefits from actions taken, that could be result in a good, rich life. But if we are among those who are not part of the greater number of people receiving the greatest good, the outcome might be far more dismal.

If you haven't read "The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas," I must warn you that what follows will give away a key plot twist which appears close to the end of the story. Consider this a spoiler alert.

The premise for Le Guin's story is that there is an idyllic society called Omelas. Bells ring, birds chirp, food is plentiful, and people live full lives of happiness and joy. We are treated to Le Guin's masterful scene setting and description of Omelas. Her description paints such a beautiful picture, full of detail, followed by: "Do you believe? Do you accept the festival, the city, the joy? No? Then let me describe one more thing."

Le Guin goes on to let us know that in the village of Omelas, there sits a young child in a room on the dirt-floor basement of one of the "beautiful public buildings." The door is always locked. No one visits the child, except to fill his or her food bowl and water jug. The child will occasionally say, "Please let me out. I will be good!"

But the people of Omelas know that for the society to continue as it has been depends "wholly on this child's abominable misery."

There's no indication in Le Guin's story that anyone tries to free the young child. The vast majority of Omelians go along with their lives. But every so often someone grows silent for a few days, decides he or she cannot bear to accept a society premised on such cruelty, leaves the beautiful gates of the village, and walks away from Omelas.

I offer Le Guin's story as recommended reading not to make any poignant observation about any specific topical issue. But it's a thoughtful meditation examining whether we would choose to do the right thing when faced with the knowledge that the goodness of our own life is premised on harsh realities for someone else. 

Follow him on Twitter: @jseglin 

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