Questions for Mr Ethicist

Real questions from people facing dilemmas:

You are Mr Ethicist:
Choose 8 of the questions to Mr Ethicist, and write half a page on each in reply (max = 4 pages). Begin each answer with a sentence stating the ethical principle (e.g. "The Golden Rule" or "Two wrongs don't make a right" etc) you're using in your answer. Hand in or email before class tomorrow.

  1. Recently some people objected to's giving sales commissions to Amazon relented, canceling this arrangement, while preserving similar deals with more than 50,000 Web sites. While I abhor the Intifada, I worry about encouraging companies to choose business relationships contingent on politics. Is it censorship or just good business? -- M. D., Washington. 0

  2. In past national elections, a political party asked my wife, a popular Brazilian actor (her nightly soap operas are seen in many countries), to be its TV spokeswoman, a highly paid job. The problem: their politics could not be farther from hers. She claims it is not she who would represent the party, but a persona she'd create. (She wouldn't give her name or make first-person statements.) I say she'd be widely recognized. If they ask her this year, should she do it? -- Sean Mcintyre, Rio De Janeiro, Brazil. 6

  3. I attend an Ivy League university where students are graded on a curve. During a midterm, the student next to me was copying answers from my paper. Because a higher score for her would mean a lower grade for me, I intentionally wrote some incorrect answers, waited until she handed in her test booklet and then changed my answers to the correct ones. Was this wrong? -- Brenna Tinkel, Philadelphia. 9

  4. Is it ethical to call your competitors posing as a potential customer in order to get information? Most of the information is available to anyone who calls; we're simply not identifying ourselves as the competition. -- Joel O'Neill, San Francisco. 15

  5. I discovered that my supervisor routinely reads employee e-mail. Legal issues aside, is this ethical? I can understand doing so if a crime is suspected, but not as a matter of routine. It feels like a violation of my privacy. What do you think? -- Anonymous, New York. 8

  6. A senior manager with a consulting firm, I often interview job candidates. My role is both to evaluate them and to "sell" them on our firm, a place I've grown less enamored of. In fact, I'm seeking other employment. What do I tell candidates who ask my opinion of the firm? If I tell the truth, I harm my firm's chance to land them; but a lie is unfair to the candidate. And I can't avoid doing the interview. -- Anonymous, Mass. 14

  7. I work for a small company that provides editing services. Recently I was told to hire freelancers in India for less than half what we pay domestic freelancers. I have been forbidden to tell my freelancers about the plan. My associates have discussed quitting en masse. What is the morally correct thing to do? -- K.H. 6

  8. My 11-year-old son confessed to selling his completed homework to classmates. He earned approximately $10 a week doing so. I have discouraged this business, referring to his behavior as a form of cheating, but my husband finds it entrepreneurial. How should I handle this family conflict? -- R.E., New York. 8

  9. My stockbroker executes trades for the private client accounts of a nationally known and highly successful mutual-fund manager. My broker will often tell me what stocks the fund manager is buying for those private accounts. Should he be offering me this advice? Is it O.K. for me to listen? -- Anonymous. 4

  10. My firm received an appealing resume, so we scheduled an interview. Then we learned that the job seeker was working for Company X, a fact omitted from his resume. My boss is a board member of Company X and a close friend of the founder. We immediately canceled the interview, explaining that we would not want to poach a Company X employee. Should my boss tell his friend that one of his employees is doing a job search? -- L.G., New York. 7

  11. I've been offered a job at a questionable law firm. I'd only be working on civic-minded pro bono cases, not the dicier corporate accounts that pay the firm's bills. Should I take the job? -- L.A., New York. 5

  12. My husband, a systems engineer, was trying out software that monitors employee Internet use where he works. In one mode, this software reports only the types of sites visited by members of a department -- shopping, news, research, etc. In another, it lists sites visited by specific employees. While testing the software, my husband discovered that a key member of the firm visits a lot of sex sites. What should he do with this information? -- J. Johnson, Georgia. 7

  13. I recently received a job offer, which I orally accepted. When I approached my current employer with my resignation, he made a counteroffer. I now wish to remain with my current employer. Is it correct to revoke my acceptance of the original offer? -- Anonymous 7

  14. My friends and I ardently oppose the war in Iraq on both moral and political grounds. Would it be ethical to invest in oil futures, believing the war I oppose might increase their value? I say yes: my money would not finance anything directly war-related (as an investment in Northrop Grumman might), and these futures represent oil from places like Nigeria and the North Sea, not Iraq. My friends say such an investment would be war profiteering. I don't have money to invest; but if I did, would it be right? -- Andrew Miller, New York. 3

  15. As I was dropping a memo on a colleague's desk, I glanced -- inadvertently, I promise -- at her computer and saw my name. It was an e-mail to our boss attributing the failure of a recent project to me. That was a rash overstatement, but how can I defend myself without acknowledging my inadvertent e-mail read? 5

  16. I am on the board of a hospital raising funds for a necessary extension. A local businessman with known ties to organized crime has offered a substantial donation. Should we take the money? -- S. Wagner, Stamford, Conn. 6

  17. A friend of mine was turned down for a job at my company because, according to the grapevine, his references did not speak highly of him. Now I'm in a quandary. I want to tell my friend to rethink his referees, but they most likely believed their comments were confidential. Also, I worry about my obligation to my company and to the law. Should I talk to my friend? -- Anonymous, New York 1

  18. After eight weeks on strike, after most of my union colleagues returned to work under threat of being replaced, I, too, crossed my own union's picket line. I'm still struggling with my actions. I was required to join the union (it was a closed shop). I came to view the leadership as incompetent and just plain wrong. When I tried to dissent, I was hooted down. In the meantime, I was in real danger of losing a job I held dear. The "moral" position seemed to be to stick with the union; but is it not moral to decide for oneself when one disagrees with one's representatives? -- R.H. Detroit 1

  19. Company policy allows me a certain number of vacation weeks per year. My manager, in an effort to be generous (or liked), offered me an extra week -- but I am not to mark it on my time sheet. Do I take his offer, since he indulges in an extra week himself, or follow company policy? -- Anonymous. 6

  20. When I was an administrative assistant, my boss interviewed a candidate for a job. The next day, while my boss was out of the office, the candidate called and told me that she had inadvertently sent my boss an e-mail that contained information not intended for my boss and that may have jeopardized her chance of getting an offer. She pleaded with me to delete this e-mail before my boss saw it. Should I have? -- R.J., New York. 5

  21. My supervisor, a co-worker and I were driving home from a business conference when my supervisor was pulled over for speeding. After sitting in silence for some time, he bluntly asked us to share the cost of the ticket since he was only speeding to get us home quicker. Are we responsible to share that cost? We didn't ask him to drive or to speed. -- Anonymous, New York 6

  22. Over a recent dinner, two close friends, copywriters for an ad agency, told my wife and me about their forthcoming pitch to a major company. My wife, who also works in advertising but for a different agency, kept quiet during this story and failed to tell our friends that her agency is pitching the same company. Should she have said something? May she withhold the conversation from the folks at work? -- Anonymous, New York 11

  23. I manage a group of sales reps. While traveling from Baltimore to Manhattan, one of them was led to a line of cabs by a person she thought worked as a greeter for Penn Station. When she was about to get into a cab, she was robbed of $80 by the "greeter." Is the company responsible for reimbursing her since she was robbed on company time? -- Chuck Errig, Baltimore 2

  24. We recently hired a handyman to do some work around our house -- light carpentry, drywall, paint, etc. He did a great job, and we recommended him to friends. A few weeks later, our handyman said he owed us $50 for referring him. Is it ethical to take this payment and future ones as we refer him again? My husband says yes, I say no. (We bet $50 on your answer -- if I win the bet, I'll split it with you.) -- Lynne Goldsman, Atlanta 10

  25. On a trip to Ghana with a church group, I went to buy some souvenirs. My fellow travelers encouraged me to haggle, but I felt it would be uncool when the original price was significantly lower than it would be here in the States. More important, we were in a third-world country where the average daily income is less than a dollar a day. Should wealthy people haggle with the poor for lower prices? -- André Middleton, Brooklyn 8

  26. I occasionally traffic in Persian carpets. A fellow came over about one I'd advertised for $130. He offered $160 -- evidently he remembered the $175 price of another carpet and was trying to bargain. I accepted, and we each felt we got a great deal. My housemate, Dave, says, "No harm, no foul." My wife thinks I ripped the guy off. Counsel? -- J. C., California 6

  27. I am a state-certified mediator and arbitrator. Recently I mediated a serious dispute to the satisfaction of both parties. One of them, an American-born Japanese businessman, offered to send me a special fish, prepared for eating, as a token of appreciation. I humbly refused the gift as a violation of my code of ethics. He was hurt by my rejection of his Japanese custom, meant only to express appreciation. Was I wrong? -- Abraham Best, Lauderhill, Fla. 1

  28. A close friend and I are looking for work. I came across an ad for a position and applied for it without consulting my friend, knowing that he was already applying for a job at the same place. Now that I've been offered the position, I'm certain it is the same one my friend applied for. Should I offer to decline it in the hope that this will increase his chances of getting it? I made no effort to consult with him before applying for it initially. -- Anonymous, New York City 3

  29. My company fired a critical senior person on a project I was assigned to. Without him, the project could not proceed. A few days later, at a meeting with the client, my colleague said that this person was ill. I was embarrassed but kept silent. When I asked my supervisor about this, she said that she hadn't told my colleague to lie, just to say the fired employee was unavailable. Ethical? -- Dan Colquhoun, Toronto 5

  30. I am an American posted to Vietnam, where pirated movies on DVD are cheap and ubiquitous, and legitimate copies are nearly nonexistent. Would it be ethical to purchase pirated DVD's if I also join a monthly unlimited-rental service like Netflix? Living where I do, I cannot use any of its services, but enrolling would let me pay the movies' rights-holders for their work. -- Ben Moeling, Hanoi, Vietnam 4

  31. I'm looking for an apartment. If I take an apartment priced below what I can afford, I take it away from someone who can't afford a more expensive one. If I take a more expensive one, I contribute to the upward pressure on prices for all apartments. Do these choices cancel out, or is there a preference? -- Ilya Shlyakhter, Cambridge, Mass. 4

  32. A good friend said he had to do volunteer work for his business-school degree. He had little time and so, in exchange for a letter saying he had done the appropriate hours, he wanted to donate money to an event I was organizing -- he wanted to give $1,000 to buy Christmas toys for children with cancer. When he gave me the form to sign, it was not from his school -- he'd lied about that -- but from law enforcement. I'd have to affirm that he'd done community service required by his drunk-driving suspension. Should I sign? If I don't, must I give back the money as he demands? -- Anonymous, Chicago 5

  33. My husband works for a store that urges sales associates to promote credit cards with an annual rate of 21 percent. He considers it unethical to push this card on poorer people who cannot pay off the balance promptly. He suggests the card only to customers who spend a lot, although he processes an application for anyone who asks. He says he's refusing to victimize poor people; I say he's making unwarranted assumptions about people's best interests: discounts come with the card. What do you say? -- J.M., Washington 3

  34. I am an executive of a small marketing firm that has been hired to develop advertising for a political campaign I strongly oppose. The owner of the agency knows my beliefs and admits to having similar ones. However, he doesn't feel we can afford to walk away from this business. Is there a way to reconcile my personal and heartfelt beliefs with my allegiance to my company? -- Anonymous 5

  35. A friend and I disagree about an investment he wants to make. It involves buying (at a discount) the life insurance of terminally ill individuals who want proceeds from their policies before their demise. My friend sees this as helping the "victim" receive funds now. I see it as making money from someone's death. You? -- Stanley Farb, Jeffersonville, Pa. 2

  36. I have an opportunity to buy the property of my dreams. The problem is that the elderly couple who have lived there for more than 40 years love the house and assume that I will maintain it. I intend to tear it down and build a more modern house on this beautiful property. If I reveal my plan, they may refuse to sell me the house and land. Am I ethically bound to tell? -- W.S., Maryland 5

  37. A friend from Nigeria wants to go to college to study medicine and has asked me to help him. Unfortunately, Nigerian universities are notoriously corrupt. Many young people are forced to bribe professors and university officials to gain admittance. Wouldn't I contribute to a corrupt system by helping my friend bribe his way into the university? -- Katie Boyle, Claremont, Calif. 3

  38. My mother wants to hire someone to clean house and handle the laundry. To assure this person's integrity, she plans to leave loose money around as "bait" during the housecleaner's first few days of work. Here in Brazil, those stray bills can constitute a significant percentage of a housecleaner's wages. My mother sees this "trap" as a perfectly ethical precaution. Do you? -- Daniel Hutchins, Juiz de Fora, Brazil 5

  39. My class can donate about $100 to charity. Some people want to help a couple on campus with the leukemia treatments for their 2-year-old daughter. Others say we can help more people by contributing to a vaccination program in developing countries. I understand the impulse to save more lives, but doesn't that calculation miss something about the value of each human life? Where should we donate our money? -- Will Frankenstein, Palo Alto, Calif. 3

  40. When my friend bought a car dealership that had gone bankrupt, he refused to honor a promotion of the previous owner offering free oil changes for life for all cars bought there. A local newspaper promptly named my friend Rogue of the Week. When he acquired the income-producing potential of this business, didn't he also assume the duty to honor the previous owner's promises? -- Anonymous, Portland, Ore. 3

  41. Is it ethical for a cabdriver to charge more for a ride during a snowstorm? The cabs that operate out of my busy train station have no meters; passengers are normally charged a set amount per person based on distance from the station. What few buses there are don't run past 8 p.m., so unless you have a car or have arranged a pickup, the only way home is by taxi. -- Anonymous, Woodbridge, N.J. 6

  42. I've been happily married for 21 years. Ten years ago, my husband suffered a debilitating disease that keeps us from making love. Four years ago, I bumped into an ex-lover, himself married, and began a sexual relationship, reawakening my sexual feelings. Neither of us would ever divorce. I'm sure I can keep this relationship secret, so my husband will not get hurt. My devout Catholicism forbids such an affair, but does secular ethics? -- Anonymous 7

From the New York Times