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Hi.  I’m John Hooker, a professor of business ethics at Carnegie Mellon University.  I created this blog to provide a forum for analyzing ethical dilemmas in a rational way.

I analyze each dilemma, based on the principles described under How to analyze.  You may need to look at these to understand what I am talking about.  You can also contribute to the discussion.

  • Recently posted dilemmas appear below.  To view all the dilemmas by category, click the topics on the left.
  • To contribute your dilemma, write it as a comment on this post.  I will convert it to a separate post so it can be categorized.
  • To help with someone else’s dilemma, reply to it.
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Card counting in casinos

“Advantage players” use card counting and other techniques to boost their winnings in casinos.  Card counting is the practice of memorizing which cards have been dealt so as to predict better which cards may be dealt next.  Other techniques include statistical analysis or simulation of the game beforehand, exploitation of weaknesses in shuffling procedures, and so forth.  A recent New York Times Magazine article tells the story in detail.

Advantage playing is usually legal, even though casinos frequently eject advantage players when they can be identified.  But is it ethical?  Is it cheating?  Is it fair?

Essentially the same question arises in a more serious context.  Professional financiers are “advantage players” in the investment markets, relative to ordinary investors.  Their ability to analyze data and construct optimal portfolios gives them an edge.  Is this ethical?  Is it cheating?  Is it fair?

Contributed by a finance professor.

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Labor abuse at Amazon

Amazon requires warehouse workers to wait in long lines, without pay, to be searched for stolen goods before they are allowed to go home. The company has been repeatedly sued for this practice, only occasionally with success. Given this and other labor abuses at Amazon, is it ethical to buy merchandise from the company?

Contributed by anonymous

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Too friendly with subordinate of opposite sex

I work in a company with few women in leadership roles.  One of my colleagues, who is female, joined the firm about a year ago.  She is intelligent and driven and has a desire to advance.  When she first joined, she sought out a meeting with the Vice President in an attempt to gain visibility and better align herself with the company priorities.  As a result, the VP assigned her a few additional projects and recommended her for a training program that could lead to a promotion.

However, the VP has also started texting and calling my colleague, sometimes at night or on weekends. He even suggested that they run a race together in another city.  My co-worker is not married, but her superior is.  She finds the contact to be inappropriate but fears that saying anything, even to him, will limit her opportunities at the company.  She is also concerned that, by initiating a meeting with the VP, she bears some responsibility.

Contributed by anonymous

To comment on this dilemma, leave a response.  For anonymity, omit your email address and website, and use a screen name.To comment on this dilemma, leave a response.  For anonymity, omit your email address and website, and use a screen name.

Fleeing taxes

The overly aggressive tax system in the US is increasingly driving individuals to abdicate their citizenship. There are Federal, state and local income taxes, Medicare and Social Security taxes, sales taxes, property taxes, capital gains taxes, and on and on.  Is it ethical for citizens to move to a country where taxes are more reasonable?

Contributed by anonymous

To comment on this dilemma, leave a response.  For anonymity, omit your email address and website, and use a screen name.To comment on this dilemma, leave a response.  For anonymity, omit your email address and website, and use a screen name.

Gifts to customers

Diwali is a very big festival in India, and it is customary for companies to send gifts/sweets/cards to customers. Typically my company sends the same gifts (with the company logo) to all the customers. However, we were expecting a big order from one the customer, and I had a customer demo coming up. The sales manager asked me to hand over a bottle of scotch to the customer instead of the regular gift. I refused to do so, because I was not comfortable with this.

Contributed by anonymous

To comment on this dilemma, leave a response.  For anonymity, omit your email address and website, and use a screen name.To comment on this dilemma, leave a response.  For anonymity, omit your email address and website, and use a screen name.

Demand for bribe money

I was working as a U.S. management consultant in a south Asian country with a strong tribal tradition and a relationship-based culture. Decades of social unrest had created an environment where most people were focused on meeting their short-term needs. My team received a new assignment to advise a high-level government official and his support staff (administrators, secretaries and logistical departments). The official met with us and was generally positive about what we would accomplish together. Towards the end of the meeting, he began bringing up several requests, and asked me halfway through if I was “writing this down.”

The requests were:

  • 1,000 light bulbs for his office
  • A digital camera
  • An electric generator for his home
  • Viagra

He then explained that we could begin our work after he received these items.

Contributed by anonymous

To comment on this dilemma, leave a response.  For anonymity, omit your email address and website, and use a screen name.To comment on this dilemma, leave a response.  For anonymity, omit your email address and website, and use a screen name.

Medicaid vs privately-insured patients

In a for-profit healthcare environment, we are constantly in a balancing act between doing what’s right for our patients and what’s profitable for the company.  This becomes even more of an issue when we start differentiating patients based on insurance plans. Someone on Medicaid [funded by the U.S. government] brings about half as much revenue as a patient with private insurance.  Should we treat both patients the same?  More than half of our patients are on Medicaid.

Contributed by anonymous

To comment on this dilemma, leave a response.  For anonymity, omit your email address and website, and use a screen name.To comment on this dilemma, leave a response.  For anonymity, omit your email address and website, and use a screen name.

Manufacturing weapons

As an employee of a technology company, I help to build tools that accelerate the pace of engineering and science. Our clients include automobile, aerospace and defense industries.

My biggest ethical dilemma arises when we work with defense companies to build missiles, rocket launchers, warships etc. On one hand, I feel it will help protect innocent civilians from outside threats, but I also know these weapons will be used to kill other innocent people. We have witnessed world wars, the Vietnam war, or the Afghanistan war, and they have only led to nations/families being destroyed as a consequence. I believe no one wins these wars, but they only lead to destruction and distraught populations – and I hate that part of my job that is associated with war.

Contributed by anonymous

To comment on this dilemma, leave a response.  For anonymity, omit your email address and website, and use a screen name.To comment on this dilemma, leave a response.  For anonymity, omit your email address and website, and use a screen name.

Misuse of e-commerce site

Etsy is an e-commerce retail site where artisans can set up their own boutiques to sell craft goods for a profit. While it is free to set up your own boutique shop on Etsy, the seller must pay $0.20 for each listed item, and Etsy receives 3.5% of the profits for each product sold.

I have a friend who has had an Etsy shop running for some time. At one point she was in touch with the customer through the Etsy message boards and realized that the customer wanted to purchase a large quantity of an item. She quickly realized that it would be much more profitable to bypass Etsy and sell privately to the buyer. By doing so, she circumvented the seller agreement with Etsy and simply used the site as a means of advertising and depriving Etsy of any profit.

Contributed by anonymous

To comment on this dilemma, leave a response.  For anonymity, omit your email address and website, and use a screen name.To comment on this dilemma, leave a response.  For anonymity, omit your email address and website, and use a screen name.