NYT Ethicists Square Off In Battle Of Ethic Proportions

Jeffrey Seglin, a Boston-based columnist who writes “The Right Thing,” a weekly syndicated newspaper column on ethics for the New York Times Syndicate, recently weighed in on a controversy involving strategic Democratic documents found by a Republican in a copy machine in a Madison, Wisconsin political battle. The question: Were the documents fair game? Seglin:

From an ethical standpoint, where a document is found does not matter. If it was clearly marked, the person who found it knew that its contents were confidential and belonged to someone else. It may be a political windfall to find documents that reveal your opponent’s game plan, but using material that clearly belongs to someone else is tantamount to theft.

Randy Cohen, who writes the New York Times Magazine‘s “Ethicist” column, weighed in on a similar question a few weeks ago:

My boss accidentally left a document on my desk listing the salaries of all the company’s employees. I read only the header, not the contents, then returned it. I felt I did the right thing, but now I’m not so sure. Reading it would have harmed no one, and the information would have helped me negotiate a long overdue raise. But would it have been ethical?

More than ethical — admirable. In your place, I would have read the document, made sure my own salary was listed and circulated it (anonymously — I’m reform-minded, not self-destructive) to everyone in the company.

We, of course, have no opinion on the matter, particularly when the document in question is, say, left on a desk at a book party held at the home of — oh, I don’t know — an ex-CEO of an “entertainment media company,” and a blogger invited to cover the party takes a picture of the document and, say, perhaps, posts the picture the next morning on his media blog.

No opinion at all.

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