The Ethics of Cyber Mooching

David Sirota explores the question:

Healthy interpersonal relationships always involve a careful dance around the hard-to-define line between friendly sharing and selfish mooching. Homeowners wonder: How many times is it OK to ask to borrow my poorer neighbor’s lawn mower? Family members ponder: How often can I ask to borrow the museum pass from my economically equal cousin? Friends consider: How frequently can I ask to use a wealthier buddy’s NBA season tickets? In each of these questions (and you know you’ve asked yourself one of these), we are really asking when the other person will think we’ve crossed the Mooch Line, and when that person will angrily implore us to just save up and buy what we want for ourselves.

In the Internet age of frictionless data transfer, such unanswered — and potentially unanswerable — queries are now even more pervasive. Whether sharing legally (lending Kindle books, etc.) or illegally (ripping DVDs, pilfering Netflix or an MLB.com pass, etc.), whom we ask and how much we ask them for are ethical quandaries whose rules shift depending on familial connection, types of friendship and economic status (among other factors). (A disclaimer: Nothing in this article condones any illegal sharing of anything. It is only to acknowledge that such illegal sharing does, in fact, occur — and then to explore the ethical implications of that kind of behavior.)

Sirota presents three options to avoid mooching:

Option 1 is bartering. If someone gives you something that they are paying for, return the favor with something they want that you already have or purchase. Lend them a Kindle book. Let them have access to your Wi-Fi network. Something.

Option 2 is putting up some cash to help defray the cost of what you are getting. In the case of HBO Go, TechCrunch’s data tell us that many believe a fair market price is something along the lines of $12 a month (less than the full HBO subscription, but still fair because you don’t get all of the versatility of that subscription).

Option 3 is getting the service in question from someone higher on the economic food chain, preferably within your family, where (theoretically) the Mooch Line is a bit more forgiving, and where parents and grandparents in particular have a near ancestral obligation to permit mooching.

Do the same options work for pirated content? They arguably do as between the moocher and moochee, although they don’t do anything to address the injured content distributor.

Personally (in the context of legal sharing only, of course), I usually go with Option 1, in the form of looking for opportunities to help those who have shared with me, rather than in the form of outright bartering.

Attorney General Fights Unethical Home Improvement Contractors

There is a little known law in the New York General Business Law (Article 36-A) that requires most home improvement contractors to state in writing the services they will provide.  The law is based in ethics and overall good general business practices.  Unfortunately, a lot of contractors are either not aware of the law or they refuse to follow it.

As of a few weeks ago, Article 36-A is no longer a little known law.  New York Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman announced that he has cracked down on 47 Upstate New York contractors for their ethical, legal and business failings:

Article 36-A of the General Business Law requires that every home improvement contractor, before beginning work, provide the consumer with a written contract, signed by both parties, which sets out certain specific information and disclosures. 

“It happens all too often, homeowners hire contractors without having a signed contract stating what work will be done and how long it will take. And many times, they end up with a much larger bill than expected, or with a project that was never started or completed,” said Attorney General Schneiderman.

“Homeowners need to know their rights and home improvement contractors need to obey the law. My office will fight to protect consumers’ hard earned dollars and ensure that bad contractors are held accountable.”

The full press release from the AG’s Office is available here.  Article 36-A can be read in its entirety here

It kind of goes without saying, but when I hire a landscaper to trim trees along my driveway, a roofer to replace my roof, or an HVAC specialist to fix my AC unit this summer, I’ll be sure make sure get it in writing!

Bounded Ethicality

Over the past couple of decades, psychologists have documented many different ways that our minds fail to see what is directly in front of us. They’ve come up with a concept called “bounded ethicality”: That’s the notion that cognitively, our ability to behave ethically is seriously limited, because we don’t always see the ethical big picture.

One small example: the way a decision is framed. “The way that a decision is presented to me,” says Tenbrunsel, “very much changes the way in which I view that decision, and then eventually, the decision it is that I reach.”

Essentially, Tenbrunsel argues, certain cognitive frames make us blind to the fact that we are confronting an ethical problem at all. …

“If you’re thinking about a business decision, you are significantly more likely to lie than if you were thinking from an ethical frame,” Tenbrunsel says.

According to Tenbrunsel, the business frame cognitively activates one set of goals — to be competent, to be successful; the ethics frame triggers other goals. And once you’re in, say, a business frame, you become really focused on meeting those goals, and other goals can completely fade from view.

From NPR.

New Pro Bono Requirement Prior to New York Bar Admission

As if the $130,000+ law school price tag and horrific job market were not enough of a deterrent for would-be lawyers.

Starting next year, prospective lawyers must show that they have performed at least 50 hours of law-related pro bono service before being admitted to the New York state bar, Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman announced yesterday.

The chief judge said in his annual Law Day address at the Court of Appeals that the requirement would serve a two-fold purpose: It would address the large, unmet need for lawyers to represent the poor and it would inculcate in aspiring lawyers a career-long duty to serve the public.

“If pro bono is a core value of our profession, and it is—and if we aspire for all practicing attorneys to devote a meaningful portion of their time to public service, and they should—these ideals ought to be instilled from the start, when one first aspires to be a member of the profession,” Lippman said to a crowd of judges, lawyers and legislators.

(Emphasis added). More here.

The Facebook Password Ethical Dilemma Hits Albany

To follow up yet again on the Facebook password issue (see posts from April 11th and March 24th),

If Albany County Legislature Chairman Shawn Morse has his way, employers won’t be able to look at things potential employees post on Facebook. Unless, it’s done publicly.

Morse says he plans to introduce legislation that would ban county employers from asking for prospective employees’ social media account passwords.

The full story from the Times Union can be found here.

Justice and Criminal Justice Fees

Economist Alex Tabarrok writes:

Debtor’s prisons are supposed to be illegal in the United States but today poor people who fail to pay even small criminal justice fees are routinely being imprisoned. The problem has gotten worse recently because strapped states have dramatically increased the number of criminal justice fees. In Pennsylvania, for example, the criminal court charges for police transport, sheriff costs, state court costs, postage, and “judgment.” Many of these charges are not for any direct costs imposed by the criminal but have been added as revenue enhancers. A $5 fee, for example, supports the County Probation Officers’ Firearms Training Fund, an $8 fee supports the Judicial Computer Project, a $250 fee goes to the DNA Detection Fund. Convicted criminals may face dozens of fees (not including fines and restitution) totaling a substantial burden for people of limited means. Fees do not end outside the courtroom. Jailed criminals can be charged for room and board and for telephone use, haircuts, drug tests, transportation, booking, and medical co-pays. In Arizona, visitors to a prison are now charged a $25 maintenance fee. In PA in order to get parole there is a mandatory charge of $60. While on parole, defendants may be further assessed counseling, testing and other fees. Interest builds unpaid fees larger and larger. In Washington state unpaid legal debt accrues at an interest rate of 12%. As a result, the median person convicted in WA sees their criminal justice debt grow larger over time.

Worse, these fees are often charged before the individual has been convicted. Tabarrok makes the point that while there is some appeal to passing the costs of the justice system on to its “users,” these fees put a heavy burden on those least able to pay, including both criminals, who are usually poor, and their families.  Debt related to the fees creates additional barriers to reintegration into society, thereby undermining the effectiveness of the system.

The whole post is worth reading, along with the comments.

Link Ethically

1. Botox is not exempt from New York State sales tax.

2. The power of strategic inferiority.

But sometimes the most successful innovations involve coming up with inferior products, but making them cheaper and more convenient. So it was with the late Murray Lender, former CEO of Lender’s Bagels, who passed away last week at the age of 81.

Rest in peace, Murray.

3. Is there anything wrong with defendants wearing nonprescription glasses?

According to the Post, nonprescription “hipster” glasses have become something of a sensation at Washington, D.C., courthouses. Inmates trade them before hearings or obtain them from family members. Sometimes lawyers give them to their clients.

We all know that wearing glasses doesn’t mean that you are smart, or that you necessarily read a lot. You would think that the frequency of defendants wearing glasses would, at some point, lead people to perceive the wearing of glasses as being indicative of a less trustworthy personality.  See Exhibit “A” below.

4. On “greenwashing,” and the lawsuits related thereto.

As the world increasingly embraces the mantra of green products and services, the legal community is encountering a proliferation of litigation surrounding false and misleading environmental marketing claims. Popularly called “greenwashing,” this recent, albeit alarming, phenomenon merges the concepts of “green” (environmentally sound), and “whitewashing” (to gloss over wrongdoing) to describe the deceptive use of green marketing which promotes a misleading perception that a company’s policies, practices, products or services are environmentally friendly. “Eco-Friendly,” “organic,” “natural,” and “green” are just some everyday examples of widely used labels that can be confusing, even misleading.