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Ethical Dilemmas

In several years of writing "Money & Ethics," I've learned ethical conduct is often in the eye of the beholder.

If I'm ever on the verge of thinking I'm a pretty wise fellow, I know where I can get a quick comeuppance: the reader-feedback inbox for my Money & Ethics column. Our readers -- bless their hearts and sharp tongues -- are not shy about telling me when they think my advice on this or that ethical dilemma is ridiculous.

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Like the time I wrote that it's ethically acceptable to leave bequests of different amounts to your children, depending on their different personal circumstances.

Or when I said that it's okay not to give someone who is a prospective buyer of your home the unsolicited information that someone was murdered in the house decades before.

Or when I opined that it's unethical for someone who can afford the major kinds of insurance -- against disability, death or a catastrophic illness -- to choose not to buy coverage, assuming that someone else (family, friends or government) will take responsibility when bad things happen.

I stand by these judgments, but I'd like to remind readers that they are just my opinions. Clearly, everything is not black and white when it comes to ethics.I sometimes point out that my column isn't called "Money and the Law." If a query can be answered with a factual point of law, I tend not to include it.

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For example, on the murder-in-the-home topic, readers pointed out that if the crime occurred in the recent past -- say, within three to five years -- some states require disclosure when a buyer raises the question or, in some cases, even if the information is unsolicited. That's true. But in the case I discussed in my column, 30 years had passed, and the buyer hadn't brought up the subject. That's what made the issue a matter of ethics, not law, and I told the seller I didn't think he needed to disclose the situation.

In the corporate realm, many business practices that I disparage as unethical are perfectly legal -- for instance, laying off employees at the first sign of an economic slump, while continuing to pay huge executive bonuses. Or demanding deeper and deeper discounts from suppliers who are clearly struggling, perhaps even more than the buyer's company is struggling.

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Striking a nerve. Several estate planners took issue with my approval of a mother's intention to leave unequal bequests to her three children because one had chosen a high-paying profession and two were working in low-paying occupations (all of which were very worthy, she felt). Keep bequests equal, the experts said, to avoid sibling resentment.

Maybe that's good family psychology, but the mother had asked me if I thought her plan was ethical. Sure, I told her. But I also suggested that she explain the reasons in her will to family members, while reassuring her children that she loves and respects them equally.

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Recently I was critical of a highly paid young adult who, despite being easily able to afford his own health insurance (even if only for catastrophic illness or injury), prefers to roll the dice and "go naked."

My advice apparently struck a raw nerve with readers who are hostile to the new individual-coverage mandate (and tax) in the recently passed health-care law. "I support his decision to avoid buying what he doesn't need or want," one reader wrote. "Yes, he must be able to pay his bills if the unexpected happens," the reader continued, "but the odds are in his favor."

This reader unwittingly agreed with me, I think. The odds may be in the young man's favor, but few young people can afford a major medical emergency on their own. That's what makes insurance an ethical imperative for him and everyone else who can afford to purchase it.

That's just my opinion, of course. And if I have learned anything in several years of writing "Money & Ethics," it is this: Ethical conduct is often in the eye of the beholder.

Columnist Knight Kiplinger is editor in chief of Kiplinger's Personal Finance magazine and of The Kiplinger Letter and Kiplinger.com.

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