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The Ethicist
Life's full of questions; he's got answers.

Randy Cohen writes "The Ethicist" column in The New York Times Magazine. If you'd like help with a moral dilemma you're facing at school, at home, or at work, send your question to: ethicist@nytimes.com or The Ethicist, The New York Times Magazine, 620 Eighth Avenue, 6th Floor, New York, NY 10018, and include a phone number.

October 5, 2009

Bogus Blogging

As a journalism major at college, I was thrilled to land an internship at a national magazine. My editor asked me to post comments on one of the magazine's blogs, being sure not to mention that I worked for the magazine but to write in a style that suggested I was a reader. That felt dirty to me. Advice?

MY ADVICE: Let's hope your editor meant this as an integrity test for the new guy. Your ethical instincts are excellent: It's wrong to deceive the readers, and that's what your editor asked you to do.

Some well-known people have been nailed for such antics, even going as far as posting under assumed names, a widespread practice known as sock-puppeting.

For example, the chief executive of Whole Foods Market used a fake identity to criticize competitors. It can be tough for the new guy to challenge an order from his supervisor. But you might say that you would feel more comfortable posting honestly and suggest that candid comments from Nick-the-New-Intern could be a fine spark for reader discussion.

UPDATE: The editor left the magazine, apparently for unrelated reasons, but McCarvel doesn't know what those reasons were.

My school has a monthly pizza sale. Parents buy pies from a pizzeria and sell them to students for $1 a slice. I bought a whole pie at the pizzeria and offered slices for $2 to kids at the end of the long line, but a school counselor stopped me. She said that it was unethical and I was "taking advantage of people." I thought I was providing a service based on the idea that "time is money." Who's right? BEN GAMMAGE, SAN DIEGO

TIME MAY BE MONEY, but how much, really, for a student who is not paid to attend school?

Were pizza a necessity of life (as many teens, and adults, believe) and in short supply, you might have been been guilty of what some call profiteering, as your school counselor charged.

But there was plenty of pizza, so you didn't exploit anyone. And pizza does remain a luxury, so nobody was forced to buy your pricier slices.

So your actions were not unethical, but they were poor social policy—if that's not too fancy a way to describe undermining a pizza party.

Your counselor's concern was valid. The dollar-a-slice deal made possible a school-wide pizza party, affordable fun for everyone. Judging by the long line, it's something people enjoy.

You turned it into a two-tiered system—kids with money don't wait; kids without money do—shifting it from a we're-all-in-it-together event to something less community-oriented.