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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 26 & November 9, 2009

Foreign Justice—or Injustice?

Two years ago, I lived in Singapore, and my apartment was robbed. When I returned recently, I learned that the robber was sentenced to 10 years in prison and 10 strokes of the cane. The sentence seems excessive and the caning barbaric. I want to appeal for mercy on his behalf, but must I accept Singaporean justice?

NO, YOU MUSN'T. You don't abandon moral reason when you leave home. Keeping silent is not a sign of respect: You should appeal for justice. Do so with civility, and with knowledge of local history and values. You might also appeal through local reform groups.

Such appeals cut both ways. One hundred and fifty years ago, Europeans criticized America's slave owning and, more recently, our treatment of prisoners. It can be instructive to have one's conduct examined from another perspective.

To afford to start a new business, I must use low-cost foreign manufacturers, some of whom likely maintain unsafe working conditions. In this particular country, many workers doing the tasks I'll require receive low wages and face serious health problems, including chronic colds, fever, stomach disorders, chest pains, and tuberculosis. Is it wrong to start my business in this way? NAME WITHHELD, NEW YORK

YES. IT IS YOUR MORAL OBLIGATION to see that those who work for you even indirectly—those from whose labor you profit—receive decent treatment. While wages and working conditions vary internationally, nobody's idea of "decent" encompasses "chronic colds, fever, stomach disorders, chest pains, and tuberculosis," even in developing nations, even where people badly need jobs.

It can be difficult to monitor things from thousands of miles away, but, fortunately, you have other options. There are labor organizations, both governmental and private, that address workers' rights and can assist you in hiring people who will be treated fairly. Or you might reconsider conducting at least your initial operations domestically. Local governments, trade unions, and manufacturers are eager to add industrial jobs. You can consult all of them.

What you may not do is simply throw up your hands at working conditions overseas or fob off this duty on those with whom you contract. You must strive to learn whose sweat provides your equity and how it is extracted.

UPDATE: The entrepreneur hired an outfit in Uttar Pradesh, India, whose labor conditions are unknown to him. If the project advances, he vows to travel there to inspect the manufacturing facilities.