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Maya job interview

Maya was excited about her job interview with the firm where she had always thought she wanted to work. The meetings at the office went well, and the interview team invited her to the firm’s traditional meet-the-candidate dinner. Maya declined an offer of a drink before dinner, because she wanted to stay sharp and focused.

One of the interviewers leaned over and said, “Better get used to socializing over drinks and dinner. That’s how a lot of our firm’s business is done.” During the meal, while Maya was conversing with another interviewer, she overheard one of the other interviewers say to another, “Isn’t she lovely? She’s so exotic looking. I wonder what her ethnic background is.”

When the dessert tray came around, Maya chose her favorite. “Just this once,” one of the interviewers chuckled. “You should really lose about ten pounds to be in good form to represent this firm well.”

Maya left the dinner feeling very unsettled, but thought to herself, “Well, it’s still a good firm overall, even if these interviewers were jerks.” She was surprised to receive a letter a few days later, politely thanking her for her interest, but indicating that the firm had hired another candidate for the position Maya was seeking.

Did Maya do anything wrong, as a matter of law or as a matter of ethics? Did any of the interviewers do anything wrong as a matter of law or as a matter of ethics? Do you think the firm would be liable if Maya were to bring a lawsuit against the firm, claiming that they engaged in illegal discrimination against her?

Give reasons in support of your answers, including references to specific conduct described in the account of what happened during the interview and dinner.

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As we have discussed, ethics looks to various standards of right and wrong, which may be based on different priorities, values, ethical systems or moral theories. In a society whose members share very similar beliefs and values, individual conscience and cultural expectations may go a long way toward encouraging people to behave in ways the society finds acceptable. In such cultures or societies, laws might be fewer and more simply stated, and there might be fewer occasions requiring the force of law to make an individual conform to minimum expected conduct.

In more pluralistic societies or in cultures in which cohesiveness and harmony in the community is not a strongly and widely held shared value, just and fair laws are essential to creating and maintaining a sense of safety and trust. By defining boundaries and guidelines, rules and principles, law establishes an environment in which members of a society can conduct their personal and business affairs, knowing that there will be predictable consequences for failing to conform to the law’s minimum expectations.

In the legal system of United States and its various state law systems, matters that are violations of criminal law are brought by the government, while matters that are violations of civil (non-criminal law, such as contracts, personal injury, or property law) are brought by the injured party. While conduct is technically “illegal” if it violates either kind of law, civil or criminal, there are differences in the two systems, as the following chart shows.



Who initiates a case in court? Plaintiff (the injured party) Government Prosecutor

(The government is a party.)

Right to counsel Parties may be represented by lawyers at their own expense. If the defendant cannot afford to pay for an attorney, a public defender will be appointed to represent the defendant at government expense.
Standard of proof Preponderance of the evidence (more likely than not) Beyond a reasonable doubt (pretty certain)
If the court finds that the defendant has engaged in the claimed wrong conduct, the defendant is found: Liable Guilty
Penalties for wrongdoing may include:
  • Money damages
  • Specific performance (being required to do what was promised)
  • Injunction (being required to do something or to stop doing something)
  • Monetary fines
  • Community service
  • Jail time

Because laws generally reflect the ethical values and convictions of the society that follows those laws, there is usually a great deal of overlap between what is considered ethical and what is required by law and between what is considered unethical and what is prohibited by law. There are some acts that are wrong only because they are prohibited by law (like driving 60 miles per hour in a 55-miles-per-hour zone), and there are some acts that the law permits that some people find morally objectionable (like eating meat or otherwise consuming animal products).

The most difficult and challenging situations are ones in which the law requires something contrary to an individual’s strongly held moral values and beliefs. Such dilemmas may lead an individual to choose an act of civil disobedience, which involves knowingly disobeying the law in order to obey a law which the individual considers more binding or “right.” One hallmark of civil disobedience that distinguishes it from mere rebellion is a willingness to accept the consequences for one’s choice.

Examples of Civil Disobedience

Because ancient Greek heroine Antigone believed that there was a law higher than the king’s law which required that the bodies of the dead receive proper burial, Antigone disobeyed the King’s decree prohibiting burial of her brother’s body. She accepted the punishment of death for her disobedience to the king’s law, knowing that she had obeyed the higher law. (See video summary of the play Antigone.)

To heighten awareness about the injustice of racial segregation, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. led a non-violent protest in Birmingham, Alabama, for which conduct he was charged with the crime of parading without a permit and punished by confinement in jail. He accepted the consequences of imprisonment and provided an articulate explanation for civil disobedience in his letter from Birmingham Jail.


The following chart illustrates potential areas of conflict between what the law says one must do, must not do, or may do and what one’s ethical values indicate that one must do, must not do, or may do.

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