My product may be helping my clients cheat other people. Do I need to worry?

Q. I’m a recruiter for a local college which gives non-accredited degrees based on our courses, standard exams, and life experience evaluations. Our students are informed that our bachelors, masters and doctoral degrees are not recognized, but I am concerned that graduates may be using these degrees to deceive their own employers or clients. Do I need to worry?

A. Your concern is well placed, because the seller’s responsibility does not end with the customer. The Mishna explains that while it’s permissible to sell diluted wine to a store customer if we inform him that it’s mixed with water, we shouldn’t sell such wine to a store owner, who is likely to sell it to his own customers without informing them. Otherwise, the original seller bears responsibility for helping the store owner to hoodwink his clientele.

Likewise, selling a “diluted” degree even to an informed customer is problematic if there is a likelihood that he will go ahead and try to “sell” his degree to employers or clients as a prestigious accredited credential. The question for you is how likely this is to take place.

The Mishna goes on to explain that there is no problem mixing water with wine if it is common to sell such “lite” wine in a particular locale. This may be a good description of non-accredited degrees. Many institutions grant such “lite” degrees, and people value them for many good reasons. As long as the school is reputable, its diploma testifies to a certain level of academic achievement and life experience, and this is worth something to an employer. Additionally such a diploma can have a positive effect on the self-esteem of someone who has learned a lot over the course of life without much formal schooling.

If you have good evidence that the degrees you promote are being used to mislead clients and employers of graduates, either because they are being presented as accredited degrees or because standards are so slack they don’t testify to anything, then there is an ethical problem in your job. But lacking such evidence, I see no reason to think that you are encouraging mischief rather than providing an important service.

SOURCE: Babylonian Talmud Bava Metzia 60a.

ADDITIONAL COMMENTS: A number of readers informed me that non-accredited degrees have a significant potential for abuse. This obligates the following clarification:

If the product you are selling has an obvious potential for misuse by the customer, then it’s not enough just to assume everything is OK until you discover otherwise. Take basic steps to make sure that you are not an accomplice in your clients’ wrongdoing!

In the case we talked about, the marketer should ask his employers what they know about how grads use their non-accredited degrees and what steps the institution itself takes to make sure their diplomas are used only in a responsible way.