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When Does Investing Turn 'Unethical'?

|Includes: BRK.B, CHK, CYTX, GILD, GSK, Altria Group, Inc. (MO), NVS, SAM, TBL

A friend of mine who's just begun sinking some money into stocks was looking at picking up some shares in cigarette-maker Altria (MO) as a good dividend play.
"One question," he said. "Would that be unethical to invest in?"
I had no easy answer.
This is something every investor must wrestle with to some degree or another.
It's easy for folks who don't invest their own money to throw stones at those of us who choose exactly where it goes.
Seldom does a public conversation about stocks go by that someone isn't telling you to "buy solar" or some other way of "doing good" and not bad, with your dollars. 
Not long after the Massey Energy coal mine disaster killed 25 miners last year, a read an investing columnist call the stock a good buy in response to a reader's question.
His answer prompted a passionate response from a reader who happened to be a university professor. The reader found it offensive that the "wealthy" investing class would make money on a company that risked its workers' lives the way Massey did.
As I read it, I couldn't help but wonder if the the prof thought about where his own money was invested. He is guaranteed a pension upon retirement. Massey was in the S&P 500 until just a couple weeks ago when it was bought out. The odds are pretty good that professor was benefiting from Massey, too, even though he isn't part of the investing class he envisioned.

Every portfolio has 'em.
When I look at my own portfolio, there are ethical questions. I'm invested in Chesapeake Energy, whose natural gas fracking is the subject of much environmental concern here in Pennsylvania.
I don't like that, and I'm hopeful some new environmentally friendly fracking fluids help clean the process up.
Just the other day, I read a story about Buffalo News editorial staffers being asked to sacrifice pay in order to preserve jobs. The paper was threatening a 20-25 percent reduction in staff. All at a time when it was turning a $16 million profit.
As a news reporter dedicated to providing good coverage to readers, cutbacks like these are tough to read about. Cutting staff often diminishes the quality of coverage. And of course, it hurts employee morale.
But I also see management's side, mostly because the paper is owned by Berkshire Hathaway (NYSE:BRK.B). Berkshire became one of my holdings earlier this year, and -- newspaper cuts or not -- I plan to add to what I have soon.

About those cigarettes
It's nice when you can feel good about the company you own, about the products it makes and the ways it goes about making them.
I have some of those in my portfolio, too. Sam Adams beer. Timberland. Cytori Therapeutics and Gilead Sciences. They all do good in their own ways.
But that can't always be the case, which brings me back to my friend's question. Would it be ethical to invest in a cigarette company? That's something only he can decide. People are going to continue to smoke. Altria will continue to take their money, and it will continue to hand back what's now close to a 7% dividend to those who hold shares of Big Mo stock.
If you are uncomfortable holding the stock, don't own it.
If you feel comfortable that you're not contributing to society's ills by keeping a piece of Big Mo for its high yield -- or you just don't care -- buy some.
What if you're feeling pretty good about it, but still have some lingering doubt that you might be contributing to people taking up the habit?
Pair it with a piece of GlaxoSmithKline (NYSE:GSK) or Novartis NVS). Both make a nicotine patch.
That way, you're also helping people quit.