Ethics Quiz: Let The Seller Beware?

My son, an auto mechanic and an BMW enthusiast. just purchased a used BMW for 300 dollars from a customer who was frustrated with the car and not willing to pay any more to repair it. He regarded the purchase as great deal, but it was even a better deal than he thought. While he was checking out the car last night, be discovered that a spark plug had been misinstalled by the owner. When it was replaced, the engine sang like Beverley Sills.

My son said that he had suggested to the owner that he change the spark plugs, but had been told that this had recently been done. “He was nasty about it, too,” he said. “Would he have sold you the car for such a low price if the car was running the way it is now?” I asked.

“Never,” my son replied.

Your Ethics Quiz of the Day:

Is there an ethical duty to offer the car back to the original owner when it is discovered after the purchase that the vehicle was better and more valuable than the owner thought?

Secondary question: My son says that he might feel badly about the deal if the owner hadn’t been such a jackass throughout the transaction, and not only rejected his advice that would have revealed the car’s problem, but did so abusively.

Is that a valid and relevant ethical consideration?


75 thoughts on “Ethics Quiz: Let The Seller Beware?

  1. I lost what would have been my first car because of a situation a bit like this. Guy one year behind me in high school bought a car from my parents for under $100. This was after they had talked to me about it being my car. At sale time, the car was not fit to drive – not disabled, just overheating when run. It wasn’t a BMW or similar, but it was a great car that I had enjoyed for several thousand miles, and I had at least five times as much personal sentimental investment in it than the guy paid. I was not around when my Dad haggled with the buyer, but I am sure Dad did not act like Jack’s son’s BMW’s previous owner – even though Dad had a DIY pride-streak in him that sometimes was obnoxious.

    Dad was just tired of paying for repairs – but the car was anything but a “lemon” – or maybe, he was weary of failed attempts at DIY. I would not have figured out what the problem was. Even if I knew what the problem was, I would not have had the confidence, and skill and experience, and knowledge of tools for a DIY fix – even a simple fix. The most daring and sophisticated DIY I had done up to that time was the tear-down and restoration of vintage electric lamps. I guess you could say I was more motivated by electricity than by internal combustion, in those days. I knew nothing about engine cooling systems. A minor problem involving that system was the culprit. I could have paid for the fix by someone else, using my allowance and lawn maintenance income – and my parents knew that! I don’t know – maybe Mom and Dad were presuming to protect their son against throwing good money after bad.

    Well, the young buyer was a fledgling DIY-er – fixed the car for under $5. Somehow, my parents found out about that before I did, and told me. (Is it any wonder now, why “Eeyore” is part of my name?) That loss of car, plus out-of-the-loop status, was 3rd-degree (as with a sunburn) teen trauma.

    The bottom line is, that should have been my car. I don’t think the other guy literally stole it. But I do think he took an advantage that even he did not realize he had when he made the deal – an advantage that he should have had the good sense to know was not his to take. I think he should have offered the car back (at zero profit, just transfer and parts costs) after he came clean about the easy fix. But, I can imagine my parents, especially Mom, turning down the offer and saying, “Just keep it.”

    In Jack’s son’s case, I would have offered the BMW back, even if the owner had been jerkish.

    There are fair deals that are win-win, and square deals that are big win-little win (even big win-no win). And then, there are steals that are unethical win-lose. There are takings-of-advantage that are too close to, or too clearly, a false win-win to be distinguishable from stealing.

    If, in a car sale deal, an advantaged one benefits from a disadvantaged other by way of a disparity in information or knowledge – a lack of transparency – that is created and sustained by that one who intentionally withholds that knowledge from the other, how can that possibly NOT be swindling?

    I ask specifically in context of a car sale, because I concede that there can be (and are) dealings in other commodities (like, say, antiques, like those lamps I restored) where the information disparity between buyer and seller is “fair game” and thus subject to “let the [buyer, and seller] beware.”

    Even more true still to my Eeyore-ness, this is my second try to post this – spammed again!

  2. #1. No, for the following reason. It is the seller’s responsibility to be educated about the value of the goods he is selling. I had a garage sale awhile back where I sold a Schwin bike for much lower than it was worth to some lowlife that knew what it was worth. Would I do business with him again? Absolutely not. Still, basically it was my responsibility to know the bike’s value.
    The only exception to this would be a seller being an elderly person or a young kid.

  3. “I don’t think the other guy literally stole it.” I agree with that. If (a big if by the way) you should be mad at someone it should be your dad. Your parents gave you the impression that this car could become yours. And then, without consulting you, they sold it. That’s the first mistake. The second mistake is that they sold it to someone they/you knew.
    A good rule of thumb is to preferable sell second hand stuff to people you don’t know and will not see again.

      • I got it, thanks Zanshin. My most forgiving speculation about my parents was that they did it all to protect what was my meager estate at the time – and, despite the pain they knew they’d cause by telling me stuff I should have known before they knew, they wanted to be transparent to me so that I would keep trusting them. Now that I’m older, and more learned in the law (HA!), I also see how they were behaving a little bit like the U.S. says it means to behave with laws like the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act: They had wasted money (my speculation on their thinking) trying to get the car fixed; so, for my own good, they didn’t want “their” allowance money (mine) to be wasted on more repair attempts. Epilogue: a few years later, I bought my first car brand-new with all my own money – a hot sports car.

  4. I am usually very lucky in getting deals, there have been a few times that I have gone back and given the seller additional money, usually when even my valuation turns out to be wrong. If get something worth 25 percent more more than I paid i’m fine with it when over five hundred and under a thousand, under a hundred dollars, 50 percent

  5. Jack, this is an easy one. In short, keeping the car without informing the seller of its value is ethical, but it is not the most ethical of the options available. The very fact that the question came up (i.e., ethics alarms were ringing) signals that the transaction was not right. Knowing the difference between right and good and wrong and bad may be the key. There is usually only one right response to any particular situation (though I suspect there are rare cases in which a few right responses exist). There are also several good (ethical but not necessarily the most ethical) actions available to us. Good exists on a continuum while right and wrong is a bimodal situation (most actions, even good actions, are wrong, simply because they are not the one right action). Yes, texagg04, there are situations in which “it is ethical to do something but NOT unethical to NOT do it”. There is always a most ethical (right) option, as well as ethical options more ethical than others.

    That the seller is an ignorant, abusive jackass matters little to the analysis. Yes, the seller may have been a wealthy person that didn’t care about the loss, but giving the benefit of the doubt is rarely punished and often beneficial. Any attempt to let him suffer with the consequences of his behavior is tainted with vindictiveness, revenge, and retribution. It may arouse sentiments of justice, but it doesn’t touch upon compassion, mercy, benevolence or anything else far more worthy of admiration. A number of commenters have remarked upon the seller’s expertise. Justice entails that the seller be remunerated for the worth of his goods (what they are actually worth) regardless of the seller’s price or what the buyer is willing to pay.

    Misrepresenting the value of goods (even by silence) is also deceptive. If the seller walks away thinking he made a deal beneficial to himself and that his abusive behavior was warranted, his perceptions of reality are corrupted. This is a disservice to the seller. The suggestion by texagg04 that keeping the car without comment to the seller was not the “most honest” is accurate. Also, JP’s suggestion to consider Proverbs 25:21-22 is warranted, despite the vindictiveness implied in the verses.

    The Golden Rule absolutely applies. If you made a bad deal, would you want to know about it? Beyond any desires for ignorance, would you be better off knowing about it? Playing upon the seller’s ignorance is not a virtue. I applaud JP and Rick M for informing sellers that that they had something much more valuable than their prices suggest. And, brian, Kant’s imperative also applies. Do we want to be ignorant of the quality of our past transactions? If we are ignorant, are we not a tool (means) of others?

    At this stage in the game, and as Zoltar Speaks! acknowledges, the most ethical move for your son is to offer to sell the car back to the previous owner for $300 plus whatever expenses your son has incurred, including the labor he devoted to fixing, cleaning, and licensing the car. The previous owner, your son, your son’s employer, and the rest of the world are more likely to benefit from this deal than any other options available to them and us. You might ask your son, “What response leads to you becoming a better man? What response provides the seller a chance of becoming a better man?” What response leads to a better world? From there, your son can decide upon his obligation and duty.

    (p.s. I sympathize with luckyesteeyoreman. My dad sold a beautiful 1969 fastback Mustang to a kid down the street for $300 when I was months away from getting my driver’s license. It is painful to this day.)

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