My husband and I bought an apartment for investment purposes and placed it with a broker. A couple came to look at the apartment, liked it, and told our broker that they would pay the $4,000-a-month rent that we had requested. We were pleased, but the broker insisted that while we should accept their offer, we should also show the apartment to a few other people because there's always a chance that the first couple might renege on their commitment.
The following day, another couple saw the apartment, loved it, and offered to pay $4,500 a month. The broker is advising us to take the second offer, as our agreement with the first couple was only verbal. But what do you think--am I obligated to stay with my original commitment, or should I accept the second offer, which amounts to an extra $6,000 a year, money we could really use?
You put something on the market at a price that you yourself specified. Someone agreed to the price, and you accepted the offer. Are you bound by this agreement or not?
If you're asking me a legal question, the answer is obvious. Because nothing was signed, you're not legally bound to abide by your commitment. If you're asking me a moral question, the answer is very different. It seems to me that it would be immoral for you to back out of this deal. These people relied on your word. They did nothing wrong; indeed, they accepted the conditions you'd imposed.
In Jewish law, the religious tradition I know best, if a person reneges on a verbal commitment in a business deal, he or she may be formally censured by a court. The censure comes in the form of a curse: "He [God] who exacted punishment from the generation of the flood [at the time of Noah] . will exact punishment from whoever does not abide by his word."
As a practical matter, I would notify the people whose offer you accepted that you have received another, higher offer and that, therefore, in addition to their verbal commitment to rent your apartment, you would like them to sign a lease immediately. If they refuse to sign right away, then you have the moral right to enter into an agreement with the second couple. By making such a notification, you'll be doing the morally fair thing while protecting your own interests.
This question might sound minor, but you'd be surprised how often this issue comes up. I'm a minister, and I give at least one sermon or speech every week. As is inevitable when one lectures so often, my talks frequently build on ideas I've read or heard from others. It's awkward to credit someone each time I mention such an idea. On the other hand, it seems wrong to present an idea that I learned from someone else as my own. Does ethics dictate that I cite the source for every opinion I quote?
Dear Possible Plagiarist,
It seems to me that unless someone gives you permission not to mention his or her name, you're morally obligated to credit the person. Not to do so constitutes a sort of double thievery: You steal the credit due to the person who first enunciated the idea, and then you deceive your listeners into thinking that you're smarter or more knowledgeable and insightful than you really are.
Oddly enough, doing the right thing in such a case will actually make you look better. People who hear what you say will be impressed with the idea you've taught them, with the resourcefulness you've showed in finding out about the idea, and with the fact that you've given credit where it's due.
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Joseph Telushkin, a rabbi and Beliefnet columnist, is the author of 10 books, including "The Book of Jewish Values," just out from Bell Tower/Crown.