What Are Wayne’s Obligations According to Law?

Article / Produced by TOW Project

Wayne knows that the Consumer Guarantees Act (of New Zealand) gives customers six guarantees about a vehicle they purchase. The critical one is that it must be of acceptable quality. The vehicle must be:

  • Fit for the purpose that type of vehicle is normally used for.
  • Acceptable in finish and appearance.
  • Free from minor defects.
  • Safe.
  • Durable — in other words, the vehicle is able to be used for its normal purposes for a reasonable time after purchase.
  • The age and price of a vehicle must be taken into account when deciding whether it meets an acceptable quality.

So what is considered a “reasonable” time after purchase? There is no clearly defined answer to this, so Wayne’s legal obligations are not precisely defined. However, for a seven-year-old Camry with medium mileage like the one Wayne has sold, three months or 5000 kilometers (km) would be considered a “reasonable” period for Wayne to be legally obliged to repair the car. A customer might well think that six or twelve months were “reasonable”. A period as long as twelve months, however, is unlikely to be upheld if it were ever tested in a court of law.

Wayne asks the customer how many kilometers he has driven in the car over the twelve months. The answer is 22,000 km. This suggests to Wayne that he has no legal obligation to repair the fault. Both the time since the sale, and the distance it has traveled, are well beyond what would be a “reasonable” warranty for a car of this age and mileage.

Legal and/or moral commands?

Even though Wayne is satisfied he is under no legal obligation to pay for the repair, that is not the end of the matter as far as he is concerned. Legality and morality, he knows, are not the same things. The law usually defines society’s minimum moral requirements for the protection of people. Wayne remembers an incident that a friend told him about recently. The Board of Directors of a particular company was discussing a business proposition. Initial comments were about the legality of the proposal, and it soon became clear that the scheme was well within the law. But then one director said, “It is legal. But is it right?”

“As soon as that question was asked,” Wayne’s friend commented, “it was followed by a long silence, because we all knew that the answer was ‘No’. Even before we had time to discuss why.”

Wayne knows that what the law says is clearly not enough. However, thinking beyond legal minimum standards is not always easy. What higher standards should a company follow? There was a time in western society when Christian ethical principles provided a higher standard that was widely — if not universally — accepted. In America, the J.C. Penney company —  a large department store chain — was famous as “The Golden Rule Store,” and it would have been considered proper to make a customer service decision based upon biblical commands. Undoubtedly something similar applied (or still applies) in societies strongly identified with a single religion or philosophy.

But as western societies have become secularized, religious considerations have become unacceptable as a basis for corporate ethics. However, no other generally accepted source of ethical guidance has taken the place that biblical ethics formerly held. This generally means that there is no source of ethical guidance beyond merely keeping the law. This is a problem for many business schools when they seek to discuss ethics. Concerned to assert their secular status and to show themselves free from partiality or religious interference, they often end up largely ignoring morality and values. The result is an arid focus around what is legal. The discussion among the company directors above demonstrates the inadequacy of this attitude.  They all knew something was wrong, but they had no way to talk about it.

Commands beyond the law

Despite these difficulties, a Christian approach to ethics looks for some command from God that will name clearly what is right and wrong. In some cases, it’s not hard to find Bible verses that speak about work and employment issues, for instance. In others, it can be very difficult to identify, understand or apply biblical verses properly. How do we know which rules and principles apply in which situations? There are lots of different systems for applying the Bible.

So where does Wayne begin looking for this sort of answer to his dilemma?