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Question 137: May customers take advantage of generous guarantees?

Some businesses advertise that they guarantee their customers’ satisfaction and offer a full refund to anyone not completely satisfied with their goods or services. I see nothing wrong in watching for such guarantees, interpreting them strictly, and taking advantage of them. My wife thinks that is dishonest.

Last year a local supermarket chain advertised specials on their house brand of turkeys. The guarantee was that any family that had one of their turkeys for Christmas and did not consider it as good as any turkey they ever had, could return the leftovers the next day and get a full refund. For several years we have been getting our turkeys from a farmer; they are premium birds and cost a bit more, but undoubtedly are the best turkey we or any of our guests have ever eaten. The store’s offer was too good to resist, though, so I bought a twenty-five-pound turkey there. We had it for Christmas dinner and had sandwiches off it for lunch the next day. Everyone agreed it was very good, but not quite as good as the turkey we usually have. That evening I took the remains back to the store with the cash register receipt and got the full refund. My wife thought this was definitely going too far.

Here’s another example. One of the motel chains advertises a free night’s lodging if a guest is not completely satisfied. We stayed last summer at one of their motels, and the air conditioner quit in the middle of the night. We opened the windows and, fortunately, were reasonably comfortable. In the morning, though, the noise from the parking lot was loud and clear through the open windows, which prevented us from sleeping late, as we had planned. I would have complained to any place about the air conditioner, so I had no qualms invoking the guarantee. My wife agreed that a complaint was in order but argued that people generally would not expect free lodging for something the management probably could not help.

As long as a person tells the truth, it seems to me there is nothing wrong in holding a business to the letter of its guarantee. My wife’s view is that customers should ask for a full refund or waiver of charges only if they are so dissatisfied they would feel entitled to some adjustment even if a business did not advertise a guarantee. What do you think?


This question calls for application of norms excluding lying and fraud, and for judgment by the Golden Rule. In taking advantage of guarantees, one must not lie and may ask only for what the guarantee promised. If these conditions were met, the questioner did nothing dishonest in the cases described. Still, it probably would be a sign of avarice for someone who lives comfortably to buy something while expecting to take advantage of a money-back guarantee. By contrast, I see no reason to think taking advantage of the motel chain’s guarantee was morally questionable. Still, differences between the parties’ economic status could require a Christian to forgo his or her rights.

The reply could be along the following lines:

Your position about taking advantage of guarantees includes a limiting clause: “as long as a person tells the truth.” One might be tempted to violate that condition—for example, by saying this turkey is not as good as any we ever had when, in fact, one cannot recall ever having a better one. Lying to take advantage of a guarantee plainly would be fraud, and both the lie and the fraud would be grave matter if the amount were significant. So, in responding to your question, I shall presuppose that no false statements are made in taking advantage of guarantees.

Similarly, you say you interpret guarantees “strictly.” It is essential to be consistent in doing so, since consistently strict interpretation will exclude potential abuses. For example, some mail-order companies guarantee complete satisfaction and promise to refund, no questions asked, the full price of returned merchandise even after it has been in service. One might be tempted to buy camping equipment, use it for a time with complete satisfaction, and then return it. Even though the no-questions-asked policy would let one do that without lying, it almost always would constitute theft. The guarantee is that unsatisfactory merchandise may be returned, and so one dishonestly takes what the guarantee did not promise by invoking it without a reason for dissatisfaction. In what follows, I also shall assume that all the terms of guarantees are interpreted strictly.

Given these assumptions, I think your wife is mistaken in regarding what you did in the cases you describe as dishonest.

Even so, she could claim that in the first case, even if not dishonest, you treated the store unfairly in taking advantage of its guarantee. You were virtually certain the store’s turkey would not measure up to the premium birds you have been getting. So, she might argue, you did not give the store the fair chance you want others involved in transactions to give you.

That argument, however, is unsound. True, you want others involved in transactions to give you a better chance of benefiting from the exchange than you gave the store, but you are not operating a business and do not enjoy the benefits businesses gain by making generous guarantees. Businesses do that only because it is in their own interest. Many people are motivated to try the guaranteed merchandise or service, and some will adopt it as their preference. The promotion is cost effective because not many people demand that the guarantee be fulfilled, for, even if the product is not as good as promised, returning the unused portion requires not only some thought, time, and effort but unembarrassed assertiveness. Thus, a business that makes a generous guarantee freely undertakes to accept the cost of satisfying those who honestly require its fulfillment. Those who freely undertake something are not treated unfairly when they are held to do as they agreed. Therefore, provided the merchandise really is not as promised, there is nothing unfair in demanding that the guarantee be fulfilled.

Your wife might argue that, even if you would have been justified in returning the turkey after Christmas dinner, you went too far by doing so only after having lunched off it the next day. That argument, however, also would be unsound. Having the turkey for another meal did not violate the terms of the guarantee, and returning more of it than you did would not have benefited anyone. Since the store could not resell the leftover portion, and its managers and employees hardly would use it, it simply would have gone to waste.

But even granting all that, it probably would be a sign of avarice for someone who lives comfortably to buy a turkey, as you did, while expecting to take advantage of the store’s guarantee. Unless you must struggle to make ends meet, your wife may be reasonably concerned about your character, and you should ask yourself whether your attitude toward money is as upright and merciful as it should be. In particular, are you attentive to the rights of the poor who need your help (see LCL, 780–82, 789–92, 800–806, 811–14)? Are you as ready to do your duty toward them as you are to exact your rights under generous guarantees? If you are not as careful in fulfilling your responsibility to the poor as you are in exacting your rights under generous guarantees, your attitude toward money is at least somewhat avaricious.

Even if taking advantage of the guarantee did not cheat the merchant, supposing you acted out of avarice what you did was incompatible with your responsibility as a participant in the business—along with its owners, employees, and so on—to cooperate for its common good. The more involved in the business you were, the more serious this wrong would be. Thus, avariciously taking advantage of the generous guarantee of a business that regularly gave you excellent service at reasonable prices could be grave matter.

By contrast, a family fallen on hard times might find camping equipment purchased in better days unsatisfactory only because they can no longer afford to use it. Even so, the family would not, in my judgment, do an injustice by taking advantage of a prosperous mail-order company’s no-questions-asked guarantee and returning the equipment for credit toward desperately needed winter coats for the children (see CCC, 2408). But would it be honest to obtain a refund under such a guarantee for goods satisfactory in themselves and unsatisfactory only in the sense that the family could no longer afford to use them? I think so. Companies offer such a guarantee to motivate potential customers to buy despite all sorts of reasons for hesitating. Among those reasons are not only doubts about goods’ intrinsic qualities but doubts about their utility to purchasers, all things considered. The family’s inability to use the goods due to its changed economic circumstances certainly does affect utility, and therefore satisfaction, in this sense.

In the second case, it seems to me, there is no plausible reason to think asking the motel to forgo payment for the night’s lodging was morally wrong. Your wife may well have been mistaken in assuming the motel’s management could not have prevented the problem with the air conditioning. If properly maintained, regularly checked, and replaced before it entirely wears out, good equipment very seldom breaks down without warning. If an establishment saves money by replacing equipment at long intervals or limiting preventative maintenance and inspections, fairness requires that it share its savings with patrons inconvenienced by breakdowns. Moreover, whether the establishment was at fault or not, its failure to provide the air conditioning and restful quiet it promised was a breach of contract, so that, even in the absence of any special guarantee, you would have been entitled to a substantial reduction in the price. Given your right to that, you plainly had the right to invoke the chain’s guarantee of full satisfaction to avoid paying for the night’s lodging. No doubt your wife was correct in saying many people would not have done that. But that fact merely shows that many people overlook their own rights or prefer not to vindicate them.

As with other matters of justice involving property and money, however, differences in the parties’ economic status sometimes require Christians to forgo their rights. Thus, if a struggling merchant is pressed by cutthroat competition to offer a generous guarantee, financially secure people would be merciless in taking full advantage of it.