When Sam Lapin of Union, Ky., bought a box of roughed-up model railroad pieces at a yard sale he saw advertised on Facebook, he never expected to find a small box containing a diamond ring among the purchase.
After taking the ring to a local jeweler, Lapin learned it was worth about $900.
He wrestled with whether to return the ring.
"What are your thoughts on the ethics of me keeping or returning the ring?" he asked me in an email.
Typically, at yard sales the burden falls on those selling the goods to make sure they know what they are selling. If a painting sold for $10 turns out to be a masterpiece worth thousands, the luck falls on the buyer of the portrait.
While Lapin's experience was a bit different and it seemed likely that the ring got mixed in with the model railroad by mistake, it still fell on the seller to make sure what he was selling ahead of time.
But I told Sam that none of this meant that out of kindness or thoughtfulness he mightn't let the seller know, particularly since it could have been a misplaced family piece that had far more value to the seller than it did to him.
Sam didn't wait for my response to decide the right thing to do. He sent the seller a message via his Facebook posting, letting him know about his find and asking him if he would like the ring back.
It turns out the seller, Jeffrey Kotz, had no idea the ring was in the box with the railroad stuff. About 15 years ago, Kotz's daughter had been given the engagement ring by a boyfriend. The engagement was broken off, and a few years later, Kotz bought the ring from his daughter when she needed some money.
"I was pleasantly surprised to hear he found the ring," Kotz told me, explaining that he had intended to set the ring and some other stuff aside that he didn't want to sell at the large yard sale he staged to "rid myself of some junk."
Lapin did not ask for anything in return. But Kotz asked him if he'd seen anything else at the yard sale that interested him. As luck with have it, Kotz still had the used laptop Lapin had had his eye on, and he gave it to Lapin as a thank you for the return of the diamond ring.
"There are a lot of folks out there that would have been happy and fortunate" to find the ring and would have said nothing, writes Kotz.
Lapin offered to drive the ring over to Kotz's house, but Kotz insisted that Lapin had already gone above and beyond so he drove to Lapin's house.
"We need more people of integrity like Sam," writes Kotz.
"Character is how you behave when no one is looking," writes the psychiatrist Robert Coles in The Call of Stories: Teaching and the Moral Imagination (Houghton Mifflin, 1989). In offering to return the ring no one knew he had, Lapin showed character and did the right thing.
"I am glad the ring is back where it belongs," writes Lapin.
Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of The Simple Art of Business Etiquette: How to Rise to the Top by Playing Nice, is a senior lecturer in public policy and director of the communications program at Harvard's Kennedy School. He is also the administrator of www.jeffreyseglin.com, a blog focused on ethical issues.
Do you have ethical questions that you need answered? Send them to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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