The New York Times’s Ethicist column is infamously awful, but I had generally found that the new columns by Chuck Klosterman were not as bad as they’d been before. Nonetheless, today’s paper featured a howler.
Here’s the question:
I’m on the art-museum board, so that is my preferred artistic donee. An acquaintance repeatedly called me for a donation to the opera. I don’t like opera. I said he should donate to the art museum. He said he’d give to the museum whatever I gave to the opera. We agreed on $10,000 apiece. He called the next four years and offered to make the same deal. I accepted each year. As I was looking through our donor list for unrelated reasons, I discovered he has been giving only $1,000 a year. I sent him an e-mail telling him of my discovery, and he responded, “Nailed me.” As if it were funny. What is my ethical response? Demand my excess back from the opera? Threaten to sue him if he doesn’t pony up to the museum? Gossip?
Klosterman responds, in part:
As for pursuing legal action: I don’t even know how that would work. There was no contract signed. It’s not illegal to persuade someone to donate money to an opera house (it would be different if your acquaintance were operating on behalf of the opera’s board, or if the opera facility didn’t actually exist — but that’s not how you described the transaction).
Klosterman’s answer demonstrates a frequent misconception about contract law, namely that most contracts need to be “signed” to be legally enforceable. That is not the case. For the most part, oral agreements are just as binding as written ones. To be sure, there is a small set of contracts that are generally governed by the “statute [...]