When Frugal Tactics Cross the Line
Just because something is good for your wallet doesn’t mean it’s good for your conscience.
In the effort to try and stretch their dollars or get as much as possible for free, consumers occasionally run the risk of violating society’s unwritten code of ethics, but because these rules are often fuzzy, it can be difficult to gauge whether their actions are in the right.
Sure, we all know that it’s miserly not to leave a good tip at a restaurant, but does that make it unethical? And yes, it’s perfectly acceptable for one to take a free sample from a grocery store, but what about taking two, or five? At what point does it cross that invisible line?
“We will constantly be faced with these kinds of choices in our everyday lives, but there is no exact rubric here,” said Joshua Halberstam, author of Everyday Ethics and a professor of philosophy at Columbia University. “it’s not so much about right or wrong, as it is about the kind of person you are.”
Or, to put it more bluntly, Halberstam notes “there are things that are not unethical, but you’re a jerk if you do it.”
With that in mind, MainStreet presented two leading ethicists with several questionable cost cutting tactics and asked them to evaluate whether these choices would make the consumer in question a savvy shopper or just a bad person.
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Being Stingy with the Tip
Question: Often when you eat out a restaurant, the bill will include a suggested tip at the bottom, typically in the 15%-20% range, and even when this number is absent, most consumers know it to be the standard for leaving a good tip. But does this mean it’s unethical to leave less than the suggested amount?
Restaurant-goers often like to rationalize that the amount they tip their waiter or waitress should be dependent on the quality of service they received, but according to our experts, that’s not the case in the U.S. as tips here aren’t merit-based but rather compulsory.
“Tipping only sounds like it’s a gratuity, but clearly in this culture, we’ve accepted it as being an obligation. It’s become part of the cost of the meal, and as a result, it’s become an ethical obligation,” Halberstam said.
What’s more, there is an additional obligation to leave an adequate tip because restaurant salaries are structured so that waiters and busboys make an hourly rate well below minimum wage, with the expectation that the rest of their pay comes from tips.
“If your waiter is moderately competent, it is wrong not to leave a tip that reaches the standard that, if generally given at that restaurant, would enable your waiter to make a decent living,” said Peter Singer, author of Practical Ethics and professor of philosophy at Princeton University.
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Taking Multiple Free Samples
Question: You walk through your grocery store and notice that someone is handing out free samples of shrimp, so you take one, continue shopping and then stop by again to take another. And perhaps another. Is there ever a point when taking multiple free samples qualifies as unethical?
While it may make your shopping experience take a little longer – and cause the grocery store employee to smirk a little bit – it is not unethical for a shopper to abuse the system and snatch up a few extra giveaways. The burden falls on the store to decide whether or not the freebie system is working as intended.
“The store has chosen to give away free samples as a promotional move, and if that move doesn’t work, the store can always abandon the promotion,” Singer said.
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Taking Extra Free Silverware
Question: Most food vendors supply plastic forks and knives to customers for free, as well as other supplies like napkins, straws and the like. Is it wrong for a customer to load up on these utensils on their way out, grabbing more than they need for the meal in order to stock up on supplies for their next barbecue?
Ultimately, the issue may boil down to how often you take extra plasticware.
“If you do this once or twice, that’s one thing, but if you make a habit of doing it, it’s not appropriate,” Halberstam said. His proof of this generally being unethical, Halberstam encourages consumers to do a little thought experiment before they start filling their pockets with plastic utensils: Assume that the total value of the silverware you’re about to take from the store is 10 cents. Would you be willing to walk up to the store’s cash register and take a dime? Chances are, he says, you wouldn’t.
“People are much stricter about stealing money than they are about stealing goods,” he said. “But if this is part of your economic policy to save money, you are basically making it OK for yourself to steal.”
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Avoding the New York Times' Pay Wall
Question: The New York Times recently followed in the footsteps of other prominent publications like the Wall Street Journal and Newsday by launching an online pay wall to raise revenue by restricting the number of articles users can read for free. Immediately after the Times announced the move, disgruntled readers began coming up with ways to get around the pay wall (one person created a Twitter feed that would publish free links to every one of the paper’s stories, while another created four lines of code that users could insert onto the Times’ site to disable the pay wall.) Is it unethical for consumers to look for ways to avoid paying for this or any other newspaper’s content online?
According to Singer, scheming for a way to get around the pay wall is wrong because it deprives publishing companies like the New York Times of significant revenue, which in turn limits the paper’s ability to help inform millions of readers.
“The point is that the United States, and the world, would be a worse place without the New York Times,” Singer said. “The paper can only survive with the financial support of its readers, and it has devised a reasonable scheme to obtain that support. It is wrong to take part in a scheme, that if widely used, will undermine that scheme.”
Photo Credit: Nytimes.com
Shopping at Cheaper Stores with Questionable Business Practices
Question: As consumers, we are often confronted with the unfortunate reality that the cheapest option isn’t always (if ever) the most socially responsible one. For example, what should a consumer do when faced with the choice between a restaurant that serves organic, free-range meat, but is more expensive, and a restaurant that serves cheaper meat but knows it comes from a farm that mistreats their animals? Or what about the choice between a cheap retail chain that employs dubious labor practices and a more expensive one that does not? Is it unethical for consumers to go with their wallets in these situations and choose the cheaper option?
In each of these cases, our ethicists argue that the consumer has an ethical obligation to seek out the more socially responsible option, even if it costs more money.
“You have an ethical responsibility to boycott those who mistreat their animals, and to reward those who have higher standards of animal welfare,” Singer said, speaking to the first point. The same is true when factoring in a company’s treatment of its workers.
“If you think the company is evil for one of these reasons, the cheapness is completely irrelevant to the issue here. If you think it’s wrong, then it’s wrong,” Halberstam said.
Photo Credit: James Chutter
Haggling With A Charity
Question: When the major retail stores don’t have good enough deals, frugal consumers may turn to thrift stores like the Salvation Army and Goodwill for better bargains. But this too presents an interesting dilemma for shoppers: These thrift stores are fundamentally charity organizations, so it inappropriate for customers to attempt to negotiate to get a lower price, knowing all the while that the money goes to a good cause?
It may not be classy, but it’s certainly ethical. While organizations like these are indeed charities, shoppers don’t necessarily go there because they want to give money to charity, and indeed, if that were their primary goal, they could potentially do it elsewhere.
“You might buy at these stores because the goods are inexpensive, and because you approve of recycling things, while reserving your donations for other charities that you consider to be more effective,” Singer said.
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Sharing A Membership
Question: Signing up for a membership to a gym or a video rental service can be a major commitment for a consumer, causing some to occasionally mooch off friends or family who already have a membership. Is it wrong to use someone else’s gym membership from time to time, or to log onto a friend’s Netflix account to watch a movie?
It may come as a surprise, but according to Halberstam, this cost-saving tactic, though dubious, is not especially unethical.
“Technically, are you supposed to do this? No. But do I want to live in a world where you can’t do that sometimes? No,” Halberstam said. “If someone uses another person’s Netflix once in a while, it doesn’t cost the company much at all. And as for gyms, these are places that love to give out free passes so that people show up.”
Moreover, Halberstam contends that this crime effectively regulates itself.
“There’s only so often you could go to a gym with another person’s membership or use another person’s Netflix account before you would need to get your own,” he says.
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Staying All Day at an All-You-Can Eat Buffett
Question: When restaurants hold an all-you-can-eat buffet, the intention is presumably that customers will gorge themselves for a single meal, perhaps breakfast or lunch, and then leave once they’re full. But sometimes when you’re at a chain like Golden Corral, you may notice a handful of customers who deliberately hang around the restaurant all day so they can take advantage of the buffet for multiple meals. Is this unethical?
Verdict: Ethical (but gluttonous)
It may not be unethical, but according to our experts, it’s definitely not a good way to live one’s life.
“If this is how you spend your day, then I think the consumer needs to get himself a life,” Halberstam said. “But I do think restaurants probably calculate that people are going to overeat so it’s not wrong strictly speaking.”
Singer puts the point a little differently.
“No, it’s not unethical, because if such greedy behavior leads the restaurant to revert to a price-per-item menu, that’s probably a good thing anyway,” he said. “Given the national obesity epidemic and the waste of resources it involves, the all-you-can-eat-price isn’t helpful to society.”
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