The Ethics of (not) Tipping at Restaurants

A customer finishes a meal at a restaurant. He gives a 20-dollar bill to the waiter, and the waiter returns with some change. The customer proceeds to pocket the change in its entirety.

“Excuse me sir,” the waiter interrupts, “but the gratuity has not been included in your bill”

The customer nods and calmly smiles at the waiter. “Yes, I know,” he replies. He gathers his belongings and walks out, indifferent to the astonished look on the waiter’s face.

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This fictional scenario makes your blood boil just thinking about it. It evokes a feeling of unfairness, where a shameless and rude customer has cheated an innocent, hardworking waiter out of his well-deserved money. Not many situations provoke such a strong emotional response, yet still be perfectly legal.

There is compelling reason not to tip. On an individual level, you can save 10-15% on your meal. On a societal level, economists have criticized tipping for its discriminatory effects. Yet we still do it, but why?

In this blog post, we look at some common arguments in favor of tipping, but we see that these arguments may not hold up to scrutiny. Then, we examine the morality of refusing to tip under several ethical frameworks.

Arguments in favor of tipping (and their rebuttals)

Here are four common reasons for why we should tip:

  1. Tipping gives the waiter an incentive to provide better service.
  2. Waiters are paid less than minimum wage and need the money.
  3. Refusing to tip is embarrassing: it makes you lose face in front of the waiter and your colleagues.
  4. Tipping is a strong social norm and violating it is extremely rude.

I’ve ordered these arguments from weakest to strongest. These are good reasons, but I don’t think any of them definitively settles the argument. I argue that the first two are factually inaccurate, and for the last two, it’s not obvious why the end effect is bad.

Argument 1: Tipping gives the waiter an incentive to provide better service. Since the customer tips at the end of the meal, the waiter does a better job to make him happy, so that he receives a bigger tip.

Rebuttal: The evidence for this is dubious. One study concluded that service quality has at most a modest correlation with how much people tip; many other factors affected tipping, like group size, day of week, and amount of alcohol consumed. Another study found that waitresses earned more tips from male customers if they wore red lipstick. The connection between good service and tipping is sketchy at best.

Argument 2: Waiters are paid less than minimum wage and need the money. In many parts of the USA, waiters earn a base rate of about $2 an hour and must rely on tips to survive.

Rebuttal: This is false. In Canada, all waiters earn at least minimum wage. In the USA, the base rate for waiters is less than minimum wage in some states, but restaurants are required to pay the difference if they make less than minimum wage after tips.

You may argue that restaurant waiters are poor and deserve more than minimum wage. I find this unconvincing as we there are lots of service workers (cashiers, janitors, retail clerks, fast food workers) that do strenuous labor and make minimum wage, and we don’t tip them. I don’t see why waiters are an exception. Arguably Uber drivers are the most deserving of tips, since they make less than minimum wage after accounting for costs, but tipping is optional and not expected for Uber rides.

Argument 3: Refusing to tip is embarrassing: it makes you lose face in front of the waiter and your colleagues. You may be treated badly the next time you visit the restaurant and the waiter recognizes you. If you’re on a date and you get confronted for refusing to tip, you’re unlikely to get a second date.

Rebuttal: Indeed, the social shame and embarrassment is a good reason to tip, especially if you’re dining with others. But what if you’re eating by yourself in a restaurant in another city that you will never go to again? Most people will still tip, even though the damage to your social reputation is minimal. So it seems that social reputation isn’t the only reason for tipping.

It’s definitely embarrassing to get confronted for not tipping, but it’s not obvious that being embarrassed is bad (especially if the only observer is a waiter who you’ll never interact with again). If I give a public speech despite feeling embarrassed, then I am praised for my bravery. Why can’t the same principle apply here?

Argument 4: Tipping is a strong social norm and violating it is extremely rude. Stiffing a waiter is considered rude in our society, even if no physical or economic damage is done. Giving the middle finger is also offensive, despite no clear damage being done. In both cases, you’re being rude to an innocent stranger.

Rebuttal: Indeed, the above is true. A social norm is a convention that if violated, people feel rude. The problem is the arbitrariness of social norms. Is it always bad to violate a social norm, or can the social norm itself be wrong?

Consider that only a few hundred years ago, slavery was commonplace and accepted. In medieval societies, religion was expected and atheists were condemned, and in other societies, women were considered property of their husbands. All of these are examples of social norms; all of these norms are considered barbaric today. It’s not enough to justify something by saying that “everybody else does it”.

Tipping under various ethical frameworks

Is it immoral not to tip at restaurants? We consider this question under the ethical frameworks of ethical egoism, utilitarianism, Kant’s categorical imperative, social contract theory, and cultural relativism.

trolley.pngAbove: The trolley problem, often used to compare different ethical frameworks, but unlikely to occur in real life. Tipping is a more quotidian situation to apply ethics.

1) Ethical egoism says it is moral to act in your own self-interest. The most moral action is the one that is best for yourself.

Clearly, it is in your financial self-interest not to tip. However, the social stigma and shame creates negative utility, which may or may not be worth more than the money saved from tipping. This depends on the individual. Verdict: Maybe OK.

2) Utilitarianism says the moral thing to do is maximize the well-being of the greatest number of people.

Under utilitarianism, you should tip if the money benefits the waiter more than it would benefit you. This is difficult to answer, as it depends on many things, like your relative wealth compared to the waiter’s. Again, subtract some utility for the social stigma and shame if you refuse to tip. Verdict: Maybe OK.

3) Kant’s categorical imperative says that an action is immoral if the goal of the action would be defeated if everyone started doing it. Essentially, it’s immoral to gain a selfish advantage at the expense of everyone else.

If everyone refused to tip, then the prices of food in restaurants would universally go up to compensate, which negates the intended goal of saving money in the first place. Verdict: Not OK.

4) Social contract theory is the set of rules that a society of free, rational people would agree to obey in order to benefit everyone. This is to prevent tragedy of the commons scenarios, where the system would collapse if everyone behaved selfishly.

There is no evidence that tipping makes a society better off. Indeed, many societies (eg: China, Japan) don’t practice tipping, and their restaurants operate just fine. Verdict: OK.

5) Cultural relativism says that morals are determined by the society that you live in (ie, social norms). There is a strong norm in our culture that tipping is obligatory in restaurants. Verdict: Not OK.

Conclusion

In this blog post, we have considered a bunch of arguments for tipping, and examined it under several ethical frameworks. Stiffing the waiter is a legal method of saving some money when eating out. There is no single argument that shows it’s definitely wrong to do this, and some ethical frameworks consider it acceptable while some don’t. This is often the case in ethics when you’re faced with complicated topics.

However, refusing to tip has several negative effects: rudeness of violating a strong social norm, feeling of embarrassment to yourself and colleagues, and potential social backlash. Furthermore, it violates some ethical systems. Therefore, one should reconsider if saving 10-15% at restaurants by not tipping is really worth it.

One thought on “The Ethics of (not) Tipping at Restaurants

  1. Tipping has not been a thing in my country until the latter part of the 1990s, but it really took off in the early 2000s. Personally, I see no reason to tip, and refuse to do so. Waiters and servers are paid a decent wage and a service charge is already included in the bill.

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