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.

Four life lessons learned by playing Hearthstone

I’ve played Hearthstone on and off for a few years, since it first came out. As I played more and more, I began to notice parallels between my decision making processes in Hearthstone and in real life. This is a self-reflective post, and my first attempt to describe the core features of my mentality and decision making process. Because this has been part of my personality for so long, I found it difficult to put my ideas into words, but here goes.

There are two reasons why Hearthstone is a good representation of real life:

  • First, it’s a game of imperfect information and chance, so you must take risks and deal with uncertainty. Real life situations are usually like this. Games of perfect information (like chess) lack this probabilistic aspect and behave very differently.
  • Second, Hearthstone is a game about decision making skills, rather than mechanics. Every game has some element of decision making, but many games require doing some mechanical action (eg. last hitting) better than your opponent. Mechanical skills are confined to the specific game and are less likely to be relevant in real life.

By playing Hearthstone, I developed a general internal model for making decisions in uncertain situations.

Lesson 1: There is always a correct decision, and it’s your job to find it

The goal in Hearthstone is to reduce your opponent’s life to zero. How do you accomplish this? You make a plan, perhaps flooding the board with minions, perhaps unleashing a deadly combination of spells.

For our purposes, it doesn’t matter what your strategy is. At the start of the turn, you look at the cards in your hand, the state of the board, what cards your opponent played before. Call this information the game state. You ponder for a bit and come up with an action that best improves your position.

You execute your action on the board, but you still don’t know what happens next with certainty. There are many things you cannot control, which I will call RNG. RNG is short for Random Number Generator, and I will use it to mean anything you don’t have control over.

I use the term RNG for lack of a better term, but I’m not just talking about random game mechanics. RNG includes any state hidden from you, like your opponent’s hand and strategy.  Think of it as a random variable with a known distribution (eg. you play a card that destroys a random minion, which minion will it hit?) or with an unknown distribution (eg. what is the probability your opponent has two flamestrikes in his deck?). Even if the information is known to your opponent, it’s simpler to treat it as a random variable.

Here’s the model summarized in a diagram:

In any game state, there must be one “correct” action that gives you the highest chance of winning the game. The decision-making player aims to consider all possible actions and choose the best, “correct” one.

As a corollary, decision making should be rational and be a function of things I can observe. Otherwise, if my decision engine generates two different actions depending on my emotional state of mind, they cannot both be correct.

A second corollary is actions should always be justifiable through fundamental values. It’s unacceptable to do things by habit, or because other people are doing it — everything I do should have a positive expected value on the things I want to accomplish.

For me, one of my “meta” goals in life is to make correct decisions as much as possible. This is not to say that I behave like a robot — I still experience emotions like everyone else — but I try to eliminate emotions from my decision making process.

In Hearthstone, doing so gives you the highest chance of winning the game. It makes sense then, by extrapolation, that correct decision making gives you the best shot of getting what you want out of life.

Lesson 2: Information is valuable, treat information gathering as a subgoal

One rule of thumb in Hearthstone is “RNG first”. If you are going to play a sequence of cards, one of which has a random effect, it’s better to play the random effect first. This way you extract information out of the RNG pool of unknowns, and with this extra information you might be able to make a better play.

Another useful thing is to keep track of enemy secrets. Imagine you have this on the board:

You want to play a giant, but you’re worried that the secret is “mirror entity”, which summons a copy of the next minion you play.

Without any other information, you’re in a tough spot. But what if you played a minion last turn and the secret did not activate? Then you know that the secret isn’t mirror entity, and confidently play the giant.

Alternatively, suppose that you don’t have this information handy. One tactic is you can “test out” the secret by playing a small minion, and seeing whether the secret activates. You are paying a price with a normally inferior move, but the information you obtain is valuable for future decisions.

Under this framework, we can view flirting as an example of an information gathering strategy. You’re at a party and you see a cute girl walk by. At first, you make a few playful comments, and observe her reaction and assess if she is interested in you. Flirting isn’t just an arbitrary social custom, but a means to obtain information.

While information isn’t the final end-goal by itself, even a little information can greatly improve decision making, by eliminating vast swathes of possibilities that no longer need to be considered. Whether it be playing a giant, making a big purchase, or asking someone out on a date, gathering information is a useful subgoal.

Lesson 3: Focus on things you have control over, RNG evens out in the long run

Often in Hearthstone, luck is just not on your side. Have you ever seen your opponent topdeck the pyroblast and instantly win the game? Or that mad bomber that hits you three times in the face? How do you feel?

It’s natural to feel angry when this happens to you, especially if it ends up losing you the game. But eventually I realized how pointless it was to get upset at unlucky RNG. What’s the use of worrying about things you have no control over?

I see this all the time — people getting visibly upset when the bus is late, or when a player on your team goes AFK in a game of league. I try to adopt the opposite mindset: worry about my own decision making and simply accept random events beyond my control.

Let me give you an example. Last term, during an important phone interview, my phone stopped working during the middle of the interview. Calmly I got up and notified the CECA front desk, and waited as they spent the next 20 minutes troubleshooting the problem. Most people would be stressed out at this point, but I didn’t feel stressed at all. Rather than getting upset, my mind was relaxed, because I took comfort in knowing that I did everything that could be done; whatever happens next was out of my control.

The law of large numbers says that when you repeat a random event many times, the average outcome will surely converge to the expected value. Hearthstone is so random that a legend player will beat a rank 5 player no more than 55% of the time. Any single game is close to a coin flip, just marginally in favor of the stronger player. But over the long run, it’s a mathematical guarantee that the better player will end up on top.

Lesson 4: Separate the outcome of a decision from the decision itself

In real life and in Hearthstone, you can’t directly tell if a decision was good or not. You only know the outcome, and you can decide if the outcome is good or bad. But the outcome is a function of the decision and RNG, which adds noise to the process.

In other words, the correct decision does not always produce a good outcome, and sometimes a bad decision produces a good outcome. It would be a mistake to retroactively label a decision as “correct” simply because you got lucky.

Here’s a Hearthstone example:

Your opponent is a mage, and on turn 6 you flood the board with a lot of small minions. If he has flamestrike, playing it deals 4 damage to each of your minions, instantly killing your whole board.

Turn 7 comes and it turns out he doesn’t have flamestrike, so you win the game easily. You conclude that playing all your minions was a great idea because he didn’t have flamestrike.

This logic is fallacious: it fails to separate decision from outcome. A correct action is the one that maximizes the win probability, given the information available at the time. Therefore it makes no sense to look at the outcome and retroactively judge the correctness of the initial decision.

So in this example, playing all these minions was a mistake because there’s a high chance the mage has flamestrike. It doesn’t matter if he actually has flamestrike or not, the mistake is equally bad. (A better play would be to play fewer minions, thus mitigating the risk).

Now here’s a real life example. Last term, I had multiple job offers for software engineering internships and I had trouble deciding which one to accept. So I tried to negotiate: I picked one of the companies, told them about my other offers, and asked for a 20% raise in salary. My request was denied.

Does this mean that negotiating was a waste of time? Absolutely not. I know friends who successfully negotiated a higher salary by doing something similar. My particular outcome was not successful, but this doesn’t indicate my attempt was a mistake; if I found myself again with multiple offers, I would do the same thing.

Let’s end the article with a quote by Alfred Tennyson:

‘Tis better to have loved and lost

Than never to have loved at all

In both Hearthstone and romance, you can end up losing, even if you do everything correctly. Tennyson also realizes the need to separate the outcome (to have loved and lost) from the decision to pursue the relationship.

There’s a lot more I could talk about, but this post is getting quite long so I’ll stop here. Whether you agree or disagree with my view of the world, please leave a comment!