The Ethics of Free: Is it Wrong to Get Free Stuff?
I love to get free stuff. Don't you?
The problem with free is that it doesn't mean something is really free. It just means that someone else has paid for the product or service instead of you.
Recently, I was surfing around the Wise Bread archives, and I came across a post on how to get movie rentals for free. Well, that sounds interesting, right? As I read through the comments, I found that some readers were really appreciative for the tip while others thought taking advantage of the coupon codes was either cheap, an assault on capitalism, or downright immoral.
Then the same discussion came up again. While dealing with the topic of student loan debt forgiveness for people who work for non-profit organizations, it was clear that some individuals are concerned that free to you means I get to pay (through tax dollars) for that item — in this case, student loans.
Should we take advantage of free offers?
In order to answer that question, we would first need to evaluate why some products are offered free.
- A free item might be free because the cost is included in your purchase price. So, for example, when you buy French fries at McDonald's, you can get ketchup free because the cost is already included in the price of the fries. These free items are not intended to replace your personal supply of ketchup. Thus, it would be inappropriate to get ketchup at McDonald's if you are not a paying customer.
- A free item might be an incentive to try to get you to try and ultimately purchase a paid product. When you sign up for a new service, they might give you a 'free trial.' Many of the products I've purchased had an initial free trial. In each of these cases, they want you to enjoy the free product because if you like it, you'll remain a paying customer. In these cases, the free offer is limited in length or functionality in order to give you a taste of the product.
- A product might be free as a part of a rewards or thank you promotion. Some restaurants give you a dessert or meal for free on your birthday. On other occasions, if you buy four nights, you get one free. In each of these cases, free is a reward for extra spending or simply a way to say thank you.
- A free item might mean that someone else has paid the cost of the product. At times, I get free books to preview. That just means the publisher has covered the cost of the book. When we receive gifts, they are free to us, but the price was paid by another.
A cautionary note: When you are dealing with a company, it is best to assume that something is free in order to generate revenue. There still is no such thing as a free lunch.
A few weeks ago, my wife was told about a company that is offering free cloth diapers to missionaries. Since we are missionaries who use cloth diapers, my wife and I had several discussions about the ethics of getting free diapers.
Here's how our conversations went:
Wife: Did you know we can get free cloth diapers?
Me: Do we need free diapers?
The next hour of conversation revolved around the question, "Is it right to get free diapers when you are able to afford to buy them?"
The issues that seemed to complicate the discussion is that when we bought our home school curriculum last month, we applied for a 20 percent discount offered to missionaries. That, so I said, was different than getting free diapers from a company. But, is it? Should you apply for a discount when you really don't need it? We both wondered: What is the difference between getting something free and getting something at a discount?
Ethical approaches to free
Essentially, this discussion rests on the question of responsibility.
- Is the company who sets the terms and conditions responsible for changing their policies if there is an obvious loophole?
- Is the individual responsible for recognizing that his conduct obviously isn't what the organization or person intended by the promotion?
At times I've used both approaches. When I went to graduate school and college, I applied for as many scholarships as possible. I never asked if I could afford it. I just thought if someone was giving away something and I was eligible, I would accept. On other occasions, I've decided that I have had my reasonable access to a free product, and even though I could keep getting free services, it would only be right to pay for the product.
Personally, I've found the Golden Rule to be a helpful guide — do to others what you would want done to you.
Is the person who offers something free ultimately responsible for making the right criteria, or is the person who applies for something free responsible?