Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Is Grabbing Extras Unethical?

Dear Jocelyn,
I am a firm believer in taking extra packets of ketchup, mustard, hot sauce, sugar, salt, pepper, and artificial sweetener when they are available. However, a friend recently gave me a funny look as I packed my purse with packets. Is it ethical to take more than I need? Personally, I think if they leave them out I should be able to take all I want.
     -Packet Hoarder

Dear Hoarder,
This is a tough question, as I have been known to take more napkins than I need, or an excessively liberal number of ketchup packets. However, although the question may be difficult, it is one that requires an honest, if somewhat uncomfortable answer. The short answer is no, it is not ethical to take more ketchup, salt, or sugar packets than you need. If you ask any restaurant owner, they will inform you that the availability of such condiments is not to encourage a free-for-all, but to provide easy access to commonly asked-for items. In fact, to purposefully take more than you need for that meal can be considered stealing, since the restaurant's goal is to provide you with such items for a single meal, not the rest of your life. Think of it this way—if you invited a friend over for a cup of tea, and she proceeded to take two packets of sugar for her tea, then twelve packets "for the road," you would probably be offended, correct? At the very least, you might think it a bit strange. While it is easy to view a business as impersonal and inhuman, it is in fact run by people who should be given the same consideration you might give a friend in that circumstance.

That being said, it is not necessary to carefully calculate your exact ketchup usage for that meal's French fries. A good faith effort to take what you will probably need is all that is required. If you are dining in an establishment, and you have leftover condiments, the polite and ethical thing to do is to put them back (if it is sanitary to do so—I would not necessarily put napkins back). If you are taking your food home, take what you think you will need. It is not necessary to return the unused packets in that circumstance. Consider the earlier example—if you stopped by a friend's place and had to leave before drinking your tea, she might give you a to-go cup and several sugar packets. She might even send you with a few extra "just in case." When deciding how much ketchup to take home, the most important consideration is the attitude and motivation you have for taking that amount.

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