Saturday, November 12, 2011


A colleague who writes about ethics, Nan DeMars, tells the story of a vendor who, seeking to have his products used, left a large bottle of scotch for the person in the office in charge of vendor selection. That person, unsure of what to do with the bottle, went to see the head of the firm who said: one bottle is a gift, two is a bribe.

Some cultures have what social scientists call a gift economy, in which people give and receive gifts without expectation of return. Such economies differ from the market economies, where goods have prices set by supply and demand, and while such economies have plenty of people who give gifts – indeed, some industries rely heavily on people giving gifts around holidays – this remains a relatively small part of the total economic output.

The key difference in this situation has to do with the intentions behind the gift. In gift economies or as happens in the holiday exchanges among family and friends, the giving occurs without a quid pro quo. We give gifts in these situations as tokens of our affection and appreciation, not to influence someone’s decision or to personally benefit ourselves. When a gift is given with the latter in mind, as in the case of this vendor, the difference between a gift and a bribe becomes unclear.

The receiver of this bottle of scotch did the right thing in asking the opinion of his superior. Ethics requires what the psychologist Daniel Kahneman calls “slow thinking,” in which we should not trust our initial instincts or first responses and, instead, seek the counsel of others as we deliberate what to do. Delaying a decision and sharing the responsibility for it can help us arrive at better conclusions, tapping what the writer James Surowiecki has dubbed “the wisdom of crowds.” This is one of the gifts others can give to us.

It isn’t clear, though, that keeping the large bottle of scotch is wise. While the supervisor sees a clear line between a gift and a bribe – one bottle versus two – others might not see it that way. Any “gift” given with even the appearance of influencing a decision in favor of the giver can constitute a bribe in the minds of some, and appearances matter in such situations. Accepting something that looks to some like a bribe calls into question whatever decision gets made, especially if it goes – legitimately or not – to the vendor who gave it.

The person who got the bottle could share it with everyone else in the office, which may seem to dilute the impact of it, but that can also implicate everyone else in influence that the giver of the bottle may have intended. A much better course would be to get rid of it. The receiver of the bottle could give it back to the vendor, although that does seem uncharitable. Doing the right thing, ethically, should not lead us to rudeness or to wrecking a relationship.

Giving the bottle to charity or as a gift to someone else makes more sense. In gift economies, the continual passing of gifts often happens since the act of giving matters much more than the gift itself. And even in a market economy, the passing on of a gift not wanted, for whatever reason, also remains the choice of the person who received it initially. In situations where the gift casts doubts about oneself or colors the perceptions of others about you, it is best to give it away. It wasn’t a bottle of scotch; it was a hot potato.

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