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Question 148: May one use unordered merchandise and reuse uncanceled postage stamps?

My questions are not the most earthshaking, but they do concern me, and they are easily stated.

Groups often mail me items such as cards or address labels, sometimes with a request for a donation and sometimes to solicit an order. I used to return such items, but now I use them without donating or ordering. Do you see anything wrong with that?

Also, when the post office misses a letter or parcel so that the stamps are not just lightly canceled but completely uncanceled, many people (I confess I am one) steam or float off the uncanceled stamps, let them dry, and reuse them. Is there anything wrong with this? If the post office did not cancel stamps but simply forbade their reuse, I would think it wrong. But I know of no postal regulation saying people cannot reuse uncanceled stamps and, since it is their job to cancel stamps, it seems only fair to use those they miss.

Sometimes, too, such stamps could be sold to a collector or a business that handles stamps for collectors. I know they usually pay more for uncanceled stamps than for canceled ones. Would there be anything wrong in doing that?


This question calls for application of the Golden Rule and several norms. If unordered merchandise is delivered by mistake, one should apply the Golden Rule and do what is fair. If such merchandise is intentionally delivered, it may be treated as if it were a gift or free sample. Still, some moral norm can forbid its use, and mercy can require one to request a worthy organization to remove one’s name from its mailing list. One may sell uncanceled stamps to a collector or stamp dealer. Where the law forbids reusing them for postage, that law should be presumed just, and no justifiable exception to the duty to obey it is likely. A similar question can be asked with regard to using or seeking a refund for an uncanceled or uncollected ticket. In general, doing so is a theft of service. As in other cases of taking what belongs to others, however, certain exceptions can be justified.

The reply could be along the following lines:

If you receive unordered merchandise, ask yourself whether the sender intended that you get it. If the delivery to you was not intended but was a mistake, apply the Golden Rule. Usually, that will lead you to return the goods, send them on to the intended recipient, or at least notify one of the two parties, sender or intended recipient, to claim them. However, it is not wrong to keep or throw away something of such little value that performing that service for the sender or recipient costs more in time and trouble than the item is worth.

If the sender did intend that you receive the unordered merchandise, the purpose was to gain your attention and, perhaps, make you feel that you should respond. Confronted with psychological manipulation, you should resist. Still, you may judge a cause worthy and send a donation or consider the merchandise desirable and order it. If not, you have no moral obligation whatsoever to return what you did not order and may throw it away or use it in any appropriate way. So, items like cards and address labels, sent with a request for a donation or an order, may be treated as you would treat a gift, and generally may be used even if you do not respond.

That is not always so, however. Certain cards, for instance, say you have enrolled those to whom you send them in an association whose members will share in the benefit of Masses offered for their intentions; the accompanying material makes it clear that enrollment requires a donation. You may not give the card to someone without sending the donation, since otherwise you would be making a false statement—that is, lying—to the person. Still, even in such a case, there would be nothing wrong in using the remainder of the card and the envelope if you removed the statement that could not be made truthfully.

However, when one decides not to respond favorably to repeated solicitations, Christian mercy may require that one ask the organization to remove one’s name from its mailing list. In many cases, of course, lists are sold or shared, and trying to have one’s name removed would be futile. But if one has contributed previously to an apparently worthy organization or somehow been associated with it, a note stating one’s decision not, or no longer, to respond favorably can be helpful.

As for stamps, the last part of your question can be answered easily. There is nothing wrong in selling such stamps to a stamp company or a collector. Of course, such buyers will not pay face value for currently available stamps; and they consider stamps without the original glue to be used, and so worth little if any more than similar specimens that have been lightly canceled.

At least in the United States, the law addresses the first part of your question about stamps—it is a federal crime to reuse a stamp, whether canceled or not.349

From a moral point of view, your question can be extended to other similar cases. For example, when a ticket purchased for transportation or admission is not collected or punched and remains valid, may one use it again or request the refund for an unused ticket? This extension makes your question more interesting, since significant amounts of money often are at stake in such cases.

The basic answer emerges clearly when one considers that in buying and using a stamp or a ticket one is paying a price for a service. Assuming the price is fair, even if the stamp or ticket is not canceled or collected, the price nevertheless was owed. In reusing the stamp or ticket, however, one avoids paying for the second instance of the service and so deprives the provider of what one owes for it. That plainly is unjust: a theft of service. Therefore, the basic answer is that one should not reuse such items or seek refunds as if they were unused. One’s duty in this matter, being an aspect of one’s duty to pay a fair price for services rendered, in no way is affected by the failure of the post office to cancel stamps or of organizations selling tickets to collect or cancel them.

As is generally the case with matters of justice concerning property and money, however, there are some exceptions (see LCL, 824–25).

First, if one has suffered an injustice for which no legal remedy is available, one sometimes is justified in taking fair compensation. Although that may be excluded by various foreseeable bad consequences, such as scandal, injury to community, or risk to oneself, reusing an uncanceled or uncollected ticket is unlikely to have such consequences. Organizations selling tickets for transportation or admission sometimes treat people unjustly in ways that call for compensation at least equivalent to the value of a ticket, and then, if no legal remedy is reasonably available, reuse of the ticket can be justified.

Second, provided the poor have done everything they should to earn their living and avoided unnecessary spending, and provided they avoid wrongly violating just laws and doing anything wrong in itself (such as telling lies), they may take from the prosperous what they require not only to satisfy urgent needs but to satisfy any genuine need that otherwise will go unmet (see LCL, 825). Thus, except in cases in which the provider of the service also is poor—for example, an airline in bankruptcy—the poor could be justified in reusing uncanceled or uncollected tickets.

Can exceptions to the norm forbidding the reuse of uncanceled postage stamps be justified? Leaving aside the fact that the work involved in reusing stamps might be a waste of time, the answer would be yes, in my judgment, if there were no law forbidding it. As noted above, however, there is such a law in the United States (and, I suppose, in other countries). That law should be presumed just, and just laws ought to be obeyed unless an exception is either required for the common good itself or justified because obeying the law would prevent fulfilling some other duty weighty enough to take precedence over abiding by the law (see LCL. 878–79). I cannot imagine a situation in which the common good would require reusing an uncanceled postage stamp, and usually there is so little to be saved by doing so that it is very unlikely that even an extremely poor person would have any duty he or she could fulfill only by violating this law. So, even though one might imagine some situation in which a person could justifiably violate the law and reuse an uncanceled postage stamp, it seems to me that the norm against doing so will admit of almost no exceptions.

349. U.S.C., title 18, §1720.