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Question 99: What moral norms should one follow in tipping?

While we have always had a decent income, we have lived conservatively, avoiding credit, paying off our mortgage and improving our house rather than moving up to a bigger and fancier one, saving for the children’s education, and so on. We seldom ate in restaurants, and when we traveled we either camped out or stayed at one of the less expensive motels. Now our last child is finishing college, and our economies over the years are paying off. We have no debts and, with both of us working, our income is more than twice our expenses. Last autumn we decided to loosen up and live a little before we get too old to enjoy it. We have been eating out and staying at better places. Just after Christmas we took an eight-day Caribbean cruise, and we are planning our first overseas trip, a three-week vacation in Europe this summer.

With this change in our lifestyle, we are fairly often in situations where tipping is expected. Since the vacations we are taking are expensive, we do not want to tip more than necessary, and we wonder what our obligations are. Books on etiquette and some travel books deal with tipping, but they only say what is expected. We want to know what is morally required.

For instance, a tip presumably is for good service, so not giving a tip is legitimate when service is poor. But how poor must it be? Again, especially in hotels, attendants sometimes insist on doing things, such as handling luggage, that we would just as soon do ourselves. Is it necessary to tip for such unwanted service? Then too, on the cruise they gave us a list of “recommended gratuities” adding up to a lot of money. There also is a problem with tipping in restaurants. Assuming the usual fifteen-percent tip, waitresses and waiters in inexpensive places get three dollars on a twenty-dollar check while in fancier places, for providing essentially the same service, they expect fifteen dollars on a hundred-dollar check, which seems excessive.

Another problem concerns tipping in other countries. Presumably Jesus’ “Do unto others” applies to tipping as it does to any other question about how to treat people. But in many situations, its implications are far from clear. The European travel books we have been looking at indicate that the customary tips are not the same there as here. In their place, we would want to be tipped as Americans usually are, and, applying “Do unto others,” it seems to follow that we should tip in Europe as we would here.

Last but not least, some people argue that the whole system of tipping should be done away with, and we are inclined to agree with them. But if that would be right, perpetuating the bad system seems wrong to us. In that case, wouldn’t it be right never to tip at all? This idea, though, is so attractive that there probably is something wrong with it!


This question calls for both the derivation of specific norms regarding tipping and an explanation of how to apply the Golden Rule. A tip can be either compensation required in justice, a gratuity, or both. The practice of tipping often is an occasion of sin for both parties; also it often leads to objective injustice because many patrons or customers cannot know whether and how much they ought to tip. So, in my judgment, tipping should be done away with. But until it is, one ought to provide just tips for services rendered. In applying the Golden Rule to determine whether and how much to tip, one should take local practice into account. Unusually good service calls for a supplement, especially if the person being tipped is not so well off as oneself. Unwanted services can be refused, and then, if provided, not compensated unless mercy requires it. If someone providing service seriously fails to do his or her duty, compensation is not due in justice, but Christian mercy may call for giving both the tip and an admonition. The issue of the right use of wealth is not raised by the questioner, but ought to be addressed; otherwise the casuistry of tipping is likely to be applied in a legalistic way.

The reply could be along the following lines:

What is tipping?303 It is a way of paying people for particular performances of certain sorts of services, generally ones supplied in earlier times by a proprietor’s slaves or servants rather than by professionals or other independent contractors. The payment provided by a tip involves one or both of two elements: compensation justly due for a service rendered by someone who otherwise will not receive adequate compensation, and a bonus or gratuitous amount given for one or more reasons—for example, as a reward for especially pleasing service, as alms given poorly paid workers by comparatively prosperous recipients of service, as a way of sharing the joy of a celebration with those providing services, and as a way of marking the superiority in socioeconomic status of those served to those who serve. Peculiar to tipping is that even the element that is due in strict justice cannot be legally exacted, so that its payment depends on the honesty of the service’s recipient.

This definition makes it clear that the practice of tipping can raise two moral issues: about fairness in compensation for services rendered and about rightness of intention in giving a bonus in excess of fair compensation. I shall not consider the latter issue, however, since your question focuses exclusively on the former.

When patrons or customers know precisely what is expected—especially when they frequent an establishment regularly and receive service from the same people, so that the parties become well acquainted—tipping may result in fair compensation. When it works well, the practice has certain moral advantages over a system that specifies required service charges. People who tip appropriately must exercise more consideration for others and good will toward them than those who merely pay fixed charges, while people of good will who provide services compensated by tips also have greater opportunities to develop various virtues, such as meekness and patience, than those whose compensation is fixed. When both parties act uprightly, their interpersonal relationship, even if ephemeral, has the human depth of friendly cooperation. Moreover, the practice facilitates adjustments in compensation both by way of a supplement given for any good reason and by way of a downward adjustment in costs for people of severely limited means.

Still, I am inclined to agree with those who maintain that tipping should be done away with. The fundamental flaw is that it often requires people to decide how much to pay for services, without the information needed to make that judgment. Thus, the system can lead to objective injustice even when those concerned are subjectively upright. It also can be an occasion of sin for both parties. Those who serve are sometimes motivated to act unauthentically and react resentfully, while those served sometimes exploit the situation for their own psychological gratification. Moreover, the latter sometimes evade paying what they owe, while those providing service sometimes practice deception to elicit a gratuity. Then too, people who get tips sometimes cheat one another and/or cheat on their taxes. Further, the practice sometimes overlaps with bribery and extortion. Tips are given in exchange for unfair advantage over other customers in obtaining service or goods, or are demanded for the delivery of something already due in justice. Consequently, it seems to me that everyone should urge the proprietors of enterprises whose employees still depend on tips for just compensation to do away with the practice. This they could do either by specifying a service charge in their bill or including the cost of service in their basic prices, and informing patrons that their employees are paid adequate wages and tipping is not expected.

But as long as the practice of tipping persists, both parties can do their parts virtuously, and anyone receiving a service of a sort for which a tip might be expected has a moral obligation to judge whether and how much to tip. Even if someone considers tipping an unjust social structure, he or she is bound to do justice within that unjust structure rather than deprive workers who depend on tips of just compensation. To withhold a tip that is strictly due is a form of theft. And even where tipping has been eliminated as a method of providing just compensation, gratuitous supplementary compensation can be appropriate, just as it may be when receiving especially good service from someone plying a trade whose basic compensation normally is not paid by tipping.

Since practices regarding tipping are subject to change and also differ greatly in various places—especially in different countries—I shall not attempt to say whether tips for various services are strictly due and how much they ought to be. Helpful information of that sort can be found in recently published travel guides and works on etiquette, or you can consult travel agents or friends more experienced than you in the matter. The suggestions of proprietors, such as the management of the ship on which you cruised, are less trustworthy and may well be on the high side. Here I shall offer only a few points of clarification.

In putting oneself in another’s position when applying the Golden Rule, one should take along one’s capacity to make sound moral judgments—all the truth one knows, one’s moral responsibilities, one’s ability to reason, and one’s normal feelings with regard to the matters at issue—but leave behind all other attributes and aspects of one’s situation. What an American would want to be tipped is not the standard to use in other countries. Rather, take into account the customs of the place. For example, in restaurants and sometimes in other establishments in some countries, a charge for service on the bill often constitutes all or most of the payment due those who provide it, and the customary tip is small change if that. Even in America, though waiters and others who provide services receive little or no compensation except tips in some establishments, in others, anyone providing a service receives at least a living wage even before counting tips. Again, in some places the person who receives a tip can keep it; in others, it is collected by the proprietor or shared with other workers.

Applying the Golden Rule, one will find, I think, that unusually good service calls for a supplement, particularly when the basic tip otherwise would be small and the person providing the service is not so well off as oneself. But whether or not one happens to be feeling cheerful and expansive should not affect how much one tips.

It is common practice in some situations to provide customers with services they would rather not have, just so that they will tip. Usually this can be avoided by patronizing more or less modest establishments or by firmly declining such services before they are performed. If employees of a modest establishment insist on providing a service anyway, no tip is strictly due, since one owes nothing for services one has refused, just as one owes nothing for unordered products sent by organizations hoping for a donation. Still, if the person providing the service seems needy, mercy can call for at least the customary tip.

As for the difference between tips at the customary rate in more and less expensive restaurants, the usual tip may well be inadequate to provide just compensation for waitresses and waiters in inexpensive restaurants. Though many people do such work on a part-time basis for supplemental income, if you regularly eat at certain inexpensive establishments, you might discuss the matter frankly with the manager and/or those providing service, try to find out how large a tip would be needed to provide your fair share of a full-time worker’s living wage, and tip at least at that level. At the same time, the larger tip on the larger bill in a more expensive restaurant may not result in excessive compensation. The amount of employee time devoted to each patron usually is greater, and many expensive establishments divide tips among all who contribute to the service. One also expects better service in such establishments, and those skilled and dedicated enough to provide it merit somewhat greater compensation. Then too, many people working in expensive restaurants make a career of it, and so deserve appropriate compensation, including adequate income for retirement. Of course, by choosing moderately priced restaurants, one avoids having to give large tips.

In general, one cannot expect flawless service, and so the quality of service must be judged by how those providing it handle any problems that arise. Insofar as a tip is just compensation for a service, even poor service must be paid for with a tip proportionate to the service received. One also should distinguish between defects that are the fault of the person providing the service and those that are others’ fault, and not penalize one person for others’ failings. For example, if a restaurant serves poor food, one should refuse it or request an adjustment in the check rather than withhold the waiter’s tip, unless he or she shared responsibility by recommending a dish while certainly knowing it to be defective or spoiled. When service of any sort is abnormally delayed, one should ask for an explanation, accept reasonable excuses, and complain to superiors when a satisfactory explanation is not forthcoming, rather than arbitrarily withhold a tip that may be due in justice.

Occasionally, someone providing service for which a tip usually is expected misbehaves significantly or plainly is responsible for grossly inadequate service. For example, two waiters chat while food ready to be served grows cold; an inquisitive taxi driver asks prying, personal questions and vulgarly insults a passenger who politely declines to answer. In such cases, it seems to me, one can justly withhold the tip, but, if possible, should politely and clearly explain why. It is often more appropriate in such cases, however, to exercise Christian mercy by trying to overcome the evil and improve the human relationship—while giving the customary tip, gently point out the fault in service and exhort the individual to avoid it, for his or her own sake and for the sake of other patrons.

Having responded as well as I can to your specific question about tipping, I shall also sketch out the broader perspective in which Christians should think about such matters. Repeating constant and very firm Catholic teaching, Vatican II articulates the principle:

 God has destined the earth and all it contains for the use of all human individuals and peoples, in such a way that, under the direction of justice accompanied by charity, created goods ought to flow abundantly to everyone on a fair basis [note omitted]. One must always bear this universal destination of goods in mind, no matter what forms property may take, as it is adapted, in accordance with diverse and changeable circumstances, to the legitimate institutions of peoples. (GS 69)304
Overlooking or ignoring this broader perspective could lead to a legalistic use of ethical norms, so that, while you would be neither parsimonious nor profligate in tipping, you might be at once miserly and self-indulgently wasteful in much more important decisions about your wealth.

Your past economies were wise. Frugality has been an appropriate part of your Christian style of life. It helped you to fulfill the responsibilities pertaining to your vocation, not least providing for your children’s education. Our sole standard in using material resources as well as time and energy should be our calling from God; and now that your children are grown up, you should be trying to find new opportunities to serve people’s needs and other new dimensions of your vocation.

Travel for pleasure and other recreation certainly can play a subordinate part in a Christian couple’s life. Now it might well be justified that you “loosen up and live a little.” But you must be vigilant to resist the temptations regarding property and money to which many more or less affluent, middle-aged and elderly people succumb: I mean hoarding wealth in the futile pursuit of absolute security and wasting money in the unreasonable pursuit of emotional gratification. Bearing in mind the universal destination of goods, think about others’ needs, and the possibility that some of your wealth ought to be used to meet them (see LCL, 780–82, 789–92, 800–806, 811–14).

Therefore, without presuming to criticize your Caribbean cruise, I suggest you examine your conscience about it. Consider the dire needs of those poorest of the poor that you could have met by donating what you spent on that cruise to a suitable charity. Then ask yourself whether you had good reasons to choose the cruise, or whether it was merely self-indulgence. If the latter, you failed to do justice to the poor and should now consider conscientiously what to do by way of restitution (see LCL, 444–58). Even if you had good reasons for choosing the cruise, could you have forgone it without slighting any of your responsibilities, and used the money in works of mercy? If so, you fell short of the self-sacrifice for which Christian love of neighbor calls.

In the future, too, such questions will be relevant whenever you are making similar plans and choices. In answering them, bear in mind another question: “How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help?” (1 Jn 3.17).

303. The conceptual answer given here can be supplemented by empirical data; see Michael Lynn et al., “Consumer Tipping: A Cross-Country Study,” Journal of Consumer Research, 20 (1993): 478–88; Mary B. Harris, “Waiters, Customers, and Service: Some Tips about Tipping,” Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 25 (1995): 725–44, which includes references to many previous studies.

304. Justo L. González, Faith and Wealth: A History of Early Christian Ideas on the Origin, Significance, and Use of Money (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1990), describes the socioeconomic background against which this Christian teaching was articulated, shows its sources in the New Testament, and illustrates its development by the Fathers of the Church.