Those subscribing more to an individualistic rather than cosmopolitan conception of capitalism often make utilitarian claims for justifying the moral practice of tipping. In light of utilitarian ethical principles, which prioritize actions that maximize overall happiness and well-being, what if we consider the practice of tipping as inegalitarian and rooted in an illusory meritocracy? Drawing upon the utilitarian perspectives of Peter Singer and other philosophers, does tipping contribute to the betterment of society by providing financial incentives for service workers, or does it perpetuate an unfair wage system that places an undue burden on the consumer to supplement inadequate salaries? I am interested in whether the act of tipping, as a cultural norm, aligns with or contradicts the utilitarian imperative to promote the greatest good.

  • Like many things, tipping is something that arose in an existing system / environment which was not designed. It is usually possible to come up with designs that are better than undesigned systems, so that's what we should do, if possible. Then we have to look at what 'possible' means, and so on...
    – Scott Rowe
    Commented May 22 at 13:06

3 Answers 3


I am not a utilitarian by any means, but I'll give this a shot.

The short answer is yes, I think it would be morally justifiable under utilitarianism. I doubt that the practice of tipping is the last thing keeping current wage systems going or has a really significant effect.

However, you could say that the culture which demands tips is, or at least is a product of, something harmful which a utilitarian should be against. Tipping itself, however, doesn't seem to fit that, at least on the level of an individual tip. I feel like to say otherwise rests on the assumption that, if we were to stop tipping, the current wage system would cease to exist, which feels unlikely to me.

Plus, the link between tipping and perpetuating the wage system has quite a few actors in the middle making their own decisions, so it might be hard to place the moral burden on the consumer actually doing the tipping.

  • It's kind of like, should we feed birds in the backyard?
    – Scott Rowe
    Commented May 22 at 12:23

How do you define "utility", "maximized well being" and what is your "essence of tipping culture".

Like apparently the "beauty" of utilitarianism is that you can justify pretty much anything with it... Like there is apparently no rigorous answer as to what "utility" even is, whether it's "aggregated utility" or "average utility", whether you are allowed to feel bad for others or only to enjoy yourselves. And consequentialism usually only works in hindsight when you know the consequences and can analyze whether the ends justified the means, while if you apply it to the future ... well as long as you could craft any narrative that would predict a better outcome due to an action you could justify any action. (?) Like if you can't know the consequences of your action, how is that supposed to work? Likely outcomes? everyone's guess?

Also what is "tipping culture" to you? Like are service workers in general an unnecessary job, because people are just to lazy to get their stuff themselves? Or does their existence provide a tangible benefit for society at large? Are they an attempt of the owner to improve the impression of their venue without actually paying people a fair wage for doing so or is it you who expects to be pampered, but must be fooled to pay for that? Are these handouts, like how you might give money to a homeless person or are you paying for work being done? And while it does improve the situation of the service worker individually, does it benefit society at large or is the money better spend elsewhere? So do you value their job? Do you value their existence in society and consider it worthy subsidizing it? Or conversely does your patching of a broken system prevents social pressure from building up, delaying the inevitable revolution of the unemployed service workers that would surely rectify everything? Are you doing neither yourself nor them a favor by pretending that, that is a job and if you value them as humans for their human activities, wouldn't it make more sense to fund them directly and not require them to do bullshit jobs for your subsidies? Which would give them more options to contribute to the human side of society that you value, right?

Or do you look at it from the perspective of their employer, who is likely going to argue that paying people minimum wage or even way less, means money is able to be spend elsewhere, which benefits the costumers (or their bottom line). So costumers pay for what they get and if they don't want the service they could choose to starve the service personal. Though in the end the customers don't get things cheaper, they are just fooled by artificially lower up front prices. Though from their perspective they actually get work, that even if only marginally improves their impression, so whether it's useful or not they get served and would need to pay for that, but don't because in consequence the serves are paid already(?)

Or do you see it as a sort of work appropriate payment, where it's not a fixed amount but where the actual effort is rewarded rather than just doing a job. Or you know the opposite, it's reliant on the somewhat despotic benevolence of the costumers and has nothing to do with your actual performance, other than if you don't provide high performance you're paid even less. Thus raising the bar for the performance artificially high while retaining a subpar income.

Or is it just in general some sort of "event", where average people can feel like the upper class by being served and attribute a pittance to the serves to show their benevolence and wealth and is this theater and them feeling good about it worth the servers feeling bad about it. Or are they actually paid well for their acting because everyone gives plenty to compensate for all the assumed people who give poorly?

Though is it ethical to have those "be a rich asshole"-parties? And does having people contractually obligated to telling you that "it's ok", make that ok?

So how do you measure all these real and assumed benefits and drawbacks and how you you end up with a sum total that is either positive or negative? Without a clear definition of these things you could draw that line wherever you want and most likely justify whatever action you would think moral. So yes, probably.

  • 3
    Your generalistion that people who use service industries are 'lazy' is false. They may not be physically capable, or intellectually capable, or have the skill set, to do X. Or they may believe that a division of labour is beneficial to society. Or those "rich assoles" as you put it might like to share their wealth by spending it, instead of hoarding it. Commented May 21 at 17:25
  • 1
    @WeatherVane These aren't generalizations but questions, also they cover a wide range of perspectives to showcase the ambiguity in the question. Like for example if you think these jobs are essential, that has a whole different moral angle to it than if you think they are superfluous. Also not sure how utilitarians would rank this essential benefit as it likely doesn't apply to the majority of customers. Also if you believe in division of labor, then how is tipping and minimum wage moral? And if rich people want to give away money, why let people work for it rather than donating?
    – haxor789
    Commented May 21 at 22:28
  • Gosh, I somehow feel worse now about leaving a dollar when I go to pick up a sandwich for lunch.
    – Scott Rowe
    Commented May 22 at 12:22
  • 1
    @ScottRowe Not really my intended takeaway, though some of the questions could be read as such. Sorry :(
    – haxor789
    Commented May 22 at 12:41

I think that the Singerian perspective would be that any deviation from 'eating lentil soup and giving all money and/or time to the most effective methods of betterment of society' is behaving less-than-optimally-ethically. And so in that sense, tipping is likely unjustified.

However, the standard context of tipping would be after having just purchased a luxury, such as a restaurant meal. In this scenario, we have already decided to indulge in luxury. (For whatever reason; it's socially expected of us, it's necessary to indulge in some luxuries in order to avoid burnout and stress, etc.) Since we're already outside the realm of necessities, it might be more comparable to compare "Spending $25 on a $20 meal and $5 tip" against "Spending $25 on a $25 meal and stiffing the waiter", rather than against "Spending $20 on a $20 meal and donating $5". In this analysis, I think tipping is pretty clearly justified.

(Tipping might also be justified for the same reasons we are having a restaurant meal; if one doesn't tip, and becomes known as a stingy asshole who likes to preach about charity while stiffing the server, that's likely to have social costs and turn other people against one's Singerian beliefs)

The other argument for not tipping--that if everyone didn't tip, society would be better--fails because that's not how utilitarianism works, even most conceptions of rule-utilitarianism. E.G. if I believe that society would be better if city streets were pedestrian-only, I still do not walk across the car-filled streets without looking both ways.

  • Another possibility is: "Spending $25 on a $25 meal knowing that the waiter is paid fairly", which I am told is how it works in the UK. Tipping evolved from people being underpaid, so correcting that would be the first step.
    – Scott Rowe
    Commented May 22 at 12:17
  • There's also the Singerian tradeoff of giving the $5 tip to this service worker who has some modicum of income vs. giving it to someone who is literally starving (or subject to malaria or whatever)
    – Dave
    Commented May 22 at 14:56
  • 1
    @ScottRowe, I think I address that in the 'walking into busy traffic' section. If you want to change tipping culture, I think you pass a law or do something organized, instead of individual rebellion--utilitarianism does not value grandstanding unless it has an impact.
    – Kaia
    Commented May 22 at 18:40
  • @Dave Yeah, that's my first paragraph--there's going to be a better way to spend your money than giving it to a service worker, and if there isn't a better use of money, it follows that you should give to that person, regardless if they're serving you at a restaurant.
    – Kaia
    Commented May 22 at 18:42
  • One idea is if even one multibillionaire gave much of their money away it would probably eclipse starvation, illness, poverty and underpay worldwide. What if they all did? Or, they could collect less for whatever it is they are doing and let others have some.
    – Scott Rowe
    Commented May 22 at 21:03

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