Almost every store sells a majority of their products using cheap, manipulative tricks such as setting the sales price at a number ending in 9. So instead of 50, they'll ask for 49. Instead of 250, they'll ask for 249. Instead of 3000, they'll ask for 2999.

For example, I literally just picked a random site online (a clothes vendor) and on their front page, this is their advertisement for a collect few items:

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I am wondering whether this strategy is enough to classify these sellers as committing an unethical practice. After all, is the end goal not to manipulate people into believing that they are getting a better deal than they actually are? To make it seem like the price is cheaper than it actually is? Is it then not a sort of lying or dishonesty in an attempt to defraud people of their money for personal monetary gain?

  • 1
    If they offered a price of 49 and then refused to sell it for that price, that would be lying. I don't see how they are defrauding people by doing this. What would be a definition of fraud you are using? Commented Jul 22, 2018 at 13:21
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    @FrankHubeny: The underlying presumption is that there is an illusion -- e.g. that for whatever reason, people intuit prices like 19.99 as being much more than a penny cheaper than 20.00, and these pricing strategies are exploiting this illusion to trick people into paying more than they believe they are paying.
    – user6559
    Commented Jul 22, 2018 at 13:37
  • You can go even deeper and blame capitalism for its inherent unethics. Because sellers always will use some kind of tricks in order to sell their goods. Because it is profitable for sellers.
    – rus9384
    Commented Jul 22, 2018 at 15:37
  • Here is a paper by Jordan Fossee, On Acting From Duty PDF oaktrust.library.tamu.edu/bitstream/handle/1969.1/152020/… Here is Lucien Goldmann's book "Immanuel Kant". amazon.com/Immanuel-Radical-Thinkers-Lucien-Goldmann/dp/… (Reprint).
    – Gordon
    Commented Jul 22, 2018 at 17:50
  • Nice question. I'd never considered the practice in ethical terms before.
    – Geoffrey Thomas
    Commented Jul 22, 2018 at 19:01

2 Answers 2


Ethics of pricing

Interesting question : the practice is as old as selling, but you object to it ethically or at least raise the question of its morality. I have not considered the practice from this angle before, so appreciate your presenting it from a (to me) new perspective. Of course the question stands, and retains its ethical relevance, if just one store sets prices in this way or even thinks of doing so. So we can set aside the quantification, 'almost all'. This is no point against you.

You use a variety of terms : 'manipulation', 'lying', 'dishonesty' - and implicitly 'deception' when you talk of getting people to believe that they are getting a better deal than they actually are.


I am going to use this term because the activities you attribute to shops all appear to be forms of deception.

Let's look for some help from the late Bernard Williams who detects two elements in deception, or two kinds of deception :

When deceiving a person is wrong, what makes it so? In the middle of Truth and Truthfulness, Bernard Williams answers this question twice.' He argues that the wrong in deception should be understood in terms of a deceiver breaching a trust with the deceived. And he argues that it should be understood in terms of the deceiver manipulating the deceived. (Alan Strudler, 'Deception Unraveled', The Journal of Philosophy, Vol. 102, No. 9 (Sep., 2005), pp. 458-473 : 458.)

In a fuller analysis we would need to consider how the two elements or kinds of deception fit together, if indeed they do. Perhaps breach of trust is a form of manipulation, as Strudler suggests (458). But we can set this problem aside for present purposes.

Breach of trust

When one shops one reasonably expects the vendor to be reliably truthful - about the price of a product, its quality, its conditions of sale (the shop's returns policy), its functions or utility, about how to use it and so forth.

When a product has a price tag of 4.99 instead of 5.00, or 99.99 rather than 100.00, it is not immediately obvious that the vendor is committing a breach of trust. There is, indeed, perfect truthfulness about the price. This is what you will pay if you buy.


This seems more fertile territory. It's not enough to say that manipulation is a case of getting someone to do or omit doing something they would or might not otherwise do or omit. It is this, but it's also more than this; it has to be, because this characterisation does not distinguish manipulation from coercion or persuasion.

I offer this provisional account of manipulation (not Rudinow's but triggered by his article in References) :

A manipulates S if A motivate S's behavior by playing on a cognitive defect or vulnerability of S.

This is offered only as a sufficient condition for manipulation : it is certainly not necessary and sufficient. I am not even sure that manipulation is capable of definition in terms of necessary and sufficient conditions; if may, for instance, be a Wittgensteinian family resemblance term (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Family_resemblance).

But back to the shop. By pricing at 4.99 or 99.99 the shop is using a bit of highly practical and untechnical psychology. We tend, or many of us tend at least on occasion, to pay primary attention to the dollar or pound price. Dollars are much more important than cents, and pounds than pence. What catches my eye is the '4' in '4.99', not the '.99'. Equally in the case of thousands, it's the '2' in '2999' that first registers and not the trailing '9's. Shops are well aware of this cognitive defect or vulnerability and their reliance on it is a form of manipulation. By setting the price at 4.99 the vendor gets me to do something I would or might not otherwise do - buy the product when I wouldn't or might not if it were 5.00.


Joel Rudinow, 'Manipulation', Ethics, Vol. 88, No. 4 (Jul., 1978), pp. 338-347.

Alan Strudler, 'Deception Unraveled', The Journal of Philosophy, Vol. 102, No. 9 (Sep., 2005), pp. 458-473.

Bernard Williams, Truth and Truthfulness, ISBN 10: 0691102767 / ISBN 13: 9780691102764 Published by Princeton University Press, 2002.

  • I wonder how one would distinguish between coercion and manipulation is this characterization - maybe: whether the subject is (meant to be) aware of being the victim?
    – christo183
    Commented Dec 12, 2018 at 4:43

I think the answer to this question depends a lot on your definition of what constitutes something 'unethical'. Obviously, I can't tell you what to believe, because I do not know your ethics. However, I hope I can still shed some light on the topic.

Ultimately, in the example you provided, there is no point at which the seller actually outright says anything false to you. There is a price at which the seller promises to sell you something, and then you have the free will to choose whether to buy it exactly at that price or not.

Now you mention the fact that humans are biologically inclined to view a price such as $9.99 as being more than one cent cheaper than a price such as $10.00. In essence, there is an underlying piece of rhetoric the business is trying to promote in your mind- that you're getting a great deal if you buy the item.

I can understand why someone might think that exploiting such an inclination could be unethical. However, calling this unethical is a dangerous precedent that must be considered carefully. Imagine that a company has one product, and they hire two salesmen to sell it. Both use the exact same words and phrases to tell you about the item, but one seems very bored and refuses to make eye contact with you, while the other is enthusiastic, happy, and makes eye contact with you. Despite both physically communicating the same exact thing, I think it's fairly easy to tell that you would be far more inclined to buy from the enthusiastic salesman who makes eye contact with you. After all, we're biologically inclined to distrust those who avoid eye contact with us. Conversely, we're also biologically inclined to trust and believe someone who is enthusiastic. Does that make it unethical to make eye contact while selling something? Is it unethical to be enthusiastic about a product? After all, neither of those things actually change anything about the product itself.

The point is, however someone sells something, there is always going to be some type of appeal to an uncontrollable biological inclination, whether it is negative or positive. Perhaps appealing to some of those biological inclinations is actually unethical. However, before we go labeling things as unethical, we need to draw a line, and where that line is for you is certainly not for me to decide.

Perhaps the best way to answer this is to ask yourself the question: what is the difference between an unethical appeal to biology and an ethical one?

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