The Moral Dimension of Tipping

There is fundamental economic moral issue at stake: A minimum wage for wait-staff jobs is not only the just thing to do to help narrow, however slightly, the growing disparity of wealth in this country.
03/02/2014 07:20 pm ET Updated May 02, 2014

Recently my wife and I traveled to New Zealand. Before we left we were told by friends who had been there that tipping for service in restaurants was not expected and even frowned upon. I'm not certain why this practice has become common there and in Australia. Some have said that it's because restaurant wait-staff are for the most part well-compensated for their labor and consider themselves "professionals" in their field. Others have disputed the "well-compensated" claim. But the practice of no-tipping may also have to do with the legal requirement that businesses employing wait-staff provide a just minimum wage which allows those in these service professions to regard their jobs with pride and a knowledge that they are earning a living wage and can live well if not luxuriously on the salaries they receive. Our experience in a no-tipping culture raised for me the moral question of how we treat similar forms of labor in our country. And that question speaks directly to the issue of the minimum wage in this country.

In the United States we tip people who serve us only if their service is in certain jobs. Why workers in some jobs are expected to receive tips and not those in other jobs is a mystery determined by social/cultural factors that are not always clear. We tip wait-staff, doormen, taxi drivers, hair salon stylists and doormen. We tip people who deliver our pizza to the door but not those who prepare it and place it on the counter for pick up. We do not tip surgeons, lawyers and teachers. In fact tipping such persons for their "professional" work would be regarded as insulting to their professional status. It would suggest that their financial well-being depends on satisfying our pleasures on a case-by-case basis and that they depend on our tips to live well. But doctors, lawyers and professors belong to professions that carry with them a high socially attributed value which comes with belonging to those professions. Their economic compensation through fees and salaries is more than sufficient to permit them to live as part of or close to the wealthiest members of our society.

Why then do we have some jobs, often called "menial," whose root means servile, that have a built-in expectation of tipping for services rendered? One obvious answer is because we do not truly value such jobs. They are not essential to our well-being and instead we regard them as catering primarily to our convenience. We don't have to go to the counter to order or pick up our orders. But how is the convenience of having a restaurant "server" who gets tipped for bringing us our food any different from the server who bags our groceries or who stands behind the McDonald's counter to take our orders and whom we do not tip?

Tipping sends two moral messages: One is that the job is not really important but is solely performed for our convenience and therefore has no moral claim on us. The job is so dis-valued that it is not worthy of receiving the kind of financial compensation we reserve for almost every other job in America which provides service to others and which we regard highly enough to compensate amply. And we signal the dis-value of "tipping jobs" by allowing their employers to pay such poor salaries to wait-staff that tipping becomes necessary if they are to earn enough money to barely get by.

Tipping also produces a morally unhealthy relationship between the server and those being served. If she is to end her shifts with enough money to pay her bills she needs the tip. Knowing that her tip depends on pleasing her customers, the waitress is forced into ingratiating herself with them by pretending to enter into something more than a functional relationship. She will tell us her first name and the customer is now trapped into what is essentially a functional relationship now parading as a personal one that will in many cases induce guilt in the diner if the tip is less than 18 percent of the bill, no matter what the quality of service. The message is clearly sent: Stiffing the wait-person on a tip has direct negative effects on her ability to have a decent standard of living. And it violates the faux intimacy of the functional relationship that has now morphed into a superficial personal relationship between server and customer. The hypocrisy of such a relationship betrays the real status of the labor being performed. And the end result is that the transactions between waiter and customer are expected to resolve the injustice of an economic disparity through generosity rather than as a matter of justice.

New Zealand got around this problem over a century ago with a good if not generous minimum wage requirement.

In 1894, it was the first country to implement a mandatory minimum wage for all workers. Today the current adult minimum wage rates (before tax) that apply for employees aged 16 or over are almost $14 per hour or $550 for a 40-hour week.

And based on our admittedly anecdotal experience there, the wait-staff conducted themselves professionally and courteously without falling into feigned familiarity and insipid ingratiation. A number of different wait-persons attended every table since they were not in competition with their colleagues to see who got the largest tip.

All of which suggests that there is fundamental economic moral issue at stake: A minimum wage for wait-staff jobs is not only the just thing to do to help narrow, however slightly, the growing disparity of wealth in this country. But it can also convert the relationships between workers and customers into something more honest, above-board, functional, and at least semi-professional so that servers can regard their jobs as representing a valued service along the lines of their more highly paid professional colleagues in law, medicine, academia, and hundreds of other vocations in which tipping would be considered simply gauche.