“Pay What You Can” Ethics

A question in an advice column asked if it was unethical to pay nothing for a product or service that was priced at “pay what you can.” It reminded me of an ongoing disagreement I had with the board of my theater company regarding holding a “pay-what you can” performance in each production’s run. Many of the other Greater Washington theaters were employing the tactic, and one of the main arguments  for our theater doing the same was “Everybody does it.” You know what I think of THAT logic.

There was an altruistic, community spirited argument, of course: provide an opportunity for people who couldn’t afford typical theater prices. That sounds good, but in practice the theory was more ideology than reality. When we tried the gimmick, almost all of the attendees were people who regarded it as a chance to pay less than they usually did, as in “almost nothing.” People who don’t go to theater mostly aren’t interested in theater. Our prices were under 30 bucks a ticket, far less than many of our competitors, and children were admitted free, another concession to the needs of theater-loving families with limited budgets. Again, almost nobody took advantage of that benefit.

My objections to “pay-what-you-can”:

  • It creates an incentive for consumers to  rationalize unethical conduct. Products and services have costs. Those who benefit from them are ethically obligated to pay all or a reasonable proportion of those costs.

Pay-what-you-can really means pay-what-you-want, and wanting to get something for little or nothing to the detriment of those offering that something is unfair and irresponsible.

  • It provides an easy rationalization for both lying and stealing.

The consumers who “can’t” pay more than 5 dollars for a $25 ticket miraculously can pay more than that for beer, or a ticket to a movie they want to see, or a big container of popcorn. What their act of paying what they “can” amounts to in many cases as a statement that the product or service isn’t worth more than what they want to pay for it.

Well, fine. Don’t use the product or service then.

  • It makes the product or service provider complicit in their own exploitation, which is incompetent.

In the advice column, the questioner said that money was tight and she really wanted to keep taking the online yoga class, so doing so free would be great. But times are also tight for the yoga instructor, who is trying “pay-what-you-can” in the desperate and misguided hope that it will keep people attending who wouldn’t have otherwise and who will be fair without using the opportunity to their own advantage.

If I use a service or acquire a product that I really want or need, and it is being offered at “pay-what-you-can” pricing, I will pay the usual price, because that’s the only honest course. That price isn’t going to break me, and I’m getting fair value for it; implicitly saying I can’t pay it is a lie.


9 thoughts on ““Pay What You Can” Ethics

  1. How does this analysis fit in with student-priced tickets. When I was in high school I saw a lot of productions and probably would not have without that incentive.

    Was it a cynical attempt to get me hooked on live theater while young?

    Was it because of limited funds (like pay what you can, which you rightly characterize as pay what you want)?

    Was it for an implicit educational purpose?

    Was it just marketing? Half-price is better than an empty seat?

    Was it just being a good community member?


  2. I’m conflicted about this from a strictly practical standpoint. Pay What You Can can be tremendously effective in a fundraising context. Years ago, I volunteered at a group home for disabled/disadvantaged kids. Every year, the major fund raising mechanism for the kids to raise money for trips and activities was a car wash out in front our facility. The policy was that the car wash was free, people just paid what they wanted. I can tell you we raised FAR more money than if we had asked for a specific price. Most of the kids participating were not overtly disabled. Unless you knew them, they were just kids. So I don’t think we were especially appealing to guilt or empathy. But, many people offered 3 or 4 times what we would have charged them. A few, even more. One guy gave us a hundred dollar bill.

    On the other hand, there were people that took the free car wash. (The kids were very good about cheerfully washing their cars anyway). Overall though, I was impressed with people’s generosity.

    Maybe it’s because a carwash fundraiser is kind of outside the bounds of normal commerce, but I can see someone taking advantage of this if it’s offered on something which they see as a normal market transaction. Or maybe, it was because the kid’s presence humanized our efforts and we were appealing to empathy, after all. I wonder if, instead of presenting this performance as a chance to save money, they presented it as a fundraiser, they could have appealed to the better nature of their more affluent patrons while still opening up access to people who would not normally be able to afford it.

  3. Similarly, this issue is like tipping at any restaurant (moderately priced or fine dining experience) or other such service.

    If I can afford to eat there, I will include a 20% tip in the least, and I always round it up. The maths is always easy …10% x2 and round up.

    If I cannot afford that minimum added expense, I should not be eating out at that establishment.

    If the service is especially good, I will kick in a bit more. Sure I could get my expensive iPhone calculator out and plug in 18% and be “that “ tightwad …but that’s not me.

    I too would always pay the full fare for a theater experience, because it’s the right thing to do. Those human beings are people, with families and needs for making a living too. I’m not going to deny them …and I’m not going to sleep that night thinking, “why did I cheat that person out of a measly dollar.”

    It’s all a “Golden Rule” thing. Simple as that !!

  4. I agree with every word and every argument you made above.

    Invitations to unethical conduct and rationalizations supporting it are themselves unethical. We have an ethical duty to assist our fellow citizens to be ethical citizens. One way to do that is to set a fair price for products and services but insist upon payment. If the purchaser finds the price excessive, it is his ethical duty to himself and his family to avoid consuming the service or product. By insisting on a fair price to be paid, the purveyor protects both himself and his patrons.

    • And I neglected to mention that “pay as you can” offers are really nothing more than virtue signalling, which in my mind is always unethical.

  5. I’ve encountered/engaged in a “pay what you can” dynamic, but coming from the othet direction: people being willing to tip for what’s otherwise free.

    My husband and I are both writers of niche, hobbiest content, along with a lot of other folks. We’re both talented enough that some folks are willing to pay for it, to encourage us to make more content, but we primarily do it for fun and have no interest in shutting out the wider community.

    So for us, “pay what you can” or the use of patreon has been more of a busker’s hat. We’ll be here, doing our thing, if you want to drop a dollar in the hat, or toss a few bucks a month in excange for a promise that we’ll do a certain number of things a month, feel free. Otherwise we’ll just keep doing it as we feel like it, and if we don’t feel like it we’ll stop.

    This is a major problem in pretty much any creative content that can be posted online: there are a lot of people out there who enjoy doing it, and if you wanted to make a living off it it’s hard to compete with them. But I don’t see it as unethical, it’s not our responsability to force people to pay for something we’re happy to give away, or to refuse more practical shows of appreciation (beyond comments of “this is really cool, thanks!”) from people who want to encourage us to do more.

    (And, full disclosure: we’ve both done larger projects which we’ve charged directly for. And in those cases having a fanbase of people who usually see our work for free was not a bad position to be in. People seem to recognize the difference in scale of the projects.)

  6. I hate being a customer faced with a pay what you can fundraiser. Usually its baked goods, and I never know just how fair it is to compare it to a similar good from a gas station, or what is a reasonable cost for more unique items. When they do have prices, they are frequently much higher than i would expect (5 dollars for a small paper plate with 2 brownies? Really?) and I feel vaguely guilty when my fair price estimate is lower than other bake sales, but not enough to pay that much. Do I buy nothing and feel guilty for leaving their charity high and dry, pay a reasonable price and feel guilty for that, or overpay IMO and feel like a schmuck?

    Give me a price, I’ll decide if it’s worth it to me. OTOH, I believe pay what you can perversely tends to generate more profit, so I can’t really blame them.

  7. How does this reconcile with the concept of “suggested donation”. I am often put off by such signs because there is no reference pricing. If the Museum is open to the public free of charge but a suggested donation is on a sign, what is the appropriate behavior. I have the same problem with as a tip jar for people that merely put your order in a bag or coffee cup.

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