Ethics of Oreos in the Minibar

Is it ethical to replenish the items in your hotel’s minibar to avoid being charged for consumption?

Randy Cohen tackled this issue in last week’s The Ethicist. David Lat, publisher of the legal tabloid Above the Law, posed the question after eating a box of Oreos from his minibar and then later replacing them.

Mr. Cohen slapped him down and said that since you enjoyed the service, you must pay the price.

On the other hand, is the service so that you do not have to go out and get your own Oreos or is the service merely the supply of Oreos in the room? Is the advertised price for the convenience of not having to replace items you consume?

“At the moment you ate the Oreos from the hotel, you took advantage of the convenience of having them there on demand. You could have checked in then went somewhere else to look for food, but you didn’t. That convenience comes at a cost. The fact that you later replaced the product yourself doesn’t mean that you didn’t experience the convenience of having it there when you wanted it.”

Since Above the Law‘s audience is lawyers, there were many comments comparing Lat’s “borrowing” of the Oreos to the borrowing of funds from a client account. Those comparisons fail. A lawyer does not have a right to use client funds. Lat had a right to eat the Oreos.

It’s just a question of the price you pay for consumption. Is replacing the goods an appropriate cost to the consumer and acceptable to the hotel? The consumer would have to venture out into an unfamiliar city hoping to find Oreos in the exact same packaging as those he ate. Their is a significant cost to the consumer in spending that time. After all, part of the reason you pay the premium price for the items in the minibar is to avoid spending that time and being able to enjoy the Oreos without leaving your room.

Lat pointed out that the minibar did not have a sensor that automatically bills you when an item is removed. He also pointed out that the new Oreos had an expiration date much further out than those he consumed.

What are your thoughts?

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3 Responses to Ethics of Oreos in the Minibar

  1. Matt Kelly January 12, 2010 at 11:19 am #

    He borrowed Oreos at a higher value, used them for personal gain, and then substituted identical Oreos he obtained elsewhere at a lower price. If this is unethical, so is shorting stock.

    • Doug Cornelius January 12, 2010 at 11:40 am #

      Great example. I don’t think the answer is as clearly in the unethical category as Randy Cohen states.

      I don’t like the idea of someone manhandling the stuff in the minibar, but there is no reason to think that housekeeping is any more thoughtful.

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