December 13, 2011
The Halakha of Amazon Price Scanning
Reading “Amazon’s Jungle Logic” reminded me of a lecture I heard from a rabbi years ago, about the ethics of entering a shop to examine an item without any intention of making a purchase. Longtime readers of the Talmud (or even people casually aware of the Talmud) might not be surprised to learn that the Talmud has something specific to say about this situation. The Mishnah draws an interesting analogy between hurtful business practices and hurtful words, saying:
Just as there is overreaching in buying and selling, so is there wrong done by words. Thus, one must not ask another, “What is the price of this article?” when one has no intention of buying. If a person was a repentant sinner, one must not say to him, “Remember your former deeds…”
Here, “overreaching in buying and selling” means “overcharging”, or more generally, business fraud. The rabbis have plenty to say about business fraud in the Gemara. (They have plenty to say about everything in the Gemara.)
Some contemporary readings of this Mishnah argue that the underlying reason this behavior is bad is that it is unethical to waste a merchant’s time or falsely raise their hope. Under that reading, if you swoop in, scan some items, and then rush out of the store again to collect your five bucks, it’s hard to argue that you wasted that much of anybody’s time. Particularly if you walk fast, avoid eye contact, and above all, avoid talking to anybody — for most smartphone users, par for the course.
However, at least from what I can find in the Talmud’s sections on business practices — and I certainly might have missed a passage — I’m not sure that the “wasting the merchant’s time and energy” argument is really rooted in the text. As far as I can tell, the real problem stems from fraudulence. Or as R. Judah puts it, “One may also not feign interest in a purchase when he has no money, since this is known to the heart only, and of everything known only to the heart it is written, and thou shalt fear thy God.” (Meaning: you can fool the storekeeper, but you can’t fool God.)
Under that reading, I think the real question is, does price scanning with zero intent to purchase carry the whiff of fraudulence? I propose the following moral Gedankenexperimente. Imagine you walk into the store this Saturday, smartphone hot in your hand. A clerk stops you and asks if there’s anything he or she can help you with.
If you can look the clerk in the eye and respond with, “No thanks, I’m fine — I’m just heading over to scan this item with this Amazon app, and then I’ll clear right out,” with no hesitation or mumbling or red-facedness, then congratulations! Your heart and actions are aligned. Go ye forth and scan. Otherwise, consider taking a pass.
Of course, it’s worth mentioning that participating in Amazon’s particular little game this holiday season means running off to engage in commerce on a Saturday, which is super-duper illegal no matter how you slice it. I mean, at that point you might as well make sure that your Sabbath day price-scanning shenanigans involve some kind of bacon-related product. Go for the trifecta!