Is it ethical to sell complimentary copies of textbooks?

by Klaus on November 21, 2018

in Articles

One thing that every college student knows is the hassle and headache of buying new textbooks. With every new semester, the headache begins anew. Time after time, we find ourselves wondering how a bunch of bleached plant matter can be so incredibly expensive. Even for those who can afford them, textbooks are a royal pain in the wallet.

Which brings us to our subject: is it morally correct to sell promotional copies of textbooks? First, let’s examine the question. Textbook publishers usually give free copies of their textbooks to college professors, especially if the professor teaches a class that might use that particular book. Professors have at least some choice in which books are assigned to their level, and each publisher wants theirs to be chosen. In many cases, professors end up selling these complimentary copies at a discounted price, or even giving them away.

There is a real moral debate as to whether or not this can rightly be called ethical. As there are a variety of possible views, we will present several of the more common positions so that you, the reader, can decide for yourself which ethical argument makes the most sense. Some other writers have attempted to address this question, but we will be taking a different position by taking no firm position at all. To push you toward a particular view would be a disservice to honesty, and an insult to your intelligence.

Position 1: Complementary copies of textbooks are gifts, and therefore a person is free to do whatever they want with their own property.

Let’s pretend that it’s Christmas. Your weird cat-lady aunt bought you a gift that you don’t particularly want. Of course, you will say that you love it just to be polite, as is proper. Now, let’s say someone offers you 50 bucks for that same gift? Is it morally ok to sell it? I would say yes. When someone buys you a gift, they do it because they want to make you happy. If that 50 dollars brings you more happiness than the gift, then the original intent of the gift-giver has been fulfilled.

More to the point, it would be hard to deny that your property is yours to do with as you see fit. At the most, selling a gift might be considered a little bit rude, which is why you probably wouldn’t tell your crazy cat lady aunt that you sold her gift. In a way, though, I would say that it’s good for professors to sell comped books because it puts more pressure on the publishers to lower their exorbitant prices.

Position 2: Textbook re-selling is wrong because the seller paid nothing

If professors do not want all those extra textbooks, they should give them away. To do otherwise is unethical because the books were given freely as gifts, and should be given away in turn. Of course, a person certainly has the right to do whatever they please with their own property, but there is sometimes a difference between what you have a right to do, and that which is truly right to do. For instance, society has a right to lock people up for minor infractions, but in practice this often does not happen because it is also right to temper justice with mercy.

In short, a person may have every legal right to dispose of their property as they wish, but that does not necessarily mean that they have a moral or ethical right to do so. Therefore, professors should keep these books for the common reference of their students, or give them away to poorer students. Selling something that was given to you for free is simply not ethical, especially when we are talking about a product that is highly overpriced to begin with.

Position 3: Selling complementary textbooks isn’t entirely wrong, but should be sold at a heavily discounted price

The right of an individual to sell their own property is not in dispute. However, the fact that we live in a capitalist society should not be considered as an excuse to engage in unethical behavior. Capitalism may involve many people struggling to profit at the expense of another, but there have always been commonly accepted standards and rules by which most(if not all)professions abide. Even amongst animals and criminals, both of whom operate outside of any of society’s rules, there are accepted codes of behavior.

One of those accepted rules is the idea that the price of an item should reflect the amount of money that the seller paid to acquire it. If the seller paid nothing, there is an ethical obligation to sell that product at a greatly reduced price. Besides, a professor generally gets a good salary and does not really need to make money hustling textbooks on the side. If a professor is going to sell a complementary textbook, they should sell it through a company that deals in discount textbooks. There are many such companies, but here is one that I picked at random.

So what do you think? Is it wrong for someone to make a profit without investing any capital whatsoever? Is it right for an individual to make a buck for something that wasn’t supposed to be sold? Or does the truth lie somewhere in the middle? I cannot answer these questions for you, as they would require a wiser man than I.

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