Q. My school has many foreign students. As a service to them, in the information packet I include advertisements from firms providing useful services for travelers. This year one provider offered our school a large sum if we would include his ad and exclude that of his competitor. Can I accept the offer?
A. This question would have trouble passing one of the most common ethical hurdles: “the smell test.” Some kinds of conduct just have a funny odor about them. However, the smell test can never be a definitive ethical arbiter. A lot of acts make us feel uncomfortable not because they are unethical but precisely because they require a rare degree of moral courage. Other acts are unethical in subtle ways which never trigger our suspicions.
For example, some people may feel that giving exclusivity to one advertiser is unfair because it doesn’t give equal exposure to all competitors. But this approach is not quite precise; your school doesn’t have any obligation to any service providers. Other people may take this very point as evidence that there is really nothing wrong with making such secret deals.
The most accurate answer is that giving this kind of secret exclusivity involves an ethical breach to the students themselves. The students are likely to make one of the following assumptions regarding the ads in the information packet:
- You include information from all advertisers on an equitable basis (all pay the same amount);
- You include information based on your recommendations (you give precedence to businesses which you recommend).
In the first case, students will assume that only one advertiser is interested in their business; you are unfairly depriving them of information about other providers. There is also a certain unfairness to the firm which you cut out.
In the second case, students assume that you consider the included firm a better deal than its competitors. Yet you never made such a judgment.
In either case, you run afoul of the Biblical injunction, “Don’t place a stumbling block before the blind” (Leviticus 19:14). Rashi explains that this verse forbids us to give tendentious advice, blinding the advised person to his own best interest. Rashi gives the example of someone who asks advice about selling his field in order to buy a donkey; he writes that it is forbidden to conceal your desire to buy the field yourself. Your inclusion of particular ads in the packet conveys a message, but the message is a misleading one due to your hidden interest in helping the advertiser.
Since the entire problem of deceit is due to the secret nature of the deal, there would be no problem of misleading the students if they were openly informed that some advertisers paid the school to obtain exclusive rights to include their materials. However, this involves another problem — not an ethical one, but an educational one. Educational institutions need to maintain a safe distance from purely commercial endeavors. Their job is to educate students in unwavering and timeless values; accepting money from advertisers to take sides in commercial competition can sometimes compromise this educational message.
So having the school accept payment to provide exclusive advertising to one firm is not unethical towards the students as long as they are informed of your policy allowing this. But careful thought is needed to consider if such a deal involves an anti-educational message of expediency.