Sunday, May 24, 2009


Several weeks ago I wrote about a husband and wife who were eating at a restaurant that offered free refills on drinks. The husband wanted to know if it was OK to buy one drink to share with his wife and then refill it. His wife thought it was fine, but he had his doubts.

My take was that, so long as the company had no policy against it, it was fine for them to share the refillable drink. Readers were split on whether my advice held water.

So now I put the question to each of you: In a restaurant that offers refillable drinks, is it OK to buy one drink, share it with someone and then refill it? Or is a one-refillable-drink-per-one-person rule implied, even if not formally stated?

Post your thoughts here by clicking on "comments" or "post a comment" below. Please include your name, hometown, and state, province, or country. Readers' comments may appear in an upcoming column. Or e-mail your comments to me at

You can also respond to the poll with this question that will appear on the right-hand side of the blog until polling is closed.

Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of The Right Thing: Conscience, Profit and Personal Responsibility in Today's Business (Smith Kerr, 2006), is an associate professor at Emerson College in Boston, where he teaches writing and ethics. He is also the administrator of The Right Thing, a Web log focused on ethical issues.

Do you have ethical questions that you need answered? Send them to or to "The Right Thing," The New York Times Syndicate, 500 Seventh Avenue, 8th floor, New York, NY 10018. Please remember to tell me who you are, where you're from, as well as where you read the column.

c.2009 The New York Times Syndicate (Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate)


Carl White said...

The moral issue that I am concerned with is not the one based on what the couple is doing but that I think this couple does not deserve to live.
I cringe with embarrassment for the entire human species because of people like this.
I think rational civilization should have some process to detect and terminate the lives of people that so clearly have no purpose on this earth and only use resources that they clearly do not deserve. Trying to share a soda for the free refills would be one of the determining factors.
Sanity does not even allow a human being to even think they would share a soda because of the free refills.
Personally if even this thought entered my mind for a moment I would realize that life no longer had any meaning or joy and I would have to immediately walk in to traffic or fling myself from a tall building.
So the question is, is it morally wrong that I have these beliefs?

M. Lawrence said...

Whoa. For a minute there I thought Carl W. was serious. He's not. I'm sure. Please, Carl, wherever you are, please assure wide-eyed readers everywhere that you were just joking.
And since the microphone is still on and no one has snatched it away from me, sure - go ahead and have one free refill. Just don't be a pig.

Bill Jacobson said...

Jeffrey, how disappointing that with the plethora of ethical issues you had to choose from you opted to retread on a topic we already hashed out only two months ago. I repost my response below.

Mores derive from the established practices of society and not its written laws. Simply that an establishment has not forbidden a practice does not make that practice per se ethical. We need to consider the common understanding and established practices of society in making that determination.

The "free refills" offer you cite is commonly understood and often labeled as an "all you can drink" offer. The operative word in the common understanding is "you" not your spouse or anyone else.

You can normally share a drink you have purchased because your sharing of that specific, limited-quantity drink does not deprive someone else of something that is rightfully theirs. This is not the case with the "free refills" offer. No matter how little your spouse "shares", you will have received more than you can drink and the restaurant will have less remaining. This extra drink was stolen from the restaurant just as surely as if you had filled your own glass without paying, your spouse's rationalizations notwithstanding.

When you purchase a "free refills" drink, what you actually purchase is a cup and a license (privilege) from the restaurant to fill your cup with their drink. This privilege can be revoked for abuse. Sharing your drink with someone else abuses the common understanding of your agreement, so the restaurant is within its rights to stop you from further refills.

Some are quick to rationalize or excuse this moral lapse due to the limited nature of the theft. If the example were sharing an all-you-can-eat buffet or an all-you-can-ride daypass at an amusement park, more people would admit the moral failing. However, determinations of morality should not turn on the gravity of the breach but upon the essential rightness of the underlying act. If the latter is wrong, then so is the former.

William Jacobson
Cypress, CA

Anonymous said...

I agree with William Jacobson.
On the other hand, if you really want to ease your mind about this, you can always ask the manager if sharing is permissable and abide by what he/she says.

Louise Macaulay said...

Oh my god. Emphasis on the small "g". I have never gotten a refill of my drink at a fast food restaurant. I order a medium and usually don't drink it all. But if some individuals feel the need to buy one, share, and refill, well--so be it. We never know what is going on in the minds and hearts of our fellow human beings. That's why I get so much pleasure out of people watching. I have never seen a Soda Nazi stationed by the beverage dispenser, so my guess is management doesn't have a problem with this.

Anonymous said...

Of course they don't hire a security guard for the free refills... they make maybe 500% profit on fountain drinks, so it wouldn't be worth it to them any more than for a Staples employee to run after someone for shoplifting for a paperclip. Is stealing a paperclip still stealing? Of course and in either case of paperclip or fountain drink, if they allowed it, everyone would do it and the would have to charge more to compensate for their losses. So stop sharing free-refill drinks if you don't want to contribute to price inflation! Sure its just one person but hey people say that about voting for president too. You are a part of a society, not a vacuum dweller.