Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Justice and Sacrifice

EbayAs I've mentioned in the past, I try to keep my Transformers budget manageable by selling extra toys online from time to time, and I've certainly been doing that quite a bit since BotCon 2009, which while an enjoyable experience, was also an expensive one. I've become a big fan of using the United States Postal Service's feature for printing out postage on my computer, which PayPal makes especially convenient.

A situation came up recently that got me thinking about ethical and theological issues that have little to do with shipping toys, per se. The situation itself was fairly straightforward: someone who had bought one of my toys had apparently not updated his mailing address on PayPal properly. I have always made it a policy that, whenever I use Priority Mail for shipping, I send an e-mail with the tracking information (which is provided free when you print your postage from your computer) to the buyer. This particular buyer quickly informed me that the address in that e-mail was out-of-date, but it was already too late, since I had already paid for the postage and shipped it out. The package returned to me as "refused" a few days later.

Now, because the incorrect address was not my fault, I feel that I probably would have been justified in asking the buyer to pay for the extra shipping costs that I incurred in reshipping the package to the correct address. Yet, I did not feel "right" in doing so, and ultimately ate those costs. This raised a couple of related questions: Why should I do such a thing? What's the right thing to do in such a situation, anyway?

I often write, both here and elsewhere, about caring for "justice." But it occurred to me that justice was not the thing I cared about most in this situation. If it was, I should have required the buyer to pay for the extra shipping costs. Perhaps I just didn't want to "cause trouble"? It's possible, although it occurs to me that I often don't mind raising some tempers when I stand up for what I think is right in other situations.

I then considered the possibility that I might have a higher value on "self-sacrifice" than I do on "justice" in this situation. This is certainly a Christian virtue, but I'm not sure how far that works either. I certainly do wish that others would "self-sacrifice" more often than they do, but if I start to tell them what sacrifices they should make (and sometimes, I'm embarrassed to say, I do), then it's not really self-sacrifice, is it? Nor am I always willing to make such sacrifices myself. The question then becomes: "what's the limit?" If the toy I was selling was only $5, I'd have been actively losing money on the sale by paying to have it shipped again. As it was, I wasn't making as much as I'd hoped, but I could afford to take the hit.

I tend to bristle a bit at folks who take on a holier-than-thou attitude when it comes to issues of sacrifice. Often, they seem to accuse people of only making sacrifices when it's convenient to do so (making the sacrifice not much of a sacrifice at all). They do have a point, if perhaps they overstate it, but people make "inconvenient" sacrifices all the time. There's nothing particularly noble about my decision to pay for the reshipment, but neither was it not an inconvenience. Rather, it was simply not so much of an inconvenience that I felt that I couldn't bear it. But what if is was too much? Would I be deserving of criticism just because I have boundaries enough to not do something that crosses over from being "sacrificial" to being actively "harmful" (I'm not sure that's the right word, but for the sake of argument let's call spending more money on shipping merchandise than what was paid for it in the first place a kind of "harm"), or is that a strong enough standard? How much money should I have to lose before I would be legitimately exempt from criticism for not being "sacrificial" enough?

I think this applies elsewhere, too. There's a lot of debate within politics, for example, about the issue of taxes. Not only "should they" or "shouldn't they" be raised (for example), but who will bear the burden of the increase. Raise taxes on the wealthiest, some argue, and job creation suffers, which in turn hurts the entire economy (I apologize for this vast oversimplification). Raise taxes on the middle class or the poor, on the other hand, and you ask people to make a sacrifice that may not only be inconvenient, but may well be "too much to bear," and potentially even suicidal. But what's "too much"?

Heavy thoughts coming from a pretty simple situation, but I guess that it really is the "everyday stuff of life" that is most appropriate for applying one's ideals. I'd welcome other thoughts on the issue.

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