Roy Tang

Programmer, engineer, scientist, critic, gamer, dreamer, and kid-at-heart.

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I brought up among one of my friend groups this Reddit thread where the poster says they were able to buy hundreds of dollars worth of Magic cards from a garage sale for around $70. (Not gonna link to the original thread because it might seem like I’m shaming the OP.)

Not that there’s anything bad with such “garage sale finds”, as it were. These things are posted every so often on subreddits especially those dedicated to some sort of collectible. I mentioned that while I would be very excited to find something like this in the wild, I might have an attack of conscience because I’m potentially cheating someone out of fair market value and taking advantage of their ignorance. I’m probably more likely to feel this way if I was dealing with a seller personally (like at a garage sale), rather than some entity indirectly (like at a big store for example).

Obviously, my ethical dilemma is only for the scenario where there is an information imbalance - where I as the buyer have information about the product’s fair market value that the seller is not aware of. If the seller knew full well the actual value of what he’s selling and he still sells at that price, then I will gladly buy it cheap with no concerns.

This is why I’m not a salesman

In such a case, the way to assuage my ethical concerns would be to bring up the possible imbalance. Something along the lines of “I think you’re selling this for much less than what it’s worth!”, and if he nods and still wants to sell at that price anyway, then both of you complete the transaction happily.

Friend O commented:

I think people have a kind of “code of ethics” that applies to marketplaces

that’s a bit different from everyday ethics

just like how doctors/lawyers/priests have a code of ethics specific to their contexts

the idea is that participants in the marketplace should assume that everyone else is doing their due dilligence when it comes to price/quality research

So I guess I can satisfy my concerns as well by telling myself that “Caveat Emptor” applies in the opposite direction as well, so “Caveat Venditor”?

Hold yourself to a higher standard

I am only presenting an ethical dilemma here as it applies to myself when I am the buyer in the above scenario, or otherwise the one with information advantage in the situation.

I have been on the receiving end of bad trades before of course, numerous times. Such often happens when I foolishly decide to participate in a transaction without doing the necessary research, so I guess Caveat Venditor is accurate. I don’t lay blame on the other party for taking advantage of my ignorance either; after a bad trade I will most likely blame myself. Therefore, I don’t expect other people I am transacting with to treat me as fairly as I want to treat other people should I have the advantage.

Friend J pointed out that holding myself to a higher standard like this can be considered a bit elitist since it’s like considering yourself “better” than others. I think of it more like managing expectations of other people. Other people don’t have the same life experiences and values as I do, so some things are more important for me than for them. I would of course love it if everyone was conditioned to treat everyone else fairly in this manner - society would be much the better for it, but I understand the reality of human wants and needs enough to know that’s a pipe dream at best.

All in theory

Anyway, all of this is untested, because I haven’t been lucky enough to find a deal like I originally described. Maybe when I’m there at that point in time all my ethical questions give way to impulse or greed and I’m already at home gleefully counting my winnings before the dilemma comes to mind. But I like to think thought experiments like these help to flesh out one’s thought processes so that when the time comes, one is more likely to behave appropriately.

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roytang.net is a personal site; I post about a random assortment of topics that interest me including software development, Magic the Gathering, pop culture, gaming, and tech life. This site is perpetually under renovation.