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Gifts and Bribes--Skeel

If you ever read the verses on bribes and gifts in the book of Proverbs, as I did for a Sunday school lesson last week, you will quickly run into apparent contradictions. “Whoever is greedy for unjust gain troubles his own household, but he who hates bribes will live,” instructs one verse (Prov. 15:27). But another that says “A gift in secret averts anger, and a concealed bribe, strong wrath.” (Prov. 21:14). How can good bribes– or gifts, if you prefer– be distinguished from bad ones?

The easiest case is gifts simply to show respect or humility, as when the Magi brought gifts to the baby Jesus (Matthew 2:11-12). These, the Bible makes clear, are good and often admirable.

But with gifts that expect or hope for something in return, distinguishing the good from the bad seems much harder.

Take three examples from everyday life: 1) law firms often invite law students that they are recruiting to lavish dinners and give them other nice perks; 2) pharmaceutical companies give samples of drugs, meals, and trinkets (like coffee mugs, pens or notepads) to doctors who might prescribe their drugs; and 3) many employees earn personal frequent flyer miles when they book flights for their business travel. Are these good gifts or bad ones?

When I posed this question to the Sunday school class, the students (most of whom were young professionals) felt strongly that the law firm dinners and frequent flyer miles are perfectly ethical, but they were divided about the ethics of the pharmaceutical company goodies. One difference between the law firm dinners and the other two gifts is that the only affected parties are the ones at the dinner– the law student and the law firm partners. The gift– a nice meal– is designed to persuade, but there is nothing obviously pernicious about this. It is not designed to “pervert the ways of justice,” as another Proverb puts it. (Prov. 17:23).

With the pharmaceutical company and frequent flyer miles, by contrast, the gift potentially affects three parties, including one who is not present. When a doctor who receives goodies from a pharmaceutical company decides which drug to prescribe, that decision affects a the doctor’s patient, who could get an inferior or pricier drug as a result. Similarly, when an employee decides which airline to fly, possibly booking a more expensive flight on her frequent flyer airline, that decision affects another party, her employer. The effect on an absent party is one common way that a gift could pervert justice.

So why did frequent flyer miles seem fine to everyone, but not pharmaceutical company gifts? I think the answer may be related to the likelihood of harm to the absent party. With frequent flyer miles, the employer could dictate the employee’s choice of travel if they wished, and most are happy to allow employees to choose their airline and to receive personal frequent flyer miles. (Consistent with this, I think, one woman said that the one time she had misgivings about receiving personal frequent flyer miles was when she was taking a missions trip that was paid for by individual supporters).

With pharmaceutical gifts, defenders noted that drugs are closely regulated by the FDA, so patients aren’t completely vulnerable, at least with respect to drug quality. If an insurance company is paying the costs, they too are likely to constrain the doctor’s referral decision. But a patient who pays for the drugs herself may be prescribed a drug whose choice is influenced by a pharmaceutical company’s gifts.

If I were a doctor, I don’t think I would accept gifts from pharmaceutical companies, given that the gifts have no purpose other than to influence referral decisions, and that studies show that gifts do indeed influence referrals. But in the end, this issue, like many involving gifts, seems to me to come down to a matter of conscience: does the gift seem likely to distort my judgment? Is it designed to entice me to do something inappropriate?

The most difficult gift issue I face in my own line of work is the gifts that are occasionally given to me by students. In my experience, most of these have not caused difficulty. Nearly all have come from foreign students, and most have come when the student is no longer in one of my classes. But some years ago I had a much closer call. A Chinese student in a small seminar of mine (which was not anonymously graded– another important factor) gave me a lovely silk tie. I was deeply uncertain whether to return the gift, so I asked a colleague who was much wiser about these things than I for advice. He assured me that the gift was simply a token of respect, and that I shouldn’t worry about keeping it under these circumstances.

I did keep it (and still have it), and I think this was the right decision, although under other circumstances it might well not be. I think this is what the Bible is getting at one when it suggests that gifts are sometimes fine, but “for a piece of bread a person will do wrong.” (Prov. 28:21).

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Comments ( 6 )

That's really interesting. That second verse struck me wrong, as it did you, so I did a little research into other translations. I don't know what the original language said exactly, but some of the translations use "gift from the heart" or "present" instead of "bribe," which seems more in line with the Bible to me. Then again, coming from Solomon, maybe it's a bit of Machiavellian advice useful for building diplomatic alliances.

As for the gifts, I think there's a separation between professional ethics and Christian morality. Looking at it from a Christian perspective, it's going to depend on what's in your heart. I gave a gift to a professor this fall and it never even occurred to me that he would view it as a bribe - your Chinese student probably didn't either. The only arguments I can see against accepting it are (1) whether it caused your brother to stumble and (2) being beyond reproach.

In terms of professional ethics, I don't know what rules your law school has about accepting gifts and maybe that's a concern. I tend to verge on the laidback side and think that law professors freak out about technicalities, but you've surely seen more instances of bribes having nefarious results than I have.

I think the other issue with doctors and drug companies is what it leads to. Many doctors earn $30,000 or more doing consulting work for these companies. And it all starts with the free pens.

A couple of thoughts on the comments: On the question of the exact language of the Hebrew original, I'm no expert by any means, but my understanding is the words usually translated as "gift" and "bribe" in Proverbs are different words, but that they don't clearly distinguish between good and bad gifts. (EG,the words both appear, and are used as synonyms, in Prov 21:14). On Joanna's suggestion that the key questions are 1)whether a gift might cause your brother or sister to stumble, and 2) whether you are being beyond reproach, I agree completely. I think these are important questions to ask both as giver and as recipient.

On the healthcare industry, a friend who knows far more about the industry than I do offered still another perspective, which I also find interesting and helpful:

"More and more physicians and organizations are announcing policies not to accept pharma gifts. Law students and many academics think that no one should accept pharma gifts of any kind, no matter how small. I think this policy is reasonable. At the same time, though, my impression is that small gifts are common in the workplace, particularly around the holidays. Why is this? Obviously, part of it is for advertisement purposes, reminding potential clients/partners/etc. that you are still around; part of it is to create "good feeling" that will translate into revenue down the road. But it may also signal or create good feeling between the particular individuals involved in the relationship, even if it does not necessarily translate into future business. Perhaps this is naive, and maybe this is the same naivete that plagues doctors who wrongly believe that they are not subject to the influence of pharma reps. But whether genuine or not, this may be one reason why people are so reluctant to give up the gift-giving or gift-taking practice."

I'm an assistant manager in non profit organization. I have an employee that is the same nationality as me filipino; she likes to give gift not only me but some other co workers too. she gave me a gift that is expensive i don't know how much but it is a 1 carrat diamond i don't want to accept it but she insisted and i told her i don't need it and she told me i bought it because i have a good deal, i have it with me and i'm tyring to give back to her but as christian i felt that she gave it to me because it came form her heart she did not ask any thing and i never give her any favor that make it like a bribe. Is this wrong as a chritian accepting a gift that you know she been touch of who iam as a person. I would like to know if i will be in trouble with the company.

Carol, many thanks for posting this question. I don't think it's necessarily wrong to accept this kind of gift. As I said in the original post, I think it's a matter of your
conscience and your conclusion the gift wasn't given for inappropriate reasons. And it seems to me the more expensive the gift is, the more careful you should be. One thing you might consider is asking your manager or someone else in the organization, to make sure the gift wouldn't violate the organization's policy.

If others see this exchange, I'd be interested in any other thoughts people have on this question.

Very thoughtful post. I'm going to raise this issue in my weekly bible group.