Ringing in the New Year did not bring a reprieve from the multitude of serious ethical issues we face at home and abroad. But, deciding to extend my holiday from thinking about complex legal dilemmas, I thought I would deal with one with perhaps less consequential … is re-gifting ethical?

Ben Bycel

How about taking a gift back to the store and exchanging it for something you’d rather have? What about cashing it in for dollars? Let’s set the stage with some facts that make the situation more interesting.

You’ve found under your Yuletime tree what you know to be an expensive handbag from your aunt. It’s nice but just not your style. Your aunt does not say, ”Hey, if this is not what you want, just take it back for something else.” Instead she says, “I just knew you would love it.” And maybe she throws in a guilt zinger: “ It’s what your mother would have bought you.”

Because your mother passed away a decade ago, it’s dubious that her sister might actually know this, unless she consulted with Madam Rosinka. And besides, your mother always told you she thought that your aunt’s taste in clothes and accessories was dreadful.

On the good news side, let’s assume your aunt is from out of town and only visits every few years, so the likelihood of her remembering, let alone asking, about the handbag is not high. Maybe all you have is a “getting caught” problem, not an ethical one? But maybe there is no difference, which may mean that many of our ethical decisions, large or small, may be based on whether we think we’ll be caught rather than our sense of right and wrong.

Wait a minute … I promised I was taking a holiday from pontificating on important ethical issues. Let’s get back to the practical issue of how you’re going to either re-gift the handbag, get one you like, or turn Auntie’s present into hard, cold cash.

With the first alternative of re-gifting it, if you gift wrap it and rededicate it to the person whose name you drew for the office round-robin, you will have saved some dough and maybe made someone very happy with an expensive gift that means nothing to you, despite your aunt’s guilt trip.

Or, you could take it to the store where it was purchased and swap it for something you’d like. No harm done, right? Let me offer this rationale: Your aunt wanted you to have a present, and now you have something you like. No real loser here, right? Unless, of course, your aunt decides to drop in next month to tell you that she has rewritten her will and, being childless, has left a small fortune to you. And, yes, she asks to see how the handbag has worn. In that case, let’s hope you opted for Door Number One. Thinking quickly, you tell her that you need to make an emergency run to Trader Joe’s for the crackers and cheese she likes. You take out your cell phone and call the person to whom you gave the purse. You make up a story why you must have it back, right away. You promise to buy her something else. Ethical? A stretch, but let’s not go there.

The last alternative, assuming Auntie doesn’t visit, is to take the handbag back to the store where it was purchased and see if they will give you cash. Doing this may make some of us feel a little sleazy. I mean, after all, it was a gift from your aunt. Oops, I’m drifting into ethical waters here … take the money and run.

Let’s assume you did none of the above. You stuck the handbag high up in the shelf reserved for the now lifeless handbags of years gone by. Auntie, who hasn’t visited in three years, drops in for the holidays.

You’ve been busy and have forgotten to buy her a present. Like a madwoman you rummage through your drawers filled with half-opened gifts until you come across this ugly handbag, completely forgetting that Auntie had given it to you. You wrap it and put it in with the other gifts. After dinner, it’s time to open the presents. The second Auntie opens hers, it hits you like a flash; she gave it to you as a present a couple of years back.

“Why this is the most wonderful present I’ve had in years. It was your mother’s, right?” she asks.

Does she have memory loss? You certainly did. Maybe she’s had too much to drink? Or is she sticking it to you?

You won’t know until Auntie passes on and her will is read whether the ultimate re-gift cost you the new kitchen you’ve been dreaming of building.

The moral of the story? Never, never throw away old handbags.

Happy New Year.

Benjamin Bycel is an attorney and writer. He was the founding executive director of the Los Angeles Ethics Commission and of the newly reconstituted Connecticut Ethics office. He serves as an expert witness in cases dealing with political and legal ethics. If you have an ethics question, send it to streetethics@independent.com.


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