Fiala on Ethics: The naughty and nice of gift giving

November 29, 2013 

Imagine that your Aunt Clara gives you a pink bunny suit for Christmas, when you really wanted a Red Ryder air rifle. Chances are you'll smile and say thank you. It's the thought that counts. You can't blame Aunt Clara for her bad taste or delusions. Her intentions were good.

But this may let Aunt Clara off too easily. Consequences matter in addition to intentions. We don't usually think that it's only the thought that counts. Performance matters in most social endeavors. Good gift giving requires substantial effort beyond merely having good intentions.

Gift giving sends a signal about the status of our relationships. There are a lot of uncertainties here. To begin with, you have to decide who merits a gift. Should you give a gift to your neighbors, co-workers and distant nephews?

Then you have to decide how much to spend. Should you spend as much on your nieces and nephews as you do on the collection for the office assistant or janitor at work? And what about reciprocation? If you gave someone a $10 gift last year and she reciprocated with a $50 gift, what should you give her this year?

Can you give everyone on your list the same gift — perhaps an iTunes gift card? Or do you have to find the perfect gift for each person? Maybe Aunt Clara had a big stack of bunny suits in her closet. Can we blame her for being efficient in her shopping?

Aunt Clara could just send cash. As my grandmother said, cash is always the right color but rarely the right size. But the gift of cash can seem more like a tip than a gift. You can give the mailman a few bucks. But that's not a proper gift for your wife.

These problems were discussed long ago by the Roman philosopher Seneca. In his treatise on gift giving, Seneca explains that giving must be done for the sake of the recipient. It's not merely the thought that counts — we also have to try to give an appropriate gift.

Seneca also suggests that genuine gift giving should be done for the sake of giving itself. That sounds like abstract moralizing. But an old Christmas song tells kids to be good for goodness' sake. The idea is that it is naughty to be good for the sake of something other than goodness.

To give for the sake of giving we must cultivate a spirit of charity, kindness and care. But that generous spirit only creates the right disposition. It still doesn't tell us what to give or how much. The spirit of pure generosity certainly sounds nice. But without some common sense it can be naughty.

An old proverb states that the road to hell is paved with good intentions. Aunt Clara may be on that gilded path. She may think she is being generous for the sake of generosity. But unless she takes your needs and interests into account, giving you a gift for your sake and not merely for the sake of goodness, she's being lazy and thoughtless.

A further problem is that good giving should not merely give you what you want — it should also give you what you need. If Aunt Clara is really concerned with you for your sake, she shouldn't give you the air rifle, since after all, "you might put your eye out." It's wrong to give someone a gift knowing that the gift might injure him — even if he wants it.

That's why it is wrong to give wine to a hard drinker — as Seneca notes. When you do something for the sake of someone else, you should carefully imagine the consequences. You've got to put yourself in the place of the other.

And that's the point of gift giving. It encourages deep social interaction grounded in moral imagination. Giving ought to be focused on the unique needs and interests of the individual, done for her sake.

All of this makes shopping harder. But better shopping is not the only solution. The real challenge is to take the time to love those on our lists, without putting another frivolous bunny suit or hazardous air rifle under the Christmas tree.

 

Andrew Fiala is a professor of philosophy and director of The Ethics Center at Fresno State. He invites your suggestions at fiala.andrew@gmail.com.

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