Gifts are a highlight of the holidays for many. We take pleasure in the ritual of giving and receiving presents. But what might seem like a pure expression of generosity often fails to break away from the marketplace logic of exchange and debt. Seneca, Marcel Mauss, Jean-Paul Sartre, Theodor Adorno, Jacques Derrida and Peter Singer on the perils of gift-giving.
Finding the right kind of gift has never been straightforward.
There's a reason you can't just get everyone the same gift, and Seneca explains it best.
“Whoever thinks that giving presents is an easy matter is wrong. This is a subject of extreme difficulty, if the gifts are made carefully and not just cast about randomly and impulsively. To one person I do a favor; to another I return one; to one I help; another I show pity.
I give to someone else because they shouldn’t be overcome by poverty and obsessed by it; to some I will give nothing even though they need it because they would still be in need whatever I give; to others I offer aid and some people I force to take it. I cannot be negligent in this effort and I am never more certain to write down names than when I am making a gift.”
Seneca, De Vita Beata
Is gift-giving ever done our of pure generosity?
Marcel Mauss was a French sociologist and anthropologist who wrote the definitive book on the ritual gift-giving called, The Gift. One of Mauss’ key theses is that even though we might act like gift-giving is all about being generous, in fact the giving and receiving gifts involves “an accounting system” with the “intricate mingling of symmetrical and contrary rights and duties.” In other words, the receiver of gifts feels like they have an obligation to the gift-giver, while the latter feels a sense of entitlement to have their gesture reciprocated.
"What power resides in the object given that causes its recipient to pay it back?"
Marcell Mauss, The Gift
Jean Paul Sartre
Is gifting a way of possessing?
Bulding on Mauss's thought, Sartre, paradoxiacally, sees gifting as the ultimate way to possess something.
“Generosity is nothing else than a craze to possess. All which I abandon, all which I give, I enjoy in a higher manner through the fact that I give it away. To give is to enjoy possessively the object which one gives.”
Jean-Paul Sartre, Being and Nothingness
Gift-giving isn’t what it used to be.
We are more suspicious of gift-giving that we perhaps like to admit. Even children are aware there might be a secret agenda to them. Also, today you can usually exchange gifts you receive for something you actually like. But that has ruined the thought process that used to go into gifts, thinking of the other and their pleasure in receiving what we have carefully chosen specifically or them.
“Human beings are forgetting how to give gifts. Violations of the exchange-principle have something mad and unbelievable about them; here and there even children size up the gift-giver mistrustfully, as if the gift were only a trick, to sell them a brush or soap. For that, one doles out charity, administered well-being, which papers over the visible wounds of society in coordinated fashion. In its organized bustle, the human impulse no longer has any room, indeed even donations to the needy are necessarily connected with the humiliation of delivery, the correct measure, in short through the treatment of the recipient as an object. Even private gift-giving has degenerated into a social function, which one carries out with a reluctant will, with tight control over the pocketbook, a skeptical evaluation of the other and with the most minimal effort.
Real gift-giving is happiness in imagining the happiness of the receiver. It meant choosing, spending time, going out of one’s way, thinking of the other as a subject: the opposite of forgetfulness. Hardly anyone is still capable of this. In the best of cases, they give what they themselves would have wished for, only a few shades of nuance worse. The decline of gift-giving is mirrored in the embarrassing invention of gift articles, which are based on the fact that one no longer knows what one should give, because one no longer really wants to. These goods are as relationless as their purchasers. They were shelf warmers from the first day. Likewise with the right to exchange the gift, which signifies to the receiver: here’s your stuff, do what you want with it, if you don’t like it, I don’t care, get something else if you want. In contrast to the embarrassment of the usual gifts, their pure fungibility still represents something which is more humane, because they at least permit the receiver to give themselves something, which is to be sure simultaneously in absolute contradiction to the gift.”
Theodor Adorno, Minima Moralia
Real gifts are impossible.
Mauss also had a profound impact on Derrida, who became convinced that even though gifts are supposed to be outside the exchange economy, they aren't.
“Now the gift, if there is any, would no doubt be related to economy. One cannot treat the gift, this goes without saying, without this relation to economy, even to the money economy. But is not the gift, if there is any, also that which interrupts economy? That which, in suspending economy calculation, no longer gives rise to exchange? That which opens the circle so as to defy reciprocity or symmetry, the common measure, and so as to turn aside the return in view of the no-return? If there is a gift, the given of the gift (that which one gives, that which is given, the gift is given thing or as act of donation) must not come back to the giving. It must not circulate, it must not be exchanged, it must not in any case be exhausted, as a gift, by the process of exchange by the movement of circulation of the circle in the form or return to the point of departure.
These conditions of possibility of the gift (that some "one" gives some "thing" to some "one other") designate simultaneously the conditions of the impossibility of the gift.”
Jacques Derrida, Given Time: 1 Counterfeit Money
Should you be giving presents to friends and family, or to those who need them the most?
During the holiday season most of us buy gifts for our loved ones, but is that the right thing to do? Do our friends and family really need our presents? And given that the money we end up spending could help alleviate the suffering of some of the poorest people on the planet, shouldn't we be donating our money to them instead?
“The failure of people in the rich nations to make any significant sacrifices in order to assist people who are dying from poverty-related causes is ethically indefensible.
It is not simply the absence of charity, let alone of moral saintliness: It is wrong, and one cannot claim to be a morally decent person unless one is doing far more than the typical comfortably-off person does.”
Peter Singer, Achieving the Best Outcome: Final Rejoinder