A Cordial Invitation
I’d like to invite you to have a philosophical conversation with me. If you’re living outside of New York City, then the conversation would take place over Skype. If you’re in the City, then we’d take a stroll through Central Park.
The economy we’d be engaged in would be a gift economy. I’d be opening up a space in which a philosophical conversation could unfold (that would be my gift), and for your part you’d be offering me or another a gift. That gift could simply be a head nod, a thank you, an object you made, a donation, whatever. And, as I say, it could be offered to me or to someone else.
If you’d like to have a conversation with me, you can get in touch with me either by filling out the contact form on my Contact page or by posting a comment below.
A Reasonable Justification
Giving and receiving, Alasdair MacIntyre claims in his book Dependent Rational Animals, is always already asymmetrical. It follows that gifting is not bartering inasmuch as no precise equivalence can be drawn between the original gift and subsequent gifts. The claim, for instance, that I could fully repay my parents for their raising me well is a conceptual mistake and this for two reasons. First, there is no common measure by which to assess how I could repay them for years of excellent child rearing. Second, there is no notion of fullness, i.e., no notion of finally paying everything back. The point MacIntyre is driving at is that we’re always enmeshed in a web of dependencies and debts. In my case, then, in virtue of having been given much, I owe much to my parents and, by extension, to others. This would account for my current offering.
A Just Expectation
There is a story that the Buddhist Joseph Epstein tells in Benedict’s Dharma that helps me to clarify where my Aristotelianism departs from Buddhism (a promissory note: a larger argument against the egoism/altruism dichotomy in the future). Epstein writes,
When I was living and practicing in India, I went to the local bazaar to buy some fruits and vegetables. A little beggar boy came up to me and stretched out his hand. Without much hesitation, I gave him one of the oranges that I had just bought. What happened next proved very illuminating to me. The boy just walked away–no nod of thanks, no smile, no acknowledgement whatsoever. It was only then that I realized I had had an expectation in that simple act of giving. I wanted “something” in return, even if it was just a nod. Purifying our motives, so that we can give simply out of love and kindness, without any expectation at all, is part of bringing the virtue of generosity to perfection.
I don’t think so. By my lights, just generosity is structured according to gifts given in order to fulfill basic needs and forms of gratitude by which we honor the gifts we’ve received, we recognize gift-givers as gift-givers, and we “discharge” some of our debts over the years. Epstein’s anecdote is best interpreted as a story not about pure and impure motives but about the perils, the human and humane costs, of extreme economic deprivation.