The 3 basic conditions of a gift economy: generosity, onus, wholeheartedness

Welcoming a number of new conversation partners into my philosophy practice has enabled me to rethink the basic conditions of my gift economy. I’ve been urged to find better ways of saying what a gift economy is (and, in conversation, to explore why it matters). All this has involved learning to speak more clearly, more simply, and more directly with the result that our philosophical conversations about the nature of a gift economy have turned into wonderful inquiries about giving, money, and the problems associated with our current economic models.

In the past, I’ve been windy and unclear and, as a result, I’ve made a number of errors in judgment regarding who are good candidates for philosophical practice. Now I believe I have a more focused account, one that contains three basic conditions. I ask the other to give an amount that (1) qualifies as generous but (2) cannot be understood as onerous and (3) is offered in the spirit of wholeheartedness. We’re searching, first of all, for the mean between excessive liberality and stinginess. Second of all, and at the same time, we’re trying to cultivate the right disposition.

1. Generosity

Here, I don’t intend to define the concept of generosity. I want instead to suppose that we know what generosity is and then to inquire about the aim of the offering. In this case, the aim of generosity is to meet my basic needs,  the satisfaction of which makes possible and is a key feature of a life of self-cultivation. We therefore have the injunction:

one must give in order to meet (some of) the needs of the philosophical guide.

2. Onus

We are looking for proper generosity, which is not to be confused with generosity to the point of the onus. If the one has to sacrifice the things that matter most–e.g., raising a child well, loving a beloved well, living in an inviting home, making food with care, and so forth–then this act counts as burdensome. Proper generosity comes out of abundance; giving too much, where this ‘too much’ for the other translates into ‘too little’ for the giver, comes out of scarcity and ‘replenishes’ scarcity. And scarcity, let’s recall, is the very condition we are trying to avoid. We therefore have the injunction:

one mustn’t give in excess, i.e., to the point of ‘self-sacrifice’.

3. Wholeheartedness

Someone who acts or thinks wholeheartedly is going along with the way things are. He does not hold back or restraint himself, does not issue qualifiers or conditionals, does not have competing desires, does not make compromises or engage in negotiations, etc. Wholeheartedness is meant to capture the sense of taking a (good) risk, of being all in, of offering in the freest possible manner. Hence the injunction:

one must give in the spirit of being ‘all in.’

Some Objections

1. It could be argued that one could be a free rider, offering next to nothing but getting quite a lot.

In reply, I claim that a free rider is impossible on the grounds that he fails to meet the first condition of being generous. (He would also fail to meet the third condition of being wholehearted; he would be half-hearted from the start.)

2. It could be argued that any amount construed in the form of a gift would, of necessity, be onerous for someone who is deeply in debt.

In reply, I concede this point; I no longer have philosophical conversations with people whose debt has become onerous. I grant that any amount he offered me would be onerous for him. I also believe that someone who is deeply in debt would have a hard time being wholehearted; he would have learned to believe that scarcity abounds. The trouble is also that I cannot work for him for free. This is because so long as the conversation partner fails to help satisfy my material needs he is not being generous. I am being too generous with my time and understanding while he is not generous enough. For these reasons, I no longer welcome those deeply in debt into my philosophy practice.

3. It could be argued that, under these conditions, one could be lukewarm about the whole thing.

In reply, I claim that, conceivably, the lukewarm person could give generously but not to the point of its being burdensome. Still, he would not be committed. The key, in other words, to wholeheartedness is that one must be committed to putting one’s life to the question. Even if the billionaire offers me $100,000/month (an amount that may not be an onus for him), it does not follow that he offers it in the right spirit. Wholeheartedness, I argue, is the right disposition for the virtuous human being, the human being whose demeanor also happens to be beautiful.


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