Gift economy worksheet for philosophical practice

The following is the latest version of the gift economy worksheet I’ve begun going through with new conversation partners. It’s been quite illuminating to go through the process of inquiring with another with the common purpose of reaching mutual understanding.



This worksheet is the result of about 2 years of thinking about how to create a more just small-scale economy that is in tune with leading a philosophical life. The purpose of the worksheet is to help us figure out how we can carry on well together. The reason I call it a worksheet is that it’s intended to take us through a set of procedures in the hope that we’ll arrive at a good enough answer to the question: “How much is it appropriate to give?” That answer may change with time and as a consequence of further considerations, but the first answer, being good enough, gives us a good enough place to begin.


A gift economy is a flow of givings and receivings. The gifts the giver offers are of the kind that they are meant to meet the other’s material needs; the receivings are acts of gratitude to the one in virtue of his having offered the right kind of thing.


There are two main reasons why it would be a good thing to participate in a gift economy. The first is that it seeks to re-educate us so that we come to focus our attention more and more on the social relation (which is held together by genuine human needs) and less and less on the commodity form (which is meant to satisfy narrowly construed self-interests). The second is that it gives us the opportunity to cultivate the virtue of generosity. If forms of giving and receiving shape much of social life, then we’d want to learn how to offer and receive properly: to consider how much is owed to whom and for what reason. In ancient philosophy, this was known as dike, or justice.

Basic Ingredients

1. Generosity
2. Onus
3. Wholeheartedness

Questions and Remarks

Question 1 of Generosity (Q1): How much are you able to give in order to meet some of my material needs?

In answering this question, you’ll need to focus your attention on the social relation holding us together, not on the incorrect thoughts that you’ve purchased some commodity or that you’re being billed for some service rendered. You’re not paying for a conversation, for some insight, or whatever; rather, you’re helping to maintain my philosophical form of life.

Some people offer gift contributions after each conversation; others do so weekly, monthly, or quarterly. If it helps in your considerations, you can invite me to inquire about my own particular material needs. These would include housing, food, energy, travel, health, and communication (notably, Internet). Since January of 2013, I’ve been supporting two of us: my love Alexandra and me.

A number of conversation partners offer gifts in the form of checks or increasingly via PayPal. The gift contribution goes  directly toward meeting our material needs so that we can live simply and in accordance with philosophical life. We seek, above all, to be living examples of this beautiful way of living.

Question 2 of Onus (Q2): Would giving this much make it difficult if not impossible for you to care properly about what matters most?

Early on, this question is not always easy to answer, since it may seem as if you have lots of ongoing expenses and a number of outstanding debts and thus that any amount would be an onus. However, your considerations should be squarely on what truly matters for a life to be good. If you desire the wrong kinds of things or are dissatisfied with certain aspects of your life, then it’s likely that your expenses will be high. You’re spending due to a lack of self-sufficiency or out of an overestimation of the value of certain objects.

If you’re feeling confused about what could be burdensome for you, then I’d encourage you to draw a distinction between desires for the right kinds of things (love, friendship, contemplation, etc.) and desires born out of dissatisfaction and in search of the wrong kinds of things (licentiousness, excessive wealth, fame, social recognition, status, etc.). It’s worth pointing out that the nature of these desires will become clearer over the course of our philosophical conversations.

Question 3 of Wholeheartedness (Q3): Would you be able to give this much without reserve or hesitation, in a fully considered Yes rather than out of half-heartedness?

The term ‘wholeheartedness’ is intended to capture a sense of being properly motivated that is akin to but not the same as (say) being a good parent. The good parent is ‘all in.’ He or she gives out of plenitude, as if by necessity; not out of fear born of scarcity. The good parent does not feel as if he or she is being duped or robbed or is getting a ‘raw deal,’ nor is he or she looking to get the most by offering the least. The good parent offers freely ‘just enough.’


Consider moving from Q1 to Q3 with the goal of arriving at a good conclusion. The process may require that you go through loops before you’re able to come up with a good enough answer.

Q1 helps you to come up with a reasonable candidate offering and to test that offering for generousness. If, given your available means, the offering is too little, then it would not count as being generous or as being generous enough. Consequently, you’d need to ask Q1 again in order to supply a new answer.

Q2 allows you to test the offering arrived at by the end of Q1 to see whether it is too much for you. If offering this much would count as a burden for you, then you may need to reconsider your possible gift by entertaining another candidate answer to Q1. This new candidate would then be tested by asking Q2 again.

After the first two questions have been answered and both tests have been passed, then you should have arrived at a level (for Aristotle: ‘the mean’) of proper generosity. This would be neither too much (onus) nor too little (stinginess) but rather just enough.

Q3 invites you to consider the spirit in which the offering is made. Can you offer this much with open, outgoing hands? If, after hitting upon the mean, you can’t give this much without feeling self-conflicted, without vacillating, or without sensing scarcity (as if the gift were depleting your stores), then we’d need to inquire into what reasons there might be for your feeling this sense of half-heartedness or lingering disquietude.

Mutual Understanding

The aim of this worksheet is to arrive at mutual understanding: one offers a gift wholeheartedly to another and the other is able to accept the gift just as wholeheartedly. The worksheet, accordingly, is an example of seeing to each other by seeing each other. The process is intended to take place in ‘living speech,’ it can be slow-going, we may need to return to earlier questions more than once, and there are bound to be hesitations, pauses, and uneasinesses before there is graceful ease. And yet, the beautiful thing about this process is that it allows us to put words to what often goes unverbalized, to unearth assumptions that often go unnoticed till later on, and to think together in a way that is compassionate and resolute both. Mutual understanding certainly feels like seeing eye-to-eye.

Unfolding of the Gift Economy

The initial wholehearted gift and the wholehearted acceptance of the gift do not constitute a binding contract, promise, or invariant arrangement; the gift, given wholeheartedly, is accepted wholeheartedly. However, the amount of the offering may change over time and with reason. At certain times and due to changing circumstances, it may make sense for you to offer more, less, or something else. We’d want to inquire about your reasons for wishing to explore this change. And yet what needs to be underscored from the outset is that the more your life comes to order, the easier it will be for you to give freely.

Further Reading

Elucidation of Conditions

Philosophical Justification

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