Ask a Rutgers Philosopher: Nine Thoughts on Holiday Gift-Giving

What’s the best way to give gifts this holiday season?

Should you do it anonymously? Does your motivation matter?

If these sound like philosophical questions, don’t fear. Larry Temkin, Distinguished Professor in Rutgers University–New Brunswick’s philosophy department in the School of Arts and Sciences and an expert on ethics, draws on many centuries of philosophical thought on gift-giving to suggest nine points worth thinking about this holiday season.

Repay debts of gratitude 
The great British utilitarian philosopher Henry Sidgwick noted that nearly all people and cultures recognize the need to repay debts of gratitude. Gift-giving has arisen in part to reflect this universal value. So people often give gifts to show their gratitude for kindnesses or benefits they’ve received from others.

Give to worthy causes 
During the holidays we often give to worthy causes. Philosophers and others have long applauded the intentions of such gifts – especially when they actually make a difference.

But they must be worthy
When we give to charities, there is debate about how morally responsible we are to make sure we’re giving to charities that are especially effective. According to the philosophical movement called Effective Altruism, giving to an ineffective charity can be just as wrong, or even worse, than not giving to charity at all.

Be a thoughtful gift-giver
A thoughtful gift-giver makes a serious effort to give a gift the recipient would actually use, enjoy, or benefit from. Too often, we get caught up in the performance of giving. We say “It’s the thought that counts” – but too often, gift giving is thoughtless. When we merely go through the motions because we’re expected to, the value of gift-giving is largely lost.

Don’t give only to receive 
The giver’s intentions are important. Sometimes a “gift” is given with the expectation that one will receive a gift in return. This becomes most blatant when the person is really offering a bribe, for example in anticipation of getting a massive contract. Philosophers generally agree that such gifts are objectionable, and perhaps not truly regarded as “gifts.”

Be careful in your motivation
Another self-interested motivation is when you give the gift, not for the sake of the person receiving it, but because it makes you feel good to give it, or you want others to think well of you. Many philosophers also frown on this.

Give anonymously
For these reasons, many believe anonymous gifts are the most praiseworthy. The giver can’t get something in return if they hide their identity.

When you give to family
Of course, we often give gifts with mixed motives. We genuinely want to bring happiness to the recipient – but it also makes us feel good to do so – and we want them to know the gift came from us and to like us for it. Parents and grandparents, friends and partners, typically give in this way, and that is perfectly understandable and appropriate.

Show appreciation
When given as expressions of love or friendship, non-anonymous gifts are valued precisely because they express an appreciation for the other person. Such gifts can be a way of creating, building or buttressing a relationship that one values. In many societies, gift-giving is hugely important to preserving the social fabric, improving the general welfare, and building trust.

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