I asked my daughter why the magi would offer Jesus gold. “To give it to the poor,” she suggested. I chuckled to myself with the thought of Jesus as the first re-gifter, but then I got more serious. I find gift-giving and receiving very stressful. I am notoriously difficult to give to because (a) I don’t like to have a lot of things and (b) I have very particular tastes. I do a lot of re-gifting and returning, which I normally feel pretty guilty about, like I am doing something wrong. But from the mouths of babes, the tyke’s comment got me thinking. As a virtue ethicist, I am interested in bringing moral reflection to bear on all of life, and not just the big “quandary” issues. Gift-giving is such a major part of life that it deserves a little systematic moral reflection.
Classically, there are four moral virtues which are essentially like muscles for using our appetite well. These are prudence, justice, temperance, and fortitude. This is what it might look like to apply the moral virtues to the practice of gift-giving:
Prudence: Prudence is the elbow of the virtues, the one that allows for the correct use of all the others. Prudence is practical wisdom. As far as gift-giving, prudence helps determine what would constitute a good gift. Prudence helps us collect all the particularities we need about a person to make the right choice. Prudence also helps us make practical determinations, like giving a gift receipt to a person we don’t know well or whose tastes are particular. Prudence also helps us determine whether to keep a gift, to return a gift, or to re-gift it.
Justice: Justice is a key virtue for gift-giving. Justice demands that we give what is due. When a person gives us a gift, justice usually demands that we give in return. Justice also determines that we give proportionate gifts (which prudence helps us with). In other words, we don’t give too large or too small of a gift in response to the gift that we are given. Justice reminds us to say thank you, even if we don’t like a gift. Justice is a virtue we begin to teach our children at a young age when we encourage them to make a gift for their family members or write a thank you note.
Temperance: Temperance is the power that we have over our most basic appetites. Temperance makes us moderate, avoiding excessiveness and deficiency in our appetites. Temperance is the power that keeps us from making impulsive purchases for a person because something is “just so cute” or “charming” or “whimsical” without adequate rational reflection on whether the gift is suitable. Temperance restrains the appetite from buying a particularly extravagant gift that is at odds with reason. Temperance is also the virtue that determines sustainable gift-giving. It is common for gift-giving to get out of hand, for the gifts to get more extravagant each year (this is especially true for children). Temperance restrains this impulse.
Fortitude: Fortitude is courage and endurance. Fortitude allows us to face difficulty well, to withstand physical, emotional and moral challenges. Fortitude is so important for gift giving. Fortitude helps us to cope with the possibility of having a gift rejected, to give somebody something that they don’t like. Fortitude also helps us to continue to give gifts even when it is difficult, even when we want to opt out of the practice (which I have often wanted to do). It takes a lot of fortitude to give somebody a gift that we really think is perfect if we know that gift might be rejected. It also takes courage to respond to the person who is not gracious when they receive a gift. On the other hand, it may take fortitude to pass a gift on or return a gift that we know we will never use.
Gift-giving is a practice, and participating in the practice requires development in the virtues. But exercise of the virtues is also what makes gift-giving constructive. It is what makes the practice worthwhile even if we end up getting and giving mostly the wrong gifts. MacIntyre calls the virtues of gift-giving the virtues of “acknowledged dependence” and explains how the practice of gift-giving trains us to be people who are ready to offer mutual aid. So in the end, it is not so important whether we keep the gift or pass it on, but rather how we give and receive, not just at Christmas time but in every area of our life where we offer a gift or accept one.