Monday, April 20, 2020


Can you be entitled to a gift from someone?

  1. Gratuitousness Intuition: Gifts are gratuitous, and if you’re entitled to receive something from value, then it’s a payment or award rather than a gift.

But there is one kind of case where you are entitled to a gift: when the gift has been promised to you.

So how to reconcile the promise case with the Gratuitousness Intuition? Presumably something like this: while the gift is owed you, the promise wasn’t. So, how do we now formulate the principle that gifts are gratuitous? We could proceed disjunctively:

  1. For any gift g, you are either not entitled to g or you are entitled to g in virtue of being promised it without having been entitled to the promise.

But that’s not quite right, either. For suppose Bob gratuitously promises to promise a gift to Alice, and then fulfills this promise by promising the gift, and then fulfills the last promise by giving the gift. The gift is still a gift, even though the gift is the fulfillment of a promise that was itself required. But note that the gift is not the fulfillment of the first, gratuitous promise, so it’s not a counterexample to (2). Of course, we rarely promise to promise, but sometimes we do: a marriage engagement is a promise to issue a vow.

Perhaps we can replace (2) with something messy:

  1. For any gift g, you are either not entitled to g or you are entitled to g in virtue of a chain of promises the first of which you weren’t entitled to.

But that doesn’t fix the other problem with (2), namely that it doesn’t fully capture the idea of gratuitousness. For something can be a fulfillment of a promise you weren’t entitled to and yet not be gratuitous. For suppose out of the blue I promise to pay you $400 if you mow my lawn. You mow my lawn. And now my $400 is a payment, not a gift. But you weren’t entitled to the promise.

We might get out of this by restricting (2) or (3) to unconditional promises. But something can be a gift while being a fulfillment of a conditional promise. For instance, I may promise you a gift should you reach the age of 90. It seems that that’s still a gift.

This is turning into a mess.

One possible solution is to go back to (1) and simply insist on it and bite some bullets. If I promise you a gift on your birthday, then what I give you on your birthday is not really a gift. The true gift was the promise. (But what if I make the promise and don’t fulfill it? Then it seems right to say that you haven’t got anything of value from me. But that may just be because broken promises turn out not to have been of value!)

Maybe even better we should give an Aristotelian story. There is the focal sense of a gift, and it satisfies (1). It is the first unowed promise that is a gift in the focal sense. But then the fulfillment of the promise is a gift in a derivative sense.

But gratuitousness is not sufficient for being a gift.

While we talk of business gifts as gifts, I think that if they are given in the hope of future gain, they aren’t really a gift. Similarly, if I promise you $40 to mow my lawn, then my promise is gratuitous, but it is given in the hope of future gain, namely your mowing my lawn.

And something can be partly a gift. If I promise you a million dollars to mow my lawn, then my promise is mostly, but not entirely, a gift.

Gifts are really hard to analyze.


SMatthewStolte said...

There is a tendency to try to analyze gifts against the background of market exchange, as though the heart of a gift were that it lacked precisely the reciprocity of the exchange. That feels like starting on the wrong foot. I think gifts are generally given in order to effect or maintain something personal in a relationship, and this is often something that you are (in some sense) obligated to do, especially when the point is maintaining something in the relationship. There may be other ways of fulfilling that obligation, but gifts are often the most fitting. You can also take on a kind of obligation to make gifts simply by participating in a culture. Think of Valentine’s Day. A man from another culture immigrates to America and starts to hear advertisements for an upcoming Valentine’s Day, and he asks, “Am I supposed to give my sweetheart flowers for this day?” The right answer to this question is Yes (unless some other considerations outweigh the obligation). He made no promise to give her flowers, but he is still lightly obligated to do so, because that Valentine’s Day flowers are part of the way that Americans express their romantic love to each other. Of course, if we treat this obligation as falling out of the logic of the market exchange, then we are missing the point entirely. Most people would rightly recoil at the idea that all such gifts are only given in exchange for something else. But I don’t think the conclusion to draw from this is that we don’t have an obligation to make gifts, but that the obligation falls out of very particular human relationships in particular contexts.

Benjamin Stowell said...

Sometimes hosts send out an invitation explicitly saying not to bring any gifts. Yet, guests still feel compelled to bring gifts. Why?

Cynical: The hosts are lying. Of course they want us to bring gifts.

Cynical-: The hosts are not lying, but we don't have to take their wishes seriously because everyone likes receiving (appropriate) gifts, so giving a gift cannot possibly hurt us, and failing to give a gift can possibly hurt us (socially, relationally) when we show up without anything and yet other guests do bring something.

Cynical0: The hosts are using hyperbole to put all at ease that failing to meet usual social expectations of giving a gift will result in zero judgment or damage to the relationship or reputation of the guest. The hosts are trying to be generous by waving the usual entitlement granted by social expectation.

Social expectations create some kind of entitlement, and so gifts are often not gratuitous.

Alexander R Pruss said...

I would say that social expectations create a reason to bring a gift, but that reason does not generate a duty or an entitlement. When the hosts say not to bring gifts, they remove the social expectation reason to bring a gift, but there is still the reason we always have to give our friends gifts -- viz., that they are our friends.