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‘Tis the Season to Give (and Receive) Gifts December 9, 2012

Posted by Nina Rosenstand in Culture, Ethics, Nina Rosenstand's Posts.
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The philosophy of giving is an interesting little branch off the big branch of Generosity, growing on the tree of Virtue Ethics. Interestingly, Generosity is entangled with another branch, Gratitude. (I even wrote something about that in The Moral of the Story Chapter 11). So when an article in the Wall Street Journal focused on giving and regifting recebtly, I thought I’d share some of its points with you. First of all, an interesting illustration:


Next, some fascinating points made:

Some gift givers spend time and energy trying to find just the right gift. But thoughtful gifts don’t necessarily lead to greater appreciation, according to a study published in November in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General. The benefit of a thoughtful gift actually accrues mainly to the giver, who derives a feeling of closeness to the other person, the study found.

People are more appreciative when they receive a gift they have explicitly requested, according to a similar study published last year in a separate publication called the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology.

Sharon Love once received a book that was clearly regifted: It was inscribed to the giver. She gave it back to him the following year. Ms. Love, who heads a marketing agency in New York, is herself a regifter when a gift is appropriate for another person.

“It turns out it’s not the thought that counts, it’s the gift that counts,” says Nicholas Epley, a professor of behavioral science at the University of Chicago…

Oh, where to start? What a smorgasbord of philo-associations!

Psychological egoism: They’ve said it all along, we give so we’ll feel good! BUT if the receiver doesn’t appreciate our gift, we won’t feel nearly as good, so we must have at least some interest in actually pleasing someone else.

Aristotle’s Golden Mean: There are a thousand ways to miss the bull’s-eye, and only one right way to hit it. There is one right gift for our friend/mom/dad/spouse/child/colleague out there, and if we have an excellent character we will know what that is.

The Revision-of-the-Golden-Rule philosophy/The Platinum Rule: And the right thing is how they want to be treated, not what you want to give them (because that’s what you’d want yourself! Think of Homer Simpson and the bowling ball for Marge) 🙂

And there is more support for Aristotle here:

Another study found spending more money on a gift doesn’t necessarily translate into greater appreciation. That might come as a surprise to many gift givers, who often assume that a more expensive gift conveys a higher level of thoughtfulness, according to the research, published in 2009 in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology.

I don’t mean to sound sanctimonious, but some of us grew up in a less materialistic world, and the idea of “the more expensive, the better” is somewhat alien to us. But there’s always the assumption that if someone is going to return our gift to the store, then it looks better if they can get another gift at the value of $50 than at $15…That’s just human nature. But again, what would Aristotle say? The Golden Mean is a mean between two extremes, too much and too little. For each situation there is an appropriate action/feeling (and purchase), and sometimes what your recipient really really wants is something small and simple. Sometimes it is huge and expensive, to be sure, but then Aristotle would say that you are guided by the Golden Mean of your ability to give, and fondness for/past history with the recipient.

And then there are thoughts about regifting, about a gifted purse:

“I thought, ‘You know, I know someone else would like it more than I would.’ So I gave it to one of my friends for her birthday,” Ms. Sayeed says. About six months later, the friend came over to Ms. Sayeed’s aunt’s house, purse in hand, and the aunt exclaimed, “You know, Humera has a purse just like that!”

“I said, ‘You know Auntie, I loved it so much that I got her the same one,’ ” Ms. Sayeed fibbed. “I had a moment to probably come clean about it and I just decided it would be better not to, which I guess is why people feel sneaky about regifting.”

So a kind little utilitarian lie is also part of the discussion…And the upshot is,

The adage “It’s the thought that counts” was largely debunked by the recent study in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, which concluded that gift givers are better off choosing gifts that receivers actually desire rather than spending a lot of time and energy shopping for what they perceive to be a thoughtful gift. The study found thoughtfulness doesn’t increase a recipient’s appreciation if the gift is a desirable one. In fact, thoughtfulness only seemed to count when a friend gives a gift that is disliked.

And that brings me to my final branch of this discussion, on the tree of Virtue Ethics: the virtue of Gratitude. And this is where we switch from “descriptive” to “normative.” After all, we’re not doing psychology but philosophy here. So my response would be, Then start showing some gratitude for the thought, for goodness’ sake! Gratitude is not just a feeling, but an attitude (yes I know, it actually rhymes). You can show gratitude even if you don’t have that warm, overwheming feeling. If you wait for the feeling to arrive, somebody didn’t raise you right. So when you get that yucky somethingorother, regifted or not, then smile and say thank you, and if you can tell that somebody actually spent a lot of effort in getting that one thing to you, tell them it’s amazing how well they know you. And since I’m not a fan of regifting at all, since you risk offending a kind giver irreparably, then donate the gift that wasn’t perfect. Somebody out there in a thrift shop will thank you.

Merry Christmas/Happy Holidays!

Not Selfish by Nature April 1, 2009

Posted by Nina Rosenstand in Ethics, Nina Rosenstand's Posts, Science.
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Compelling evidence of a fundamentally less-than-totally-selfish human nature have surfaced within the last few years, for the first time providing nor just intuitive, anecdotal, logical or speculative arguments against psychological egoism, but neurological indicators that humans simply aren’t as selfish as was assumed by so many people (including some prominent philosophers) in the last few centuries. The fact that we are capable of caring about each other, capable of empathy, is fast becoming one of the human traits some thinkers focus on as an antidote to cynicism. So it is all the more fascinating to read that we have apparently had this capability for a long time: The 530,000 year old skull of a child found in Spain in 2001 has now been reconstructed, and it turns out it must have been a “special needs” child. The skull indicates a debilitating condition resulting in pressure on the brain. So half a million years ago a family/mother decided (contrary to what researchers had assumed would happen) that this child would not be killed, abandoned, or “exposed” (to the elements or wild animals) because of a disability. The child was cared for until its death between the age of 6 and 12. So what can we make out of that?

                So perhaps caring for the child made the parents feel good? Wouldn’t that be a selfish feeling, then? No. Up front, let’s dispense with the notion that if you care about someone because it makes you feel good, then you’re selfish. That is nonsense. If you were selfish, caring for someone and seeing them prosper wouldn’t make you feel good. Simple as that.

Back to the issue of compassion: For one thing, it may be questionable whether we can conclude, with the scientists, that humans in general cared for helpless individuals, based on one fossil. But fossils are rare, and we may not get any other corroborating evidence, so we have to make do with what we’ve got, and make tentative conclusions based on that.

On the other hand, it isn’t completely unheard of even among (other) primates such as the apes who at least once in a while may choose to care for a disabled infant, for a while. But what makes this child’s skull particularly interesting is that the child lived for at least 6 years, being cared for by others. And those others, like the child, weren’t yet what we today would call human—they were Homo heidelbergensis, a group not directly related to us at all, except for having common ancestors going further back, to Homo ergaster. (Some charts show us being descendants of Homo heidelbergensis, but it wouldn’t be the ones living in Spain—it would be another branch of the family still hanging out in Africa.) Homo heidelbergensis, having evolved in Africa themselves, lived in what later became Europe about 800,000 years ago, and may have been the ancestors of the Neandertals—but not us, Homo Sapiens. Our ancestors—the ancestors of all living humans, everywhere, according to the “Out of Africa” theory—didn’t leave Africa until about 100,000 years ago. So not only do we have an ancient hominid population who showed compassion for a disabled individual of their own—it was a different hominid population altogether! One that is now gone from this earth, they and their offspring. And we already have evidence of their (likely) descendants, the Neandertals, showing compassion for their disabled individuals.

                The moral of the story? The capacity for compassion among humans began before we were human. Incidentally there is one philosopher who speculated that this might be the case: Jean-Jacques Rousseau. He had no idea that a theory of evolution would be proposed some 80 years after his death, but he did operate with a concept of cultural progression where humans evolve, culturally, from fundamentally good, compassionate beings to the self-centered “war-of-every-man-against-every-man” creature that Hobbes warned us lurks inside everyone of us. Another philosopher who speculated that we have an emotional caring instinct that is more fundamental than our selfishness was of course David Hume. Does that mean that all the old theories about human fundamental aggression and selfishness are completely wrong? Probably not entirely. We are still the creatures who have developed formidable weapons, and who excel in forming groups with an “us-vs.-them” mentality. But the aggressive stance toward “them” also allowed us to care for those we consider “us.” So we were probably not the aggressive, selfish, magnificent beast that fascinated some thinkers and writers. And we were probably not its counterpart, either—shy, meek little potential victims of grim predators that had to band together and care for each other. These notions have acquired political overtones over the years, and they’re both inadequate, historically and politically. My hunch is that the parents of that disabled child, probably loving their child, eons ago, were also formidable hunters with very little patience for strangers on their hunting grounds. Compassion, yes—for one’s own. Maybe not for the stranger. My guess is that’s probably a truly human Homo sapiens invention.

Happy Birthday to Unselfish Abe! February 12, 2009

Posted by Nina Rosenstand in Current Events, Ethics, Nina Rosenstand's Posts.
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There is another important 200th birthday today which should not go unnoticed by us, so Happy Birthday, Abraham Lincoln! And all my former “Intro to Philosophy: Values” students, please remember the story of President Lincoln and the Pigs, The Moral of the Story Chapter 4: While Lincoln himself thought that saving the drowning pigs was a selfish deed (because otherwise he wouldn’t have had any peace of mind all day), which would make him a psychological egoist, we can show that in this case he was mistaken: A truly selfish person wouldn’t have cared about any drowning pigs. So not only was Abe honest, he was also a decent human being who was capable of being moved by the plight of others, including nonhuman animals.