Paradox of the gift

Paradox of the gift June 1, 2012

In a 1981 article in the Journal of Religious Ethics , Paul Camenisch points to the paradox of gifts. On the one hand, a gift is only a gift if the recipient “has no right or claim upon” the thing given. It the thing or payment is compensation, it is wages and not gift. Gifts are free. Freely given, it would seem, would mean freely disposable. The opposite, however, is the case, as anyone knows who has received an heirloom gift from a grandparent.

Why? By the very act of giving and reception, a “new moral relationship” is established. The gift is performative: It creates a new configuration in the relations between two people. And because of that, the freely given and unmerited gift cannot be freely disposed of. Camenisch makes the point by highlighting the self-gift that is inherent in every gift: “In archaic societies, according to Mauss, the gift was seen as being animated by the donor’s power or spirit . . . . Paul Tournier . . . refers to ‘the meaning of gifts among mankind’ as ‘that deep-seated and universal desire to give oneself.’ But whatever the language, the point is the same: since the gift has a continuing identification with the donor’s will or intention in giving it, it is not totally at the recipient’s disposal as wages or windfall would be. The recipient’s ownership of the gift is a limited ownership . . . . to call something a gift is not just to indicate the object’s origin or the way it came into one’s hands. It is also to affirm something about its present status and about the recipient’s present relation to it and through it to the donor.” The relationship established by the gift is a moral one in the sense “at least two agents [are] defined in part by obligations” (pp. 2-3).

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