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Socrates Exchange: Why do we give gifts?

alliecreative via Flickr/Creative Commons

Every year during the holidays we spend our time, energy, and money in the search for the perfect gifts for friends and family. But sometimes it feels like we are going through the motions or worse that we are just doing what is expected of us, not something that comes from the heart. Why do we go through this? Is it possible to give in a more genuine way? But there is any even more troubling problem. A true gift should be something that we give freely without any thought of our own benefit and that makes no demand on the recipient. But we all know that this is not how gift-giving actually works. I give you a gift and enjoy the satisfaction of having done so. You receive the gift and recognize that you owe me a gift in return, at the very least a gift of gratitude. Isn’t what we call a gift really just another kind of contract or exchange where each individual is seeking his or her own benefit through giving to the other? Is it possible to escape this self-interested exchange? Can we truly give a gift?


  • Ed McGushin, professor of philosophy at St. Anselm College

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