Friedrich Nietzsche said that a gift confers no rights. But he was wrong about this. In fact, gifts are exchanges that imply reciprocity, binding together giver and receiver in numerous ways.
Gift giving is an outward expression of a relationship and as with any relationship, it can either be enhancing or diminishing. The way in which the transaction is carried out is as important as the content of the gift itself.
Humans are cooperative by nature. We rely upon other people for our survival. One way that evolution has conspired to promote mutual interdependence is by building into our psyches a sense of gratitude and reciprocity. At its most fundamental level this is expressed in the attitude of ‘you scratch my back and I scratch yours.’ We take turns in coming to each other’s aid. I am willing to give you something, even sacrifice for you because I expect that when I need you, you will be there for me.
Motivations for the gift giving are complex. We give because we are generous or want to be thought of that way; we give because it makes us feel good to see others happy; we give because we care about someone’s welfare or about the welfare of the community as a whole; we give because of social pressure. Giving is a social act that ties us together for our mutual benefit.
Giving—and receiving—needs to be done properly if it is to uphold human dignity. All too often, though, the exchange is fraught with attitudes that result in diminished self-esteem or resentment. The giver may feel superior to the receiver while the receiver’s dignity is assaulted. This is why Moses Maimonides, the medieval Jewish philosopher, said that the highest form of charitable giving is performed anonymously.
A gift that leads to a person feels poorer for having received the gift is no real gift. This could happen when the giving is coerced by social pressure and lacks real concern. Worse is when the giving comes out of a sense of superiority or pity, thereby reinforcing social inequalities.
Just as there is an ethical way to give a gift, there is a proper way to receive one. The most important part of receiving a gift is reciprocating. This doesn’t need to be returning gift-for-gift nor does it need to be with the gift giver. It is returning to those you care about and those who need your care what you are able to give, when you are able and to the extent that you are able.
Ethical gift giving leads to a sense of gratitude and a spirit of generosity. It deepens our relationships and fosters mutuality and respect.