Is it the thought that counts?

There was a jolly fire in the fireplace. The snow was falling outside the windows, to the delight of children and despair of transport planners. Aristotle sipped on the mulled wine, watching while Kant meticulously wrapped another jar of homemade mustard.

“Dear Immanuel, are you going to give all your friends mustard?”

“Everybody except Georg. He likes to mix it with ketchup; he says it makes a great synthesis. I don’t care much for that idea and I would hate to see it spread. He will get a writing style guide instead.”

“I guess for you it is the thought that counts, when it comes to Christmas presents.”

“Yes, they should be given with the right intentions. A rational gift giver will not try to make the recipients happy, but has a duty to recognize their worthiness of being happy. So mustard it is.”

“I agree about the intention part, but there is surely also something virtuous about giving homemade presents. Your mustard-making skills have improved over the years, and I expect that it has made you a better person. For example, having to wait until the soaking of the seeds is just right is a good cure for impatience.”

“But Ari, don’t you think about the recipient of the gift?”

“Certainly! Friendship is very important to me. Of course, there are many people one is just obliged to give a present to or who are just fun to be around, but true friends are rare and should be treasured. However, presents are not important between people of moral excellence.”

“So you can get away with cheap presents?”

“Not really. Generosity is a virtue. Being generous is about giving generous gifts, so if I want to become a better person I should give presents that are neither too cheap nor too ostentatious, compared to what I can afford.”

“So you give in order to feel good about yourself?”

“I feel good about myself when I give good presents. Besides, it is finer and more godlike to bring about the well being of a whole city than to sustain the happiness of just one person. If I can do that, then I should be truly happy.”

Jeremy Bentham came in with a tray of cakes and a pile of letters. “That sounds reasonable, Ari.”

“Thank you. Are you already done wrapping your presents?”

“Oh, they are all here.” He pointed at the letters. “This year I give my friends donations in their name to Deworm the World.”

Aristotle looked sceptical. “Worms?”

“According to Giving What We Can it is one of the most effective charities. Tropical parasites have a huge cost in terms of health, suffering and economic development. Deworming actually improves education performance, probably because the developing brain doesn’t have to fight parasites for nutrients. Despite this, rather few charities incorporate the treatment in their programs.”

“Always the world-saver, Jeremy.”

“Well, it is a darn fine world and worth fighting for. Besides, this is the most moral present I can think of: even if the recipient doesn’t appreciate it, it will still do good! And since deworming seems to be more effective than other charities, we should be doing it. As much as we can.”

Kant nodded. “I can see that your intentions are nice, so I think it is a good present.”

Aristotle still looked sceptical. “It might be good for people, but there is not much virtue in just signing a gift card.”

Bentham smiled. “Tell that to John. I guess I will not spoil too much by telling you that we will get money from him this Christmas too.”

“That is just lazy.”

“He said that giving presents is an inherently inefficient activity. It means guessing what someone else may want or need, and sometimes that will fail. If we give each other money instead we can buy exactly what we want.”

“Hmm, that seems to be a good intention. Avoids the guilt of returning unwanted presents. But not much space for your virtues, Ari.”

“In theory you could give exactly the right amount in relation to your wealth to reach maximal generosity. But the lack of fine-tuning of the gift to the friend does disturb me. That is half of the fun and virtue.”

“This year he has also started to say that it is the green choice: no wasteful overproduction of unnecessary gifts.”

“I think Edmund argued for something similar recently. Said that the true conservative thing was to save for future generations. But instead of spoling the kids with too many presents, one should save the money and let them inhereit it (or at least get it when they are old enough).”

“Saves money, yet is not stingy, teaches patience and has good intentions. Ought to make you both happy. As for myself, I think it would be better to give that money to charity – then it could help kids in the present.”

“So Jeremy, it doesn’t matter to you if the benefit goes to your kids or kids you don’t know?”

“If I cared about what signals I was sending out, or though it made me a better person, then it would. I might even feel happier when giving to my own dear kids. But my kids have it pretty good: I think the aggregate happiness of all those healthy foreign kids will outweigh my own happiness several times.”

“And the annoyance of your kids for getting donations in their names instead of toys.”

“Well, they actually play post-office with the cards.”

Kant poured another glass of mulled wine. “Of course, one could try to distill our gift-giving heuristics into ‘do unto others as you would have them do unto you’.”

The others considered the idea.

“Well, I hope they like textbooks as much as I do, because that is what I will be giving them” said Aristotle.

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