The Nature and Implications of Gift-Giving: Reflections on Being a Good Neighbor to Our Fellow Citizens from Rural Alaska
Raymond Anthony, PhD • Assistant Professor • Department of Philosophy; Faculty Affiliate • Department of Geography • University of Alaska Anchorage
Context of the Inquiry
Students from my Fall 2009 PHIL 301 Ethics course participated in a half a semester long research project/writing assignment that included two writing workshops and multiple discussions on how utilitariansim deontological (duty-based ethics), feminist ethics and contractarianism could be extended to the issue of non-oppressive gift-giving. A similar pilot project was undertaken in Spring 2009 with great success with a different set of Ethics students.
Focus of the Inquiry
Students were asked to consider the following for their major essay
(10 pages maximum) assignment:
Many of our neighbors here in Anchorage and in the villages are facing hard or harder times due to the state of the global economy and global climate change. In response to their needs and concerns, many of us seek to be good neighbors and thus want to respond or perhaps already have responded in a compassionate way. However, our compassion may be resisted by the recipient/donee. In some instances, the way in which we choose to help or go about helping may be viewed as disrespectful.
Some philosophers, like Parisian born philosopher, Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980), have argued that gift-giving may be an oppressive act. In some instances, according to Sartre, “the ones receiving [the gift] are not free to not accept it.” That is, they are under a particular obligation to receive it. Here, Sartre is concerned that this form of generosity alienates the donee. In this instance, the benefactor imposes her moral (and perhaps social, economic and political) freedom against that of the recipient. The recipient is objectified since “the act of gift-giving installs [the freedom of the benefactor] in the other as a subjective limit to the other’s freedom.” For Sartre, authentic gift-giving is “disinterested, gratuitous, with no motivation in the giving [and] presupposes a reciprocity of recognition [of the other’s freedom]. That is, it should be both freeing and liberating and devoid of mastery or proprietorship.
Course Design and Implementation
In their essays, the students were challenged to:
As part of this assignment, and during an October Sharing Circle activity, students had the opportunity to meet and discuss concerns related to rural life with a guest speaker, Senator Mark Begich’s Rural Director, Tiffany Zulkosky.
One of the long term objectives is for students to exemplify “neighbor ethics” in its most equitable and respectful form by having them consider a project where they help a community in Alaska that is experiencing economic hard times and which is threatened by global climate concerns. Students considered the following:
Students concluded in their oral presentations and essays the following:
I was most pleased with my students’ individual and collective effort and with the seriousness in which they considered the issues related to this topic. Upon further reflection, this semester long activity:
Raymond Anthony, PhD
Department of Philosophy
University of Alaska Anchorage
3211 Providence Drive
Anchorage, AK 99508