Philosophising the ‘giving of a gift’ vs ‘the gift of giving’

I recently delivered a lecture to students at my old school. The lecture had the somewhat grandiose title of “God, Greatness & Possible Worlds: An Insight into Ontological Arguments”. Picking this title was my attempt at some sort of ‘clickbait’, though I can’t be sure that the title itself actually persuaded people to attend the lecture (in fact, I think it’s likely that it didn’t). Still, the lecture went really well. I was fortunate to have a decent-sized audience, many of whom engaged critically with what I was saying. I even spent a period of time after the lecture discussing the material further with a group of particularly keen students. All in all, then, I’d say my first lecture was a success!

Given that it has now been a few weeks since the lecture took place, I have spent some time reflecting on it. More specifically, I’ve spent time thinking about what motivated me, or inspired me, to give the lecture. One source of motivation was the fact that I had never given a lecture before. As such, it would be a new experience for me, which I found exciting. Another source of motivation was my desire to teach. My strongest source of motivation, however, was the desire to give back to a community that had given me so much.

red apple fruit on four pyle books

Image by Element5 Digital, Unsplash

Now, I’m aware that this is probably related to my other desires – my passion to teach, for example, is probably grounded in some basic want to give back. Nonetheless, the longing to give back stood out from my other desires, as if it were something distinct and non-relational. Naturally, then, I allowed myself more time to ponder over this. More generally, I found myself cogitating about why people give back.

As with many things, there are lots of reasons to give back. In my case, however, one particular reason emerged above the rest. Put simply, I believe that I gave back in order to help those that are in a similar position to the one I was once in. I was once a school student with a passion for Philosophy, and I was certainly looking for any opportunity to improve my knowledge of the subject. Fortunately, I was given this opportunity in the form a ‘Philosophy Challenge’, which rewarded students for researching philosophical issues.

As it turned out, I won the challenge. More importantly, though, I learnt a lot by taking part in the challenge, and have used much of what I learnt throughout the trials of my ‘philosophical career’ to date. With the notion of giving back in mind, I hoped that my lecture would act, for other people, as the ‘Philosophy Challenge’ did for me. More specifically, I hoped that it would provide them with an opportunity to engage with interesting material, which could then lead them to venture deeper into the world of Philosophy. Whether or not I achieved this, I do not know. I do know, however, that the desire to inspire those students can be labelled as my primary reason for giving back.

person showing brown gift box

Image by Kira auf der Heide, Unsplash

For some, I’m sure this is a perfectly reasonable explanation as to why I gave back, or why we generally like to give back. I cannot help but feel, however, that this explanation is somewhat problematic. This is because society often labels giving back as a gift, which makes me think that it is a gift in and of itself. In other words, it seems that ‘the gift of giving’ should be something that is a gift irrespective of one’s underlying desires and motivations. In my case, however, it appears that it might be a gift only insofar as it allows me to help those who are like me. That is, it is only a gift as long as it satisfies my self-centred desire to give back to those who could become more like I currently am.

Some of you reading this may think that I’m perhaps being overly critical of myself. If you’re one of those people, then you might be right. Perhaps I am completely justified in giving back as I did, and being motivated to give back as I was. Whatever the case, and to draw this article to a close, I think my reflections on giving back raise some interesting questions concerning ‘the gift of giving’. Firstly, is ‘giving back’ an inherent gift, or is it something that satisfies our desires? If the former, can we ever be justified in giving back to satisfy our desires? Lastly, do we ever actually give back just to satisfy our desires?

Quite frankly, I think I could ask questions of this kind for an indefinite period of time without being able to provide sufficient answers to them. I don’t know why that is. Maybe it’s because they’re not really answerable. Or maybe they’re misguided. In any event, I still think they’re interesting because they make us critically evaluate ‘the gift of giving’, a concept that has, in my case at least, gone unquestioned for most of its existence.

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