Three ‘mmanuels on the Ethicality of Christmas Presents

One dark and frosty Christmas morning in Königsberg, Prussia, a middle-aged Immanuel Kant warmed his hands by the fire before returning to his writing desk that sagged under the weight of innumerable jars of canned pears when he was startled by a knock at the door. “Well, good morrow, young master Levinas” the elder Immanuel said to the younger Emmanuel. “What makes you so hospitable on such an inhospitable morning as this? You know how uneasy it makes me to have my routine interrupted so I assume your visit is absolutely essential?”

Brushing the snow from his yarmulke, Emmanuel responded, “I have been greatly vexed by a question of the ethicality of gift giving and have been unable to sleep since I lit the third candle on the menorah last night. Is it righteous to be giving frivolous gifts when so many are hungry? Begrudgingly offering Levinas a chair near the hearth, Kant took up his former position near the mantle and collected his thoughts. Sensing that this might take a while, Emmanuel put his feet up on the threadbare foot stool and nestled further into the lining of his coat.

Either due to the heat of the fire or because he finally took pity on the younger man’s obvious distress, Kant finally warmed to his subject and began his treatise. “Certainly all rational men can agree that the only truly good thing is good will or more generally the will of the one who wills the greatest good for all. In this way one might say that, in as much as the gift given is intended to enhance the goodness of the one that it is given to, it succeeds in enhancing the goodness of both parties. Thus, the answer to your question hangs not upon the ethicality of gift giving as a whole, but upon the fittingness of a gift to the end of bringing about goodness in a particular case.”

Levinas, suddenly doubting his rationality for a moment, looked up at the elder German incredulously and said, “so it is a quality of the gift that fulfills a need for the receiver such that both giver and receiver are better for the experience? Would that mean that for a gift to be good the giver would have to anticipate the needs of the intended recipient perfectly or risk a privation of goodness? If I purchased for my aunt an ear hair trimmer and later discovered that she had already received another from her husband then my gift would fail to be good because it failed to fulfill its intended end?” Levinas said, looking horrified at the prospect.

Kant, equally horrified by Levinas’ story—although perhaps for another reason—quickly explained that “your gift would still be above reproach and, indeed, edifying for both you and your aunt because your intentions were good. It is to be a person that wills the good that is the ultimate paragon of ethics. So long as you intend the good for the receiver it matters not what gift you give.” Feeling somewhat better Levinas followed Kant away from the fire and toward the corner of the room which—after his eyes had adjusted to the darkness—he discovered was stacked to the rafters with jars of oblong, yellow protuberances floating in murky water.

“It is for this reason exactly,” the elder Immanuel intoned, “that I preparing my yearly holiday gifts of canned fruit—both yellow pear and red. My intentions are to enhance the goodness of both myself and the goodness of all those that receive my gifts and so it matters not whether any need or even desire my pears so long as if it were the case that all gave gifts of fruit according to the intentions I have outlined, I would be pleased to live in that world.” This last was delivered with a wistful look in Kant’s eye that puzzled the younger Levinas as much as the unstable towers of floating fruit unnerved him, but Kant quickly regained himself and returned his attention to Levinas quickly adding that “you might say that such behavior would constitute the categorical impearative.”

Stifling his revulsion, Levinas, cleared his throat and began, “while I can certainly appreciate your idea of duty, the subjugation of one’s personal will to give everyone on your list a Walmart gift certificate in order to shut them up and instead genuinely willing the best for the world, it seems to me that such a duty goes further than you allow. While I am sure if your pears are not appreciated it is due to a defect in the character of the recipient rather than of the giver’s intention, don’t we have a greater obligation to our fellow-men than simply to give a few of our coworkers, friends, and family mouldering fruit?” At this Kant took a turn looking askance, but found that the younger Emmanuel had built up a goodly amount of steam. “In fact, don’t we owe every other person the pears from our larder, from our tables, even the very pears from our mouths?” Kant looked a bit green around the gills at the suggestion, but still Levinas continued. “It is Christmas morning, is it not the case that all these jars of fruit are already late to the mouths of the Other? And, come to think of it, isn’t it that all presents will always, already be late for their own intended existence!?”

At this, the elder Immanuel, grasped the younger Emmanuel by the lapels and began to shake the latter violently side to side exclaiming, “the essence of ethics is a priori rationality, man! How can we hope to discover—let alone subjugate our wills to—the Moral Law of the universe if we allow such unreasonable tripe as ‘infinite responsibility to infinite Others!’ Have you ever met an Other? The closest I’ve come is being trapped in a trunk with an otter on a dare when I was at university.”

I dare say that the conversation degraded from that point with Kant yelling about “synthetic a priori judgments” and Levinas screaming back about “faces” and “traces” and the two eventually wrestling about on the floor knocking jars of pears down like bowling pins while at the window another Emmanuel appeared. This middle aged Jewish boy with dark hair and sad eyes said softly as the two shouted and wrestled “your obligations are infinite and your intentions weighed, but can’t the two of you see that I’ve come this Christmas to fulfill them all and do perfectly what you could not?”

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