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Gifts and morality

“Gifts” is Emerson’s shortest essay, a mere four pages in the Library of America volume of his Essays & Lectures. Even still, as is characteristic of Emerson, it contains the greater portion of his thought, escaping well beyond its putative subject. In particular, I think this essay on gifts is a useful proxy for Emerson’s distaste for morality, or at least for moralism.

There are, I think, two crucial sentences in the essay. First: “Necessity does everything well.” (536) Emerson is looking for necessity—one of Emerson’s central moves is to identify the freedom of self-reliance with a rigid sort of necessity, for after all only one action will be true to the individual, and hence self-reliant—but he does not find it in our conventions of gift-giving. In these conventions, we are expected at particular times to give others gifts—Emerson mentions Christmas and New Year. We might readily imagine a sort of necessity here: at these times, you must give gifts, at least if you are to preserve your social graces. This might be better phrased impersonally: at these times, one must give gifts—for after all it hardly matters who you are. This, I take it, is rather like the must of morality—think of Kant’s categorical imperative and his insistence on universalizing maxims: impersonality is the order of the day.

So there is a sort of necessity, but for Emerson it is misplaced. “If, at any time, it comes into my head, that a present is due from me to somebody, I am puzzled what to give, until the opportunity is gone.” (535) There is necessity up to the point that some gift must be given, but no further. This loss of necessity leads to Emerson being “puzzled”, and then the opportunity is lost—but what opportunity?

Emerson does have an image of the ideal gift: “The only gift is a portion of thyself. Thou must bleed for me.” (536) Such a gift is inherently personal, but then, Emerson wants to say, it cannot be governed by the impersonal “one must”. For how does “one” give a portion of “oneself”? The very idea is nearly if not strictly incoherent.

The problem resides, ultimately, in the idea of morality as a sort of service. Emerson could well accept the contemporary (but controversial) view that all morality is just an evolved lubricant for social interactions, coopted (since we have the brains to coopt it) to make life generally as pleasant as possible for as many as possible. Morality is just a sort of etiquette, on this view, which is why gift-giving, hardly a “moral” issue when morality is treated as venerable, may serve Emerson as a proxy.

The problem with service is that service is impersonal. Its value lies in the consequences and not in its cause. For this reason, insofar as morality is a sort of service, a consequentialist view of morality seems required. But now we get the second crucial sentence in Emerson’s essay: “They eat your service like apples, and leave you out.” (538) Service, by its very nature, leaves out the individual, for the individual is the cause, but the value lies in the consequences.

Emerson makes a motion, in his essay, to respect that there is something essential—as there surely is—in this sort of service, but it is a dismissive motion. “There are persons, from whom we always expect fairy tokens; let us not cease to expect them.” (538) The motion is dismissive because Emerson is after something greater, an interaction in which people are not mere sources of consequences, valued only insofar as they cause the right consequences. In this interaction, which elsewhere in Emerson falls under the heading of “conversation”, the mutual meeting of two self-reliant individuals, “No services are of any value, but only likeness.” (538) Conversation lasts as long as, and no longer than, the likeness persists. In such interactions, there simply cannot be any question of morality, of service: etiquette is entirely left out of the equation.

This, I hope, shows how Emerson’s vision of self-reliance excludes morality altogether.

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