Monday, May 24, 2010

The Evil of Giving?

We find that,
  • Giving of gifts tends to make givers happy, even happier than spending money on themselves. [1].
  • Gifts that are felt to be unearned tend to make people unhappy in the long run. For example lottery winners and such tend to in the long run do pretty badly in the long run.
Does this mean that giving gifts to individuals who don't deserve them is selfish and evil? Obviously this wouldn't apply to giving gifts to foundations/charities/etc, because those are not really gifts but they are the relationship of agency with the foundation. We give money to charities because we want them to do what they want to do with our money, so really they are just acting as our agents. However, this would apply to many forms of gifts to adult children, such as inheritance. Also, does this suggest that welfare payments would be worse than government mandated unemployment insurance (paid for by the workers)?

For those who don't believe in "evil", replace instances of "evil" with "negative" or "harmful" or whatever similar word suits your fancy.
This talk is what got me thinking about this question.

1. Elizabeth W. Dunn, Lara B. Aknin, and Michael I. Norton (21 March 2008)
Science 319 (5870), 1687. [DOI: 10.1126/science.1150952]


Anonymous said...

I am amused at your observation that inheritance may have as harmful a character as winning a lottery. If one cared to - for drollness' sake - one could read "The Fall of the House of Usher" with the potentially harmful dimension of the gift in mind. For its protagonist, the last, degenerated scion of a noble house, famously suffers from a mysterious illness - a "settled apathy, a gradual wasting away of the person, and frequent although transient affections of a partially cataleptical character." His enigmatic entropy, and that of the rotting palace which is his inheritance, could be made into an allegory of the evils of the unmerited gift.

In practice, however, I think inheritance is mitigated by a sense of entitlement that heirs tend to be inculcated in, though the guilt of the privilege-inheriting middle class is nevertheless proverbial. Is it not possible that the gifts (welfare, etc) from a Socialist state might have some of the same 'cushioning' that the inheritance of the children of wealthy parents enjoy, since accompanied by the propaganda of the state's obligation to the individual?

That is to say, perhaps the gift is not always the same in its effects on the recipient, cultural and ideological factors being important.

As it is, to be sure, welfare payments and the like are illustriously problematic. Which is not to say that they might not be otherwise.

neil craig said...

Not convinced that lottery winners do badly in the long run. When a lottery winner spends vast amounts spectacularly it is a news story - when they buy a slightly bigger house and car and invest the rest wisely this is not a news story so we never hear about it.