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

Raymond Anthony Poster

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.

Course Artifacts

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.

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Course Design and Implementation

In their essays, the students were challenged to:

  • Discuss the philosophical and/or moral nature of gift-giving, i.e., to take a stand on its moral status and defend it throughout the essay
  • Consider some of the moral implications of giving for both the donor and the donee
  • Develop a project (which was the practical dimension of the essay) that could be ‘shovel ready’ that could then be implemented by future students of this Ethics class with their parameters in mind

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:

  • Who are the relevant stakeholders and what are their values or possible moral outlooks?
  • What are some of their interests?
  • How might the form of “gift-giving” as captured through their respective proposals be oppressive? Liberating?
  • What is the relationship between gift-giving and being a good neighbor?
  • How ought we to consider a more equitable and truly compassionate instance of gift giving?
  • How should we mitigate against concerns that our gifts may oppress the donee (or be perceived as oppressive by the recipient), despite the very best of intentions?

Students concluded in their oral presentations and essays the following:

  • Gift-giving can be and usually is oppressive.
  • Gift-giving that involves a community, especially when different cultures are involved, is multifaceted and complex
  • It can be oppressive when the relevant needs or interests of all the relevant stakeholders are not identified and respected. It can also be oppressive when the process of engagement is not respectful or transparent; when open discourse does not occur or is frustrated.
  • The core elements of gift-giving include: the gift, giver, recipient, the process, and implications (both short and long term impacts).
  • Many acts of compassion that they have witnessed or to which they have been party, have been oppressive in one way or the other.
  • They are now more conscious of their (potential) impact on another and the moral necessity of engaging with the recipient.
  • The benefactor is often changed positively by the process of respectful gift-giving
  • Neighbor ethics is alive and well in Alaska. However, careful attention needs to be paid to effective and respectful outreach

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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:

  • Was a great way to expose the students to different cultures and the diversity of concerns present in the state of Alaska
  • Introduced the students to different ways of thinking and to the realities and plight of others in their state
  • Raised very difficult questions about our treatment of fellow Alaskans
  • Challenged students to consider the role and responsibilities of government, industry and citizens in finding solutions
  • Motivated the students to consider their projects in a more meaningful way
  • Afforded some of the best discussions and presentations
  • Promoted mature philosophical discourse
  • Facilitated a closer class community by semester’s end
  • Made philosophy and ethics relevant and alive

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Faculty Contact

Raymond Anthony, PhD

Department of Philosophy

University of Alaska Anchorage

3211 Providence Drive

Anchorage, AK 99508

Tel: 907.786.4459

Fax: 907.786.4309