Life is Not a Gift (and Neither is Dessert)

Just back from a 4-day conference held at the Catholic University of America, hosted by its Center for Law, Philosophy, and Culture, entitled, “A Common Morality for a Global Age: In Gratitude for What We are Given.”  Conference speakers included Cardinal Angelo Scola (by video), Hadley Arkes, Kenneth Schmitz, Stanely Hauerwas, John Polkinghorne, Robert George, Katherine Tanner, Jean Bethke Elshtain, and many others.  You can find podcasts of the sessions here (look for March 27-30 on the calendar).

The symposium set itself a question, which began:  “Where, we ask, is the common morality sufficient to guide our response to the urgent concerns of our global age?”  Many of the speakers took the answer to require a re-investigation of the idea of natural law, the idea that there is something in human nature per se that can serve as a guide to moral judgment, regardless of where we find ourselves in time and culture.  This is a notoriously hard claim to justify, and I am not sure that any of the presentations at this conference solved the problem.  But let me say at the outset that I think the claim is right anyway, even if I cannot do a better job justifying it than the luminaries at this symposium.  In some ways the problem reminds me of Augustine’s response about the question of time:  I know just what time is until you ask me to say what it is (see Confessions, Bk 11, Ch 14).  If I am asked if there is a common morality, I know that there is…but if asked to say what it is, I cannot satisfactorily do it.  And if morality really were to depend on our ability to give this kind of account, then we would be in trouble.

I was particularly interested in the talk presented by Michael Sandel, whose latest book is entitled, The Case Against Perfection: Ethics in the Age of Genetic Engineering.  His talk at the CUA symposium was entitled, “Mastery, Hubris, and Gift:  Biotechnology and the Human Good” (you can listen to the whole session here).  Sandel tries to account for our intuitions or gut reactions against certain acts of genetic engineering, say for rigging for gender, height, intelligence, beauty, etc.  He argues that if there is to be a common morality, then we will have to do either one of two things.  Either we will abstract from the various moral discourses which appear in our world, or we can attend to these discourses and to what our own responses are telling us in order to navigate effectively towards something like a common morality.  If we do the former–try to abstract from the various moral discourses–we will end up with a lowest common denominator, attenuated, “thin gruel” of a moral discourse, persuasive to no one. 

Sandel is saying that attempts at such articulation will be unsuccessful or unsatisfying.  If, instead, we attend to our various but specific situations, to see what we say to ourselves, so to speak, and use our moral imaginations, we might have more success.  Listen to the whole presentation (it’s the second paper, so you’ll have to fast forward) and see what you think. 

I want to comment on one particular aspect of the talk (and the whole conference).  Several times during the symposium the question was raised whether the presenters were merely “preaching to the choir,” whether, while we attendees (I guess) tended to be sympathetic to this natural law approach, the rest of the world could be brought to see it as “we” do (there were dissenters, though…).  For Sandel (and for a few other presenters), the key was not a systematic articulation of morality but, via attending to our circumstances, coming to see that “life is a gift,” gratitude for which would be then the basis of common morality.  He suggested that coming to see that life is a gift would help us to realize our indebtedness, our obligations to care for this gift in certain ways, and not to squander it or demean it.

I can’t remember ever hearing anyone deny that life is a gift (probably there have been some who have), but I would like to deny it now–at least for the sake of an argument. 

First of all, life cannot be a “gift” because in order to have gift giving there must be a giver and a receiver, as well as something given.  But, though there may well be a giver of life, there is no receiver of life.  I am not separated from “my” life, or “I” would not be at all.  There is not first me, and then some moment when I receive a gift called “life.”  This seems a confused way of thinking.  I might still be grateful, thankful to be alive, but not thankful for the “gift of life.”  There’s a difference, and it might make a difference.

Second, in my naive days (read: before I spent a bunch of years reading contemporary French philosophy), I thought that a gift, in order to be a genuine gift, could have no strings attached.  Okay, I am not so naive now, but if Derrida is right about a gift always coming with obligations, then there is no gift in the naive sense.  But most of the world has not read Derrida or Marion, and so most people think of a gift in the naive sense:  it is supposed to have no obligation attached to it.  If I say to you, “Here’s a gift of twenty bucks…but you have to give it back to me later,” it is not a gift at all but a loan.  A loan is one kind of deal, bargain, contract, or even covenant, and to these deals certain obligations always obtain.  For instance, if I work for you, my paycheck is not a gift; it is something I deserve…it is my just desserts, as they say, and I have recourse against you if you fail to give me my due.  I don’t deserve a gift, and if you give me one you don’t deserve any particular response (not even gratitude, I might add–not if it is truly a gift).

So my question is this:  if we try to teach people that life is a “gift,” are we not running the risk that they will believe that, therefore, “their” life (and “their” body) will be something they can do with as they please, that it is totaly gratuitous, and so not tied to any obligations? Would it not be better to teach that life (and the body) are part of a deal, so to speak, or to be more precise, part of a covenant from which solemn obligations follow, obligations to ourselves as well as to others, to society, and to God?

Sandel’s talk contrasted the gift to something one has earned, or earned a right to.  You do not have a right to a gift; it is not something deserved.  But something you earn is something you have a right to by dessert (you held up your end of the bargain).  Sandel, in an off-hand way, said that you can do whatever you want (more or less, I guess) with the things you earn by your own doing.  Most would agree.  But that’s wrong too.  Just as gifts do not come with obligations and debts (again, setting aside for the moment Derrida’s persuasive argument that they always do), “desserts” are not gifts–they do not confer an absolute right to do whatever you please with them.  For desserts come from bargains, contracts, covenants, and other forms of deals and relationships, and are fully dependent on those relationships for their being and validity.  Certain obligations do in fact follow from these relationships and the desserts that follow from them.

I believe we may have the whole thing backwards.

Let me try to clean up some of the mess I’ve made of this form of moral exhortation that Sandel wants to use.  When Sandel (and just about everybody else of good will) says that life is a gift, I know just what they mean.  I know that gifts–if they were genuinely intended and innocently received–will produce gratitude, a “debt” of a kind, but a “debt of gratitude” that one takes up freely and not out of pure obligation.  My playing devil’s advocate should not be interpreted as my being at fundamental odds with Sandel and most of the presenters at this conference.  I am, however,  trying to work on the moral-pedagogical problem.  If one does not feel grateful for some “gift,” it is hard to argue one into feeling grateful–especially if you have to do so by making gratitude feel like an obligation.  But maybe feeling is not the best guide to moral judgment.  If our life and our bodies are obligations in the first place, if they are covenantlal, and we can be made to know that (and not just occasionally ”feel” it), perhaps moral suasion can work–even across cultural borders.

And, I wonder if it would make for a better world if we learned to treat our “desserts,” not like they were “gifts” (no strings attached), but also as covenantal, as always generating obligations, deriving from the webs of realtionships that have brought us those “desserts”?

Food for thought. 

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