Christmastime is the season of giving. It is the season of charity. It is the season of gifts. But it is not the season of “pure altruism.” That is because, like Santa Claus, pure altruism is not real.
In both charity and gift-giving, the giver always gives to get something in return. We know this because all human action is a choice between alternatives and every action, as Aristotle teaches, “is thought to aim at some good; and for this reason the good has rightly been declared to be that at which all things aim.” So no charitable act is committed for its own sake, but with an aim at some good.
Only a cynic would opine that the good aimed at by giving gifts is getting gifts in return. And that explanation could scarcely account for charity, especially anonymous charity. One could certainly argue that the good aimed at is the good of the recipient of the gift. But that does not appear to be a satisfactory answer. Economic principles are applicable to all human action, as has been shown by a number of philosophers. And no voluntary transaction is conducted at an absolute loss, because there would is no incentive to do so. (Of course, parties occasionally make a bad deal and lose. And occasionally parties will take a loss now in the hopes of gaining more later.)
As Ludwig von Mises points out, every action is a form of exchange. Barter between individuals is an exchange of the most obvious type, but there are also “autistic exchanges.” An “autistic exchange” is one that an individual makes with himself. For example, if I go to the gym, I exchange my time and energy for perceived health benefits. Gift-giving and charity are other examples of an autistic exchange. “Where there is no intentional mutuality, where an action is performed without any design of being benefited by a concomitant action of other men, there is no interpersonal exchange, but autistic exchange.” The value of the gift is exchanged for the good feelings that come from making other people happy.
Like all exchanges, the autistic exchanges are only undertaken where the participants perceive that the value received is commensurate with the value given. I go to the gym because I perceive that that time and effort is worth the health benefits. I smoke a cigar because I perceive the health hazards and cost are worth the pleasure. I give a gift because I perceive the pleasure of gift-giving (and, to the extent that I expect anything in return, the possibility of gratitude and/or reciprocation) to be commensurate with the thought and value of the gift. Gift-giving, like all other human action, is essentially selfish.
And that’s ok! This is not an indictment of giving or of charity. Quite the opposite. It is in our best interest to give generously. We rightfully perceive that we get value from giving, even when we do not expect a gift in return. Gifts are for the givers, so be a giver this Christmas!
Beer of the week: Fistmas Holiday Ale – This winter seasonal offering from Chicago’s Revolution Brewing Company is a real treat. This pretty amber brew has hints of ginger and cinnamon, without being over-spiced as many spiced winter beers are.
Reading of the week: The Errors of Santa Claus by Stephen Leacock – As noted last week, Leacock is one of the greatest gifts that Canada has given to the literary world. Whether he wrote for money or for his own pleasure makes no difference to us. (In the words of Mises, “a genius may perform his task for himself, not for the crowd; however, he is an outstanding benefactor of mankind.”) This cute little story shows another way in which gifts are given for the sake of the givers.
Question for the week: This economic analysis works for gift giving, but seems to fall apart at self-sacrifice, even to the point of death. Does such self-sacrifice revive the notion of altruism?
This is the seventh in a series on Franklin’s moral improvement plan, the rest of the posts are available here.
INDUSTRY: Lose no time; be always employ’d in something useful; cut off all unnecessary actions.
It is often discouraging to observe how much work has yet to be done. There are papers to write, dishes to wash, bridges to build. And the sheer quantity of work that will remain undone at the end of each day can make one despair of every really making a difference. This pessimism must be combated.
According to Helen Keller, Charles Darwin’s ill-health made it impossible for him to write for any more than half of an hour at a time; “yet in many diligent half-hours he laid anew the foundations of philosophy.” In fact, it seems that Keller vastly undersells Darwin’s illness. According to Wikipedia, “Darwin suffered intermittently from various combinations of symptoms such as: malaise, vertigo, dizziness, muscle spasms and tremors, vomiting, cramps and colics, bloating and nocturnal intestinal gas, headaches, alterations of vision, severe tiredness, nervous exhaustion, dyspnea, skin problems such as blisters all over the scalp and eczema, crying, anxiety, sensation of impending death and loss of consciousness, fainting tachycardia, insomnia, tinnitus, and depression.” Chronic vomiting is bad enough, but to have to find the puke bucket a bucket with blurred vision and vertigo must be a special kind of hellish. Yet somewhere between the cramps and sensation of impending death, Darwin was still able to change the world.
Helen Keller herself was no slouch in the overcoming adversity department. Unable to see or hear, she still learned to read, write, and speak(!) several languages. She also became a noted political advocate and lecturer. But international fame was not her primary ambition. “I long to accomplish a great and noble task;” she writes, “but it is my chief duty and joy to accomplish humble tasks as though they were great and noble. It is my service to think how I can best fulfill the demands that each day makes upon me, and to rejoice that others can do what I cannot.”
So when the mountain of work seems unclimbable, follow Franklin’s advice and waste as little time as possible. Remember Darwin and let nothing, even yourself, prevent you from achieving your goals. Be like Keller and take pride in even the most humble tasks. And heed the exhortation of Thomas Carlyle:
“Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it with thy whole might. Work while it is called To-day; for the Night cometh, wherein no man can work.”
Beer of the week: Sublime Ginger – This hazy, straw-colored offering from Forbidden Root is really good. The base is a dry wheat beer, with ginger, key lime, and botanicals. And those additions all make themselves known. The aroma is dominated by the ginger and citrus. The flavor is bright and limey. The ginger and herbs are also in the flavor, but without as much bite as one might expect. Overall, a nice refreshing drink.
Reading of the week: Optimism by Helen Keller, Part I – Keller’s optimism must be among the most sincere examples in history. For seven years, she lived in a totally isolated world of darkness and silence. Then she learned language, and the inertia of that “first leap out of the darkness” carried her forward for the rest of her life.
Question for the week: Recreation and relaxation are productive to a point; they improve our state of mind and reinvigorate our bodies and souls for the tasks ahead. But is there any clear line between relaxation and idleness?
Identify the correct statement:
A. Tomatoes are fruits.
B. Tomatoes are vegetables.
C. Tomatoes are berries.
D. All of the above.
The key to this question is the key to most questions: first agree on definitions. If the terms are not adequately defined, then there is no real hope of reaching a consensus on the right answer.
So what is a fruit? In the botanical sense, a fruit is the structure that bears the seeds of a flowering plant. In the culinary sense, a fruit is a sweet plant part. Culinary fruits are usually botanical fruits, but it is not always true that botanical fruits are culinary fruits. For example, apples, cucumbers, acorns, and pumpkins contain the seeds of their respective plants, and are therefore botanical fruits. But of those, only apples are usually considered to be culinary fruits because they are sweet and fleshy. Likewise, tomatoes have seeds, so they are botanical fruits. However, they are not considered culinary fruits because they are generally not prepared the way that sweet fruits are. So answer A. is correct, so long as the broader definition is used.
What is a vegetable? Again, there are broader and narrower definitions. A vegetable may be any edible part of a plant. Or it may be a culinary vegetable: leaves, stems, roots, or some of the less sweet botanical fruits. Nuts, for example, clearly fit into the first definition, but may not fit into the second. The same can be said of grains. So tomatoes are definitely vegetables under the broader definition, and also under the culinary definition.
What is a berry? You’ve guessed it, there are multiple definitions. The colloquial definition is a small, fleshy fruit that is usually sweet. This includes strawberries, blackberries, mulberries, and cherries. But none of those fruits fit within the botanical definition of a berry. Botanically speaking, berries are fleshy fruits that do not have stones that are produced from the single ovary of a single flower. So blueberries, elderberries and grapes are botanical fruits. But so are pumpkins, bananas and, indeed, tomatoes. So although they are not berries in the common sense of the word, C. is a correct answer if the question is about the botanical definition.
Ultimately, the question is more “what definitions are being used?” than “what is a tomato?” People often argue at length about things that are no less trivial than the categorization of tomatoes. And frequently the source of their disagreements are at the definitional level. One of the great flaws of language is that no matter how many words we have, they are all but poor representations of ideas. Try to focus on agreeing on definitions before jumping into an argument where you are likely to be talking right past each other.
Beer of the week: Shiner Ruby Redbird – Grapefruit is considered a “modified berry” because, unlike most berries, it has a tough skin and internal segments. Ginger is either a spice or a vegetable, depending on what definition is used. And both are ingredients in this beer. Ruby Redbird was originally a summer seasonal. However, it is now available year-round. It pours with a fluffy head that fades quickly. Ginger dominates the smell and the aftertaste. There is a hint of citrus at first, but the ginger is so strong that everything else is really secondary. That’s not a bad thing, mind. As long as you are ok with ginger flavored beer, this is a very tasty and refreshing option.
Reading of the week: How I Edited an Agricultural Paper by Mark Twain – Like the narrator of this great short story, I don’t really know much about agriculture. (But at least I know that turnips don’t grow on trees.) This story is very funny, but it also ends with a great critique of newspaper editors that is equally applicable in a digital age where everybody, no matter how ill-informed, can spread his opinion to the masses.
Question of the week: Is baseball a sport? Or, more accurately, is there any reasonable definition of “sport” that excludes baseball?
As the days get sunnier and warmer, I am reminded of a classic urban legend:
A woman went shopping for groceries. After she finished at the grocery store, she placed her purchases on the back seat of her car in the parking lot. She had a few more errands to run, so she left the groceries in the car while she went about her business. When she returned and entered the car, which had been warmed considerably by the midday sun, she heard a loud BANG and suffered a blow to the back of the head. She reached back to feel the point of impact and found find a gooey mass. Naturally she started to panic. With both hands she attempted to hold her brains in place and screamed for help. When other shoppers came to see what was wrong, she said that she had been shot in the head and that her brains were exposed. Upon closer examination, her brains were safely in place, but she was desperately pressing warm biscuit dough into her hair. Apparently, the heat in the car had caused a tube of biscuit dough to pop, splattering its contents on the woman. One of the “rescuers” told her, “Ma’am, you will be alright. You’ve been shot by the Pillsbury Doughboy.”
This story is a rather amusing little farce, but it says something important about sensory perception and the disconnect between our personal experience and external stimuli. The lady in the story felt warm dough on her head, but her senses did not convey to her mind the reality of the situation. The sense of touch, even when functioning properly, never totally captures the nature of the thing touched.
Descartes used a similar, although far less amusing story to make this very point. A soldier returning from the field feels a sharp pain in his side and thinks that he has suffered a wound that he did not notice in the heat of battle. Upon closer inspection, however, a strap on his armor simply became twisted, causing a buckle to dig into his side. If senses accurately and fully conveyed the nature of stimuli, then the soldier would have known immediately that the pain in his side was caused by the buckle.
To be fair, our senses are pretty trustworthy most of the time and we combine all sorts of additional context and sensory input to determine what is really going on. We are constantly and effortlessly making judgments based on our perceptions and that frees up our limited brainpower to work on more complicated questions. Questions such as what beer to drink.
Beer of the week: Fin du Monde – French-Canadian brewery Unibroue makes some very well regarded beers. Fin du Monde is probably their best known brew, a Belgian-style tripel. It smells of yeast and cider. The body is remarkably smooth and the taste is outstanding. There are hints of pepper and the considerable alcohol content (9%) makes itself known at the end. The aftertaste is similar to that of a dry cider, encouraging sip after sip.
Reading of the week: Le Monde by Rene Descarts – Although Descartes apparently intended to write a complete philosophy of the world, his work was never completed. Instead the title Le Monde (“The World”) was attached after his death to the first part of that project, Treatise on Light.
Question of the week: Humans are extremely visual, and our trust in sight as a reliable source of information is evident in the idiom “seeing is believing.” But we have all experienced optical illusions, so we know that sight cannot always be trusted. Descartes writes that “Of all our senses, touch is the one considered least deceptive and the most secure.” Is he right? Which sense most reliably presents our mind with the reality of the outside world?
They say that smell is the sense with the closest link to memory. The other day, as I washed some beer glasses with a new dish soap, I was transported to a distant time and place. I was suddenly in a bubble bath in my parents’ home. I recognized the aroma immediately, even though it has certainly been over twenty years.
I have heard that one does not have memories of events, only memories of the last time that the event was remembered. That could explain how memories degrade or take on new, extraneous parts. For example, over the last few months, I listened to audio-books while walking from place to place. Later, I found myself thinking about specific chapters when I happened to be in the same place that I heard it. The sight of a particular building or shop would remind me of a character or a fictional village.
The intensely personal nature of these memory links is what really intrigues me. Such an association seems perfectly natural, but it is interesting that I am almost certainly the only person in the world with that specific connection. Of the thousands of people who walk past that shop, I am the only one who is reminded of that book. Let alone being reminded of a given chapter, line or character. The smell of that dish soap probably reminds at least some other people of their childhood bubble baths, but even that isn’t really the same. The memory for me includes the color of the tile and the feel of the washcloth, details that are unique to me.
Beer of the week: Berghoff Winter Ale – Berghoff is a well known name in Chicago, but probably unheard of in most other places. Berghoff started as an Indiana brewery, but eventually became a downtown Chicago beer hall. Their Winter Ale is a real treat. It is a dark, full bodied beer. The aroma has hints of marshmallow and the sweet, cakey malt makes this beer a delicious winter drink.
Reading of the week: Winter by William Shakespeare – Winter brings with it both the undesirable and the desirable. Coughs and red, raw noses are an unavoidable part of this season, but there is also the cheerful “Tu-whoo” of owls and the smell of roasting… crabs? Maybe winter traditions have changed a bit since Shakespeare’s time.
Question of the week: Could the most pleasant parts of winter (hot chocolate, open hearth fires, skiing) be nearly so good without the less pleasant parts (runny noses, wet socks)? And are the memories of the pleasant and unpleasant inextricably linked?