Richard Kyte: The moral peril of gift-giving

2010-12-19T01:00:00Z 2010-12-19T08:37:40Z Richard Kyte: The moral peril of gift-givingBy Richard Kyte | The Ethical Life La Crosse Tribune
December 19, 2010 1:00 am  • 

The holiday season is fraught with moral peril. It is nearly impossible to get through the last weeks of December without telling a bucket full of lies.

“Oh, that’s a nice looking present under the tree. Who put that there?”

“I have no idea.” (lie No. 1)

“I don’t see a tag on it. I wonder who it’s for.”

“Beats me.” (lie No. 2)

“Feels kinda heavy. I bet it’s the camera I’ve been wanting.”

“I didn’t know you wanted a camera. I thought you wanted a potato peeler.” (lies No. 3 and No. 4)

I can’t be certain how many lies I tell each holiday season, but using a sophisticated process of statistical analysis known in academic circles as macular approximation (also known as “eyeballing”), I would guess that I average about 238. That doesn’t include other minor ethical deviations from the truth such as misleading, exaggerating and omitting. If those were to be included — and they probably should — I wouldn’t be able to look myself in the mirror. Which would make shaving difficult.

The Grand Poobah of ethics, the Prussian philosopher Immanuel Kant, was of the opinion that lies of any kind were strictly prohibited. (Of course, Kant thought lots of things should be strictly prohibited, like singing “Ein Prosit” while drinking light beer.)

Kant argued that lying is an act of disrespect. Because lying creates a false impression of something, it denies other people the opportunity of perceiving a situation in the same way that the speaker does, and thereby creates a condition of inequality. “To be truthful (honest) in all declarations is, therefore, a sacred and unconditionally commanding law of reason that admits of no expediency whatsoever.” (It should be pointed out, by the way, that Immanuel Kant never married.)

Most early Christians would have agreed with Kant; they took truth-telling very seriously. Even in life-and-death situations, it was considered necessary to tell the truth.

The seriousness of their convictions is illustrated by a story passed down about Athanasius, the 4th century bishop of Alexandria. One day he was being chased by a gang of Arians, who were engaged at the time in a deadly feud with Catholics. He came to a river and found an abandoned fishing boat, got in and began rowing. The gang pursuing him ran along the bank of the river until they too came upon a boat. After rowing a fair distance he began to tire; his pursuers were gaining on him. Rounding a bend in the river, he pulled the boat over near the shore, found a fishing rod in the bottom of the boat, raised his hood over his head to hide his face and began fishing. When his pursuers came around the bend, they saw his boat near the shore and shouted out: “Did you see someone come by here in a boat?” Athanasius knew that he had to answer them truthfully, so he said simply, “Yes. I saw him just a few minutes ago right where you are now.” His pursuers thanked him and rowed down the river and out of sight.

The moral of the story: If you are going to tell the truth in every situation, you had better be clever.

Inspired by Kant and Athanasius, this holiday season I’m taking a new strategy when asked questions about gifts.

“Oh, that’s a nice looking present under the tree. Who put that there?”

“I saw who did it, but I can’t tell you who it was.” (truth No. 1)

“I don’t see a tag on it. I wonder who it’s for.”

“It’s probably for someone very special.” (truth No. 2)

“Feels kinda heavy. I bet it’s the camera I’ve been wanting.”

“Umm ...  actually it’s a potato peeler, with a couple of potatoes thrown in to make it feel heavier.” (truths No. 3 and No. 4)

I’ll have to work on the cleverness part.

The Ethical Life is a series of reflections on the ways ethical thinking influences our actions, emotions and relationships. Richard Kyte is the director of the D.B. Reinhart Institute for Ethics in Leadership at Viterbo University.

Copyright 2015 La Crosse Tribune. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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