During the twenty-first century, from a phenomenological and hermeneutic point of view, an attempt was made to philosophically analyze “the gift,” especially in French philosophy. In this article, we have aimed to link such an important idea with “what is just,” thus allowing us to gauge a possible ethics of justice linked to this “gift.” For this reason, we wanted to reflect on the way in which two apparently so diverse but also related fields interact: the supra-ethics of gratuity and gift, with the ethical, symmetrical and existential field of justice (and of the just, nucleus or knot of such a relationship).
To gift means to give a good into the hands of another without receiving anything in return. These words distinguish two terms that can sometimes be confused: gifting and giving.
At first, one can distinguish in such an act, on the one hand, the action of delivery itself; later, what is delivered; and thirdly, the gratuitousness of not expecting anything in return for such a delivery.
In the act of giving, therefore, a person, the gifter, with full freedom, not forced and guided by a spirit of generosity, gives a gift to another person regardless of the response they receive. It is however important to emphasize that when you gift you don’t expect anything in return. Moreover, sometimes the recipient responds to the gifter and a reciprocal relationship takes place, but in other cases, the gift may not even be accepted or it may not lead to any reaction of gratitude.
Francesc Torralba, rightly, has stated that the logic of gifting is not measured by the equivalence of exchange, but that it is a unilateral and gratuitous offer.
Thus, gifting appears as an asymmetrical, unilateral movement that arises from spontaneity and freedom. Why?
Because gifting always involves a non-proportional movement, a movement of excess, as Ferrer has correctly understood it, such excess considered as akin to abundance. This makes it possible to reflect on the fact that the person has within themself the capacity to perform this action without calculations. They know how to give more than they have to give. In gifting there is, of itself, a lack of proportion.
2. What can I gift?
It should be pointed out that, although the object of the gift can be multiple and varied, there is no greater object than precisely the supreme good; and that supreme good is the personal being.
From this moment on it is important to clarify that, when mention is made of the gift, it refers principally to the fact of giving oneself, because this is the supreme good. That is to say, there is nothing greater or fuller than giving one’s own personal being.
Does not such a gift of self imply the greatness of the dignity of the human person, to know how to give oneself and to know how to do it in freedom?
It is the homo donator who exemplifies one of the main areas where the dignity of the person is founded, that of its originality. Because, by giving the original essence that exists in each person, the identity of one’s own being is being given, which is unrepeatable. It is worth saying that, by giving oneself, one gives something that is irrecoverable and cannot be given again. But here is a paradox of a loving and therefore abundant nature: the source of the gift of self can be inexhaustible or, at least in human terms, very difficult to exhaust; which implies that when someone gives themself in an act, although they do not get it back, they can give themselves in another act in a totally new way. Why? For the gift of self is the source of life and of abundant life.
However, the gift carries with it something paradoxical. Because, although it is seen as imperious, it is also presented as free. And while it is useful, it is also presented as free. An act of freedom that leaves the recipient free to correspond to what has been gifted. Only in freedom is the gift really a gift; and for that reason it can mean a risk: not being accepted. Because if there is any glimmer of obligatory nature, the gift can carry an implicit seed of vice that would disfigure it, turning it into something different from what it is, gratuitousness of delivery.
It is precisely from this condition of freedom that the usefulness of the gift can appear. In what sense can the gift of oneself be useful, without it being part of the logic of the interest of exchange, of giving in order to receive something in return? There is usefulness in giving because this action makes sense and produces meaning: the sense of constructing oneself as a person, recognizing oneself in others because one has given oneself to them.
A person is fragile, vulnerable, but in such vulnerability lies an unavoidable strength. Being contingent, personal existence requires the help, the collaboration of others in order to continue being, because one may not have been, but one is; because at first one has received gratuitously the possibility of being, of being alive. We are someone because others have given us life.
Contingency requires, therefore, the necessity of others, and such necessity is ontological in nature, a sine qua non requirement to be. The gift empowers the personal being, both for the gifter and the receiver, because the latter receives the other who gives themself.
The other, who is truly a great mystery; the other who is invoked; the other with whom one is not alone awakens in each one the desire for the gift, to be more, and asks for the extraordinary exchange of giving and receiving. The otherness, experienced from this contingency, is the invitation to the encounter of proximity.
3. The construction of projimity in the gift of self
The gift implies gratuity, not a symmetrical exchange; it implies the unresolved space of the abundant. But such abundance, in human terms, is a fertile experience of the moment; that is, a note written in the symphony of time, understood this time as the crossing of now with eternity. Considering the ephemeral nature of the former, but at the same time longing for infinity, the possibility arises of finding a point of inflection for a possible reflection on justice.
Everything in nature is a gift, according to Torralba, because it is there without having been generated by man. It was there before his birth and it will be there after he is dead. Everything is given, but it is not given in the same way, because only the being endowed with freedom, the personal being, has the capacity to become aware of the internal dynamics of the gift. Only he is aware of what he wants to give of himself to the world. “Man is only a reed… but he is a thinking reed,” paraphrasing Pascal, who can think of giving himself.
When a person gives themself is when they really get back; they get back the unknown of their personal being. The unknown implies entering into freedom, which is the condition of possibility of the gift. But it is certainly a human possibility; that is why the gift only makes sense within the human condition. Such freedom in its original sense, at its root, expresses the universe of liberation.
The giving of oneself is only possible if one fully liberates what one is, pours out of oneself, gets rid of the ties and chains that prevent one from taking flight, that prevent one from being what one is called to be; a vocation, the call of each one to experience in this life their personal ideal, their existence in original terms different from any other, their unrepeatable uniqueness, individuality in communion.
Faced with the question “what can I give of myself?” one might think that I can give what I am, and I am, among other things, my proximity. But such proximity, understood within the limits of the personal, is what we call “projimity.”
To give oneself means to give one’s presence to the service of the other, whoever they are, simply because they are a close person, they are a “neighbor.”
To give to each person what is theirs is a matter of justice; but to give to each person is to experience the just existential gift.
Humans have many needs and are faced with an infinite amount of situations of suffering, difficulty and pain, but the greatest need may be to want to be with someone close by, and that this someone be a gift with their presence. No word is required for this, just a face and a gaze. Our gaze, our face and today a good as scarce as our silence that challenges us, are our projimity. If we learn to communicate in silence we may learn to know each other in close intimacy.
4. The gratuity of sharing as the reason for the gift
The reason for the gift is not of interest. It cannot be because, otherwise, one could think of the need for reciprocity, which implies distancing oneself from the realm of gratuity.
The first approach to this mystery, but not a problem, following in the footsteps of Gabriel Marcel, lies in knowing that the reason for the gift is found in the fact that the one who gives, the person, is a living gift. Another aspect would be to affirm that it is because of this, for that reason, that it is given freely. It is not only a question of whether or not there is an intention to give oneself in one’s personal being, but the possibility that, if the reason lies in the fact that one is a gift, that is the ontological explanation that one can give and, therefore, give oneself freely. In other words, it is possible to give because people are a gift in themselves, even if it is not the conscious reason for giving. Because at the origin of the personal being there is a founding gifting, which causes people to be linked, and on a more intimate level, to be allied in their need.
For this reason it can be said that, in a certain sense, the reason for the gift lies in this gratuitous and compassionate charity of collaborating in the existence of the other. I feel responsible for their existence.
The gift, which is a bond, allows the city to live as a community. A polis is, then, a civic community, a sharing by citizens of their gifts.
To say gift means pronouncing gratuitous giving: without exchange, without expecting anything in return, without creating debts, without reciprocity. Indeed, there is no gift without gratuity.
To enter into the logic of gift and gratuity it is also necessary to learn to receive, to learn to welcome the gift: if there were no capacity to receive, there would be no gratitude either, there would be no capacity for recognition of the other, thanks to which I humanize myself, I take responsibility for others by being freer. To love is to give oneself, but it is also to receive the originality of the other. To love is to welcome in and with the gift.
The gift is free and gratuitous, on the part of all those involved, which encourages a relational experience; a seeing and perceiving of the need of the other that encourages me to give myself after their lack and that, in turn, causes the recipient to accept the gift as an opportunity to be someone else. To be someone else is to be brothers, to live the existential gift of the love that unites us. Now: Does this brotherhood not compel us to act justly for the other? In short, what is the relationship between gift and justice?
The answer is a bond. And that bond is also an alliance. Now, such a bond and alliance have a name, and its name is “just as an existential gift of self.”
Bianchi affirms that we live in a society that believes itself to be, above all else, a market in which there is no place for the act of giving because the absolute primacy of freedom of exchange reigns. This always requires getting something in return, a consideration.
Trust is completely directed towards this market, and in the face of situations of injustice and serious inequality, we resort to philanthropy, to actions whose central axis is distributive justice. Society must be considered as a communitas of persons, equal in dignity and different from one another. And the common good must be pursued as the good of being together, but more than that, the possibility of being together, an essential condition for a true humanitas, for a path of humanization. Being together can encourage us to give, perhaps because it is essential to build the necessary coexistence.
Without prejudice, we would need to reflect on the participation of gratuity in the relations of justice. It is perhaps a new road, difficult to explore and travel, but full of meaning, where individuality, as it is understood, in part by Miles, is integrated into the phenomenological hermeneutic alterity of Ricoeur, Levinas, Conill and Grande, among others, and takes on an existential meaning. Thus, the justice pronounced and partaker of the gift is that which is authentically just.
Either the common good is sense, conceived and pursued as the good of all humanity, or it is not the common good, Bianchi rightly says, but the good of some people, from somewhere, who do not recognize nor feel a bond of communitas with others. In this perspective, a real change is needed, perhaps because of it involved in a certain radicalism. The passage from beneficence to the practice of gratuitous and generous actions that do not obey the law of personal interest, the logic of interested exchange, but which bear witness to the freedom of every gifter, to the dignity of every recipient of the gift and, to the responsible fraternity that is generated by proximity to others, by the encounter with the face of the other.
It is important that there be a transition from charity to gratuity, in other words, from social justice to gift justice, to living with a sense of the gift of projimity. But this projimity is bidirectional, involving the essential participation of the gifter and the recipient; them having an experience of communion, experiencing the indispensability of the other, their original identity.
In the authentic act of giving, immanent to justice, there is this no exchange, but transformation. Because the gift precedes the conversion. It can therefore transform the one who receives it. It is, after all, a true revolution in charity. And, perhaps, as López Quintás points out, rather than transformation we should speak of ethical “transfiguration.” It could be manifested, in the words of this thinker, that the ethics of the gift is either transfiguration or nothing.
5. Conclusion: the sense of the just as a gifting, hermeneutic and existential event
When aiming to bring the previous reflections to the scenario of an ethics of justice, it becomes necessary, firstly, to focus on the opposite, the injustice.
The tragedy involved in being a victim of injustice makes it essential for an impartial person to interpretively and emotionally search for a sense of justice.
For that reason, the judicial reaction and solution are not understood in their full dimension without a hermeneutic–humanistic reading in which the Law encounters the experience of ethics, as Miguel Grande manifests it in a very correct way. The accurate and profound analysis of the praxis of the supposed unjust coexistence is determinant in this conception of justice, as pointed out by this author, who is also understood ethically as help to the sufferer of the injustice. Only in this hermeneutic sense the Law is experience, fact and life, because it is interpreted in its full sense, beyond its positive consideration as a system of rules.
If our sensitivity did not capture the pain of injustice, there would be no institutional legal organization that seeks to put an end to it. Injustice is not only fear, but also an absolute manifestation of the pride of implanting my purposes in the lives of others, who live what I have decided for them; to see them not as purposes, but as means and instruments of my desires. To a certain extent this was understood by Capograssi. To do justice cannot consist only in applying the law, but in putting an end to, or alleviating, the suffering of an injustice. This attenuation requires an approach; therefore, in this action a compassionate attitude is experienced, because it tries to attenuate the pain of the other, of the other as “you”.
A justice, then, in life, in its beat as a shared real existence, in which the risk of aggression and suffering for an injustice of the other, as shared nonsense, is latent and is embedded in the spirit of being that can reach its preoccupation and understanding in fullness of meaning, just as it can aspire to beauty or transcendence. In a shared existential world, justice transcends the individual, it comprises walking together with others. The path of the empire of justice, although not full at least deeply personal and convivial, is a pilgrimage whose purpose is meaning and the question of meaning is the question of truth, as Ricoeur let us see.
In the living experience of the sense of what is just there exists deep down the event of coexistence, an ontological ethical understanding of life, being with others. It is precisely this integral experience that allows me to live the need for what is just and to link the supra-ethical and ethical realm itself. This experience is necessarily personal, but it is based on the intimate experience of otherness. What is just as a gift is the participation of charitable and full abundance in the symmetry of justice, the overcoming of exchange for giving oneself to be, to be all that one can be. That’s the vocation of the person, to live as a gift, as a just gift, a gift of love.
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