COLUMN: The ethics of gift giving


Ian Palacios, Columnist

December just started, and soon you’ll be considering what gifts you may receive or purchase for yourself if you celebrate a gift-giving holiday. However, there might be something fundamentally wrong with the gifts we buy ourselves.

Suppose it’s the holiday night, and you bought yourself the one item you wanted this year: a new iPhone 13 Pro Max. And though the old backup phone you keep at home does its job, you’re happy to have the bigger screen and face ID.

You put on your warm, fuzzy coat and stick your phone in a hard-to-reach pocket so you don’t accidentally drop it on your walk home. Off in the distance you hear splashing in the lake you’ve been standing next to, and you take a moment to look at the ducks in the water. Instead, you see a drowning kid.

You’re not sure how long they have been there, and you don’t see anyone nearby to help. So, must make a decision: Do you dive into the water to save the kid, destroying your new phone in the process? Or do you let the kid drown but save your newly-purchased phone?

Intuitively, we can see that it would be wrong to let the child drown at the expense of a phone (that we don’t even need, since we have a backup). A child’s life is comparatively of far greater value than our phone is, even if the phone is expensive.

“But, how does this relate to gift-giving?” you might ask yourself.

Suppose now that the drowning kid is instead dying of malaria in another continent, as roughly 280,000 children do annually, says the Against Malaria Foundation, and—due to lack of funding—this kid will survive only if you donate the money you would’ve otherwise spent on the new phone.

Though it isn’t obvious, since there are no relevant differences between the two cases, we are still obligated to sacrifice our phone. In both cases we are sacrificing a relatively trivial item (our phone) for the greater good of saving a person’s life.

So, in order to be consistent with what we already accepted was obligated of us, to spend our money on relatively value-less items would be wrong. To ignore donating to charity would be to see the drowning child and decide that your phone is more important.

Ethicist Peter Singer argues this position in his 1972 article, “Famine, Affluence, and Morality.” If you agree with Singer and want to do the most good you can, see the Effective Altruism movement at their websites or These websites offer ways to best use our money to help those in need.

Ian Palacios is a junior English and philosophy major. He can be reached at 581-2812 or