Question: My parents want to give me an extravagantly expensive graduation gift—a telescope. I would like to own it, but I know that it would cost them more than they can afford. I want to accept, but I feel it’s inappropriate. They’ve already spent the past 22 years providing me with all of my needs. A telescope is not a further need.
Generally speaking, families seem to run communistically. The parents are responsible for all of the production. Much of their wealth goes to their children, who do not produce, who take according to their need (and then some). Granted, a 6-month-old cannot produce. To give to this child according to its need is still moral (for the parents) because parents gain happiness by taking care of their children. It is neither moral nor immoral for the child to accept because it lacks sufficient capacity to reason at 6 months old. But a 22 year old can produce and can reason.
1. Is it moral to give beyond need to the 22-year-old child? I would guess no, it’s not moral, but if it makes the parents happy, then there’s some morality to that.
2. Is it moral for this child to accept, not only knowing the disproportionate cost of the giving, but also being able to produce for himself? I would guess no, it’s not moral. At some point shouldn’t children be weaned of the notion that they can take according to their needs/wants? It’s bad training for the real world if they are not.
3. Is it possible for families to run capitalistically? Why do all family models seem so communistic? Are there capitalist families?
4. At what point, and how, might one family accomplish the transition between giving to a 6 month old and not giving to a 22 year old?
Unlike many other ethical systems, Objectivism
does not assign special obligations or entitlements to people by virtue simply of their membership in families or through their biological relation to their parents and siblings. Objectivists follow no commandments like “Honor thy father and thy mother.” We do, however, believe that one should conduct affairs with others—including relatives—on the basis of trade, recognizing and exchanging value for value. For more on how the trader principle applies to families, I recommend Malini Kochhar’s Q&A Family Relations and Objectivism
The perception that families run according to communistic principles, rather than capitalistic ones, is based on a misunderstanding of the nature of capitalism. There is nothing in capitalism that precludes the organization of groups of people into cooperative units. “Dog-eat-dog” brute competition, between all individuals at all times, is not an essential feature of capitalism.
Laissez-faire capitalism simply means: private ownership and control of property, and the banishment of the initiation of physical force. Within this socioeconomic system, people will naturally cultivate many diverse relationships between one another, some of a competitive nature, and many also of a cooperative kind. Between firms within an industry, there is often a high degree of competition for customers. But within individual firms and partnerships, the spirit is much more one of cooperation, with each employee producing not only on his own part, but also contributing to the productivity of his coworkers.
In the case of families, this sort of cooperation is the only method of organization that makes sense. As you point out, children are incapable of performing productive work and contributing to the family budget. Nevertheless, if they are to be raised into adults with rational faculties—as the parents are obligated and hopefully very personally interested in doing—their needs must be provided for.
Notice, for instance, that economists usually discuss “households” as the basic consumer-side economic unit; they do this because it would produce meaningless or confusing economic data to treat every child as an independent consumer. Children’s economic decisions and well-being are inextricably linked to those of their parents.
Of course families must wean their children off of the habit of having their every need and care effortlessly provided for. Since every child is unique, accomplishing this task is best left up to each individual family. Some parents simply say, “You’re on your own!” to their kids once they reach the age of eighteen. Others may provide their child with financial support to attend college in the hope that this will help him succeed later in life.
Some of the most frequent objections to rational egoism relate to generosity and gift-giving. “Under what circumstances,” it is asked, “does it make sense for a self-interested individual to give a donation or a gift? If the personal benefit to him is relatively small, hasn’t he sacrificed his own interests?”
Under what circumstances does it make sense
for a self-interested individual to give a donation or a gift?
David Kelley, in his monograph Unrugged Individualism
, has outlined three basic conditions where generosity is both moral and in accord with the selfish interest of the gift-giver. (pp. 44-51) First, generosity can be an expression of your own happiness, a way of making your own material success more real and enjoyable by sharing it with those around you. Second, since it is in our interests to live in a society that gives aid to those suffering temporary crises, it makes sense to help others during emergencies. And finally, gift-giving can be a kind of investment; we may hope that, by giving a gift now, we will be repaid by gratitude, friendship, and other long-term benefits. It may also, as Kelley writes, “be a more general sense that one’s own life is improved by living in a world with better, happier, more fully realized people in it.”
I suspect that this last investment-like concept is the spirit in which your parents have offered you the telescope as a gift. Whether it was moral for them to do so depends on many factors, including the degree of happiness that it could bring them, your own worthiness to receive the gift, and the financial hardships they will have to endure as a result of the purchase.
In weighing whether to accept the telescope, you should ask yourself, “Will this be a source of pride or guilt?” If you’ll be reminded of your parents slaving away to pay for the telescope every time you use it, it really won’t be of value to you. On the other hand, if the telescope will be a reward and reminder of your hard work and triumph in graduating from college, it may make sense to accept.
The simple fact that the people offering you this gift are also your parents really does not have a bearing on whether or not you should accept it. However, that (as I presume) you love your parents, and that they love you, may certainly be relevant. Another question to ask yourself would be, “Would I accept this kind of gift from someone I love, and who loves me?” This is a more appropriate and objective context in which to weigh your decision than simply, “These are my parents.”
The question of whether to accept a gift doesn’t hinge on whether or not we could have produced or purchased it for ourselves. Givers can have many different reasons to offer a gift for someone, including pride in his accomplishments or a desire to see him continue to thrive and be happy in the future. A gift exchange is usually in the best interests of both persons involved. (Both parents and their children usually feel a special kind of joy on Christmas morning, even when all the material value is flowing in one direction.) Sometimes, we can even insult someone’s pride by refusing to accept his gift!
Rational selfishness, as defined by Ayn Rand
and clarified by later Objectivist scholars, does not require that we eschew gift-giving and try to run our families according to competitive capitalist principles. There are many perfectly self-interested reasons to be generous and help neighbors or family members in need. For more on these subjects, I recommend the aforementioned monograph by David Kelley, as well as Roger Donway’s "Gifts, Gratitude, and Thanksgiving."