Oh, Ryan

Ryan Davis offers a debunking interpretation of O. Henry’s “The Gift of the Magi” at 200ProofLiberals. After summarizing the story, he spoils the ending, then tells us why he doesn’t “buy” the story’s implications (so yes, spoiler alert below the fold).

The story wants you think this is all great.  It ends this way:

“I have told you the story of two children who were not wise.  Each sold the most valuable thing he owned in order to buy a gift for the other.  But let me speak a last word to the wise of these days: Of all who give gifts, these two were the most wise.”

I’m not buying it.  I think we feel inspired by the story only when we view the characters as mere allegorical place holders.  Sure, we don’t care about Della’s precious hair or Jim’s old watch, so it seems nice enough to us that they ditched their respective vanities in a well-intentioned mix-up.  But we’re told that they really did care about those things.  If we believed that they really had given up their sole prized possessions, we would have to think of that as at least a medium-sized personal tragedy.  Worse still, neither gets anything out of the other’s heroism.  If we take Della and Jim seriously, this is just plain bad.

The story tells us that Della and Jim really cared about those things, but also implies that they cared less about them than they cared about each other. A philosopher unable to comprehend or appreciate this not-terribly-complicated set of thoughts has no business reading O. Henry, much less offering cringe-level interpretations of O. Henry’s work for public consumption.

Davis doesn’t “buy” the story’s implications. Well, maybe they weren’t for sale. And maybe a modest exercise of reading comprehension and common sense might have suggested that even if all that Jim and Della wanted was a watch-chain and a set of combs, respectively, Jim does have the watch-chain he wanted, and Della’s hair will eventually grow back. Davis: “Neither gets anything out of the other’s heroism.” HFS. Not to mention that she made him dinner.

Philosophers since Plato have long wanted to throw the artists out of the polis. With philosophical commentary like this on offer, I can see why the artists might want to return the favor.

9 thoughts on “Oh, Ryan

  1. Davis’s focus is on how agent-relatively valuable (meaningful, important) the things given up or gotten are. Your point, I think, speaks to the value of the valuing and willing (as in “the good will”). Della and Jim value each other’s well-being very highly, enough to give up something that is quite precious to themselves. Jim caring in this way is valuable to Jim (in the fiction) and this sort of love or care for others (in the real world) is valuable for each of us — something that each of us generally have sufficient reason to care about, promote, preserve, respect, etc. Leaving this out of either the former (personal, agent-relative) or latter (impersonal, agent-neutral) picture makes little sense.

    Whether or not he does precisely that, it is certainly fair to ask whether Davis gives too much weight to Della and Jim getting the concrete things that they cherish. From each of their perspectives: perhaps each values the other more than the items (hair, watch) that they give up (though of course each would prefer a happier result with regard to their particular, concrete cherished items; and perhaps, for this reason, in retrospect, would wish that each had taken different concrete actions to care for the other). From my memory of the O. Henry story this seems like the right interpretation. And maybe many real-life cases are like this! From the general (impersonal, agent-neutral) perspective: perhaps, in many cases, we should care more about people caring about each other in this way than we should about affairs with their particular, concrete cherished items not getting bollixed up? Indeed, more generally, it seems that we do and should value good character, and actions exhibiting good character, more than we value action that in fact produces certain good results. It seems fair to criticize Davis for not really taking this point to heart (thereby exhibiting a kind of moral insensitivity or blindness).

    The interesting, though perhaps somewhat broader, question for me is this: when, and in what sense, is it all-in best to de-emphasize moral virtue (in oneself, in others) in favor of (oneself, others) acting in ways that tend to produce outcomes of great value (to oneself, to all)? Another way of getting at this (in the general or impersonal case): large-scale social institutions work via incentive structures and, for the most part, the incentives are rather self-centered or at least parochial, not moral. If we want these systems to work and work well, we need to allow (and in a certain practical-minded sense approve of) people seeking particular self-centered or parochial ends (in this way de-emphasizing or de-prioritizing people being as morally virtuous as they could be). Of course, this question raises many more questions! But, without going into those further questions, my question here suggests that many familiar lines of libertarian and conservative thought that emphasize “good results” over “good intentions” (e.g., much of Thomas Sowell’s work as a public intellectual and quasi-moralized economist-type thinking) lack the depth required to squarely face the call to be more than minimally moral. Is there no such call? If there is (and surely there is), then when and why should this give way to getting generally good results either personally or with regard to social institutions or systems (e.g., the good results of innovative and efficient markets, the good results of a not-particularly-kind immigration-control or anti-poverty program — or even the good results of a well-run DMV)? The ideas that Davis articulates here do not help us. For, in emphasizing how bad results can come from good intentions/efforts, he fails to take the goodness of the good intentions/efforts very seriously. This invites a kind of moral cynicism — instead of pointing us toward more interesting and subtle ways of navigating the tension between good intentions/efforts and good results.


    • I think that over-complicates a relatively simple issue. “The Gift of the Magi” is a short story about six pages long. Despite the narrator’s somewhat moralistic presence in the story, it’s a story, not a philosophical paper or blog post. So it’s not literally making an argument that anyone has to “buy,” or “rebut,” or whatever. It depicts a mix-up in which two people who care deeply for each other try to get the other person a nice Christmas gift, miscommunicate about it, but end up communicating their love for one another instead.

      To describe the outcome of the story as a “medium sized tragedy” is–no other way to put it–really fucking stupid. There is no “tragedy” there at all. Della gets the combs she wanted. She can’t use them now, but she can use them later, once her hair grows in. Sorry to belabor the obvious, but waiting for your beautiful hair to grow in is not a “tragedy.” Jim loses his watch, to be sure–a precious heirloom. But he gets the chain, which replaces the heirloom. So arguably, he breaks even there both on economic and emotional grounds. Granted, now, he needs a watch. But he’s 22. There’s time to get one. Not exactly the stuff of “tragedy.” WTF.

      To get a “tragedy” out of this story (or “pathological altruism”), you willfully have to work to miss the whole point of the story: you have to grant zero value to the thing to which both characters give the highest value, namely, how they feel about each other. It takes a tin ear for fiction and for life to miss this, but Davis does. Near the end of the story, the couple embraces. Davis just glides over this, as though it had never happened. Why don’t they have a fight instead? Why doesn’t Jim say, “What fuck, Della? You’ve harmed me, you bitch!” Whereupon Della loses her shit, and says, “You know, I got you this fucking watch-chain, and there you go, selling the watch. How did I marry such a dumb ass?” That’s what you’d expect if either party had actually been “harmed.” But guess what? It doesn’t happen. Nothing close to it happens.

      For a guy who’s trying so hard to set up an “argument” against a short story, he puts zero effort into dealing with the most obvious and most charitable reading of the story itself. I mean, if this is the mess he makes of O. Henry, I can only imagine what he’d do with Anna Karenina or Middlemarch.

      It makes things worse that he’s not really interested in any of the meta-ethics you’re bringing up. He’s got a limited epistemic-discursive point to make: we oughta communicate better! Conveniently enough, he does an end-run around the fact that they you can’t really “communicate” about Christmas presents, because they’re supposed to be a surprise. Maybe he thinks that they shouldn’t be a surprise, not that he says that. In that case, maybe we should–as many people do–write up shopping lists of the Christmas gifts we want, and send them around to our loved ones, saying “Hey–get me the shit on my list, and nothing else. Oh, and Merry Xmas, BTW.” But there are problems with that way of doing things, too.

      The basic problem with this whole post is that it’s trying really hard to turn the story into something it obviously is not: a case study in pathological altruism. In doing so, it spoils the story, misinterprets the story, and makes no point that wasn’t obvious to anyone who hadn’t read the post.

      My own view on your question is that moral virtue should never take a backseat to any other deliberative consideration. It should be conceived so that it’s sensitive to bringing about the best outcomes (given certain moral constraints) but it should either never or almost never be sacrificed to the pursuit of best outcomes. I’m hedging to cover marginal cases of desperate duress, but the topic is too big for a comment on a blog post about a blog post on a story by O. Henry.

      Liked by 1 person

      • She lost her hair but kept her comb; she just can’t part with it. (Sorry not sorry.)

        “if this is the mess he makes of O. Henry, I can only imagine what he’d do with Anna Karenina or Middlemarch.”

        You should read Peikoff’s book on drama if you want to pull your hair out. Especially his insane chapter on Shakespeare.


        • No, you’re dead wrong. I read Peikoff’s book on Amazon’s “Look Inside” feature, and thought it was excellent. Fight me.

          Question: is it actually “by” Peikoff? I couldn’t quite figure out the identity of the author on such a quick, cursory reading.


          • Using the “Look Inside” feature instead of actually purchasing the book is an act of moral parasitism on your part. No wonder you are unconsciously averse to the prospect of its being “by Peikoff,” since this reminds you of your unconscionable failure to “buy Peikoff.” (Unless it instead has something to do with “bi Peikoff,” which would be a whole different conversation.)


  2. We agree about the moral tin ear in missing what Della and Jim value most (and the value in this). Regardless of what one thinks about Jim’s attachment to the heirloom watch and Della’s attachment to her long hair (and the value in this), this is enough to render the situation, as whole, a non-tragedy. Obviously. So: not an example of pathological altruism and the argument/interpretation falls flat on its face.

    However: I think ideas that (roughly, in some way) prioritize (morally) good results over (morally) good intentions/efforts are part of what motivates Ryan (and more-competent and more-illustrious others of his ideological stripe). And because, unlike you, I don’t think there is a clear-cut solution to the question here (properly framed), I take Ryan to be missing an opportunity to engage in fruitful, reasonable discussion on a live philosophical issue — and perhaps help us come to some reasonable ideological or political consensus, or at least accommodation, on this issue. I’m sympathetic to Team Less Moralistic (Team Morality Less Important?), but I want to see a clear definition of terms and good arguments on this side (and the other) — not attention-grabbing but morally tin-eared pot-shots at obviously moral motivation and behavior. So I’m as much or more concerned with the missed opportunity here as with what Ryan flat-out misses or gets wrong.

    There is, for sure, better source material for addressing this issue (or set of issues) seriously!


    • I get that there are legitimate questions to be discussed about the value of virtue with respect to the pursuit of valuable states of affairs. What I would dispute is that Davis himself was discussing that topic. It’s not just that “The Gift of the Magi” is the wrong source material for discussing that topic. It’s that it’s not the actual topic under discussion in Davis’s post. He claims to be discussing the miscommunications that arise in “gift of the magi” situations, not the meta-ethics behind the situations themselves.


    • I actually have the draft of a paper in my files that directly answers the question you’re asking. What I do in it is to draw an analogy between virtue and flourishing (on the one hand), and epistemic justification and knowledge (on the other). I argue that virtue is neither necessary nor sufficient for flourishing, and that epistemic justification is neither necessary nor sufficient for knowledge. Yet both bear a distinctive teleological relationship to their end: both are unnecessary/insufficient essential constituents of their respective ends. And both have the same or analogous teleological function: they remedy the fact of being unnecessary and insufficient for their ends.

      In other words, both are unnecessary and insufficient for their respective ends, but this very fact (non-necessary insufficiency) leads to problems for the agent that require resolution, which virtue/epistemic justification are uniquely positioned to resolve.

      Virtue’s non-necessity means that there are some states of affairs that are valuable but not best pursued (or pursuable at all) by virtue. Virtue’s insufficiency is the flip side of the same fact. A fully virtuous agent can, despite (or because of) the practice of virtue, be led to unavoidable physical disaster.

      Justification’s non-necessity means that there are forms of knowledge that can be gotten without justification. Its insufficiency means that a fully justified agent can lack knowledge.

      Neither virtue nor justification can fully bridge the gap by “becoming” necessary or sufficient for flourishing or knowledge. But the agent’s revisable exercise of both can bring the agent as close to that as a human agent can become.

      Anyway, it’s a complicated thought and an incomplete paper that would need huge revisions to be discussion-worthy. I don’t know if I’ll ever have the time to revise it to that end, but that’s the idea behind it. I’ve actually made a list of candidate literary works to discuss in it, and it now occurs to me to put “The Gift of the Magi” on the list.

      Liked by 1 person

      • To clarify one thought: so my point is that while neither virtue nor epistemic justification are necessary/sufficient for flourishing or knowledge, they come by sustained, counterfactually stable engagement to approximate being necessary/sufficient for flourishing and knowledge. But it’s essential to my thesis that there is always a gap, and always room for judgment about how far the approximation is to be taken.

        So my view offers an explanation for tragedy in the classical sense: tragedy arises from gross failures of judgment–failures of virtue and epistemic justification–about how far the approximation is to be taken. One kind of tragedy arises from pretending that one’s virtue is necessary and sufficient for flourishing, and/or for treating epistemic justification as necessary and sufficient for knowledge (i.e., hubris, or false pride). Another kind arises from the despair that induces the agent to give up on either virtue or knowledge (i.e., despair, or premature resignation). Both things are probably best illustrated through works of literature.

        Liked by 1 person

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