Volume 7, 2000
The Ethics of Esteem
California State University, Long Beach
This article discusses a number of South Asian discourses on the gift that were composed in the medieval period, mostly in the eleventh-thirteenth centuries C.E. I consider several Theravada anthologies on lay conduct that discuss dana, together with several Hindu Dharmasastra digests on the gift (dananibandhas) and Jain texts on lay morality (sravakacaras), and trace out quite remarkable similarities in their terminology, interests, and formal concerns regarding the gift. I am interested in how these discourses scrutinize the face-to-face hospitality encounter, and how this scrutiny is a kind of critical and second order reflection on ethical questions. I argue that these gift discourses articulate a moral point of view, which I call an “ethics of esteem,” in which the chief moral disposition that a giver should possess is a feeling of unquestioning esteem towards the recipient. Gifts are conceived to flow upwards to worthy recipients (usually monks, nuns and Brahmans) out of esteem and devotion. Conversely, gifts made out of compassion or pity to the needy are not so highly valued.