Oh, fantastic, a goat. But wait. This is just a piece of paper. The goat is in Africa, you say? Are you getting it delivered? It’s not for me? Where is my present, then?
It hasn’t happened to me yet, but one day someone is going to give me a gift certificate as a present. A goat in Malawi, a donkey in Angola, that kind of thing. Manners dictate that I thank her (let’s assume it’s a woman) for it, but it shall be through gritted teeth. I understand the intention: I have effectively given my present to someone more deserving. But I haven’t, because I had no agency in the transaction. The giver has given my present to someone more deserving. She has effectively given my present – a sense of well-being – to herself. A gift certificate is not, in fact, a gift at all, but an ostentatious act of piety.
Presents and charity seem similar because they both involve giving, but people who suggest they are the same are using the fallacy of equivocation – jumping between concepts that share the same word. The skill of giving a good present is knowing what the person wants, not prescribing it for them. Gift certificates make good presents only for the sort of person who, when asked what they want for Christmas, replies “world peace”.