Why one good turn demands another
We have a moral duty to repay what we owe. I don’t just mean literally repaying money owed to our creditors but repaying favors and gifts. On an intuitive level we all know this, but it’s not normally explicitly talked about on a moral level. It’s time to change that and spell out an ethics of reciprocity.
Prison sentences: a case study
When we bring morality into a debate, it’s usually to argue about the harm or benefit done to people and our duty to follow certain principles. Take, for example, arguments about prison sentences. We argue over the ability of prisons to rehabilitate, thereby making the prisoners happier in the long run as well as making the rest of society happier by changing a destructive person into a productive one. We talk about how we have a duty to keep society safe from dangerous people by locking them away, or how it’s unjust for us to lock someone away for a long time in bad conditions.
That ignores part of our intuitive understanding of justice. When someone hurts society, they owe a debt to us. They repay this debt through their time imprisoned. Once they’ve served their sentence, we even explicitly say that they’ve “paid their debt to society”, or “paid their dues”. This is called retributive justice. We instinctively know it, but we tend not to bring it into our arguments.
That’s one reason why it’s so difficult to motivate public opinion about prison reform. Reformers talk about how prisons don’t work to reform the prisoners. They’re right, but people don’t much care, because that’s only one role of prisons. Reformers also sometimes point to criminology research and say that we don’t need to keep so many people imprisoned, that it’s reached a point where it isn’t making us safer. They may also be right about that, but again, it doesn’t motivate public opinion because that’s only part of what prisons do. Prisons are still serving their purpose as a place where people are punished to repay their debt to society. Because we don’t normally talk about these kinds of moral debts, it’s hard to have constructive arguments about issues, like prison reform, where these debts matter.
Reciprocity is a fundamental moral sensation
Morality feels simpler than it really is. It seems to us like some things are obviously good and noble and right, and others are clearly wrong and outrageous. Moral philosophers have worked for centuries (if not millennia) to create logical systems that can justify these feelings and resolve disagreements, with mixed success.
The systems are all derived from our basic feelings of right and wrong. We have a fundamental sense that we ought to treat people well, not harm them, and follow certain rules. We argue about how to weigh those different feelings — should we be honest even when it hurts people? — but the inputs to our arguments are those moral feelings.
The sense of reciprocity is another of those basic moral feelings. Think of someone who just takes and takes but never does anything for anyone in return. Their ingratitude doesn’t feel like a minor character flaw, like if they were forgetful or chronically late, but a more serious moral defect.
We see things the same way when we hear about someone being fired or dumped by their lover. We don’t just think about how bad they’ll feel. We mostly think about whether they deserved to be treated that way. If someone was a good employee, we’ll be outraged that their employer wasn’t good to them in return. If they had always been cheating on their partner, then we’ll shrug at the news they’ve been dumped, even if it left them devastated. We care about more than the emotional impact; we keep a mental tally sheet of what people deserve.
People throughout history have seen filial piety the same way: if you don’t pay back your parents for the work they did raising you, then you’re doing something morally wrong. They held the same attitude towards repaying your ancestors, or the spirits of the animals you hunted, or other gods or spirits. Think also of the concept of “blood money” — paying money to the victims of a crime you’ve committed as a way of literally settling the debt. No amount of money can restore the life of someone you’ve killed, but that’s not the point. It’s to settle a moral debt, not to undo damage.
An ethical code of reciprocity can help us rationalize our views of justice. We want to draw a line between justice and vengeance, for example. Justice demands punishment proportionate to the social damage done by someone’s actions. Vengeance (and revenge) mean delivering punishment greater than is demanded by justice. They’re when you overstep the bounds of justice out of a personal emotional desire.
The way we normally think of morality has led to this retributive desire being stigmatized. Some believe that all suffering is bad, so anything that increases suffering must be bad, therefore any punishment that doesn’t deter or rehabilitate offenders is unjust. That view of justice is too narrow to fit our moral intuitions. Even many of its adherents can’t bring themselves to be consistent. For example, I’ve seen believers in this view of justice make an exception for people convicted of rape or hate crimes. At that point, they’re no longer concerned about reform and deterrence, but about making the punishment fit the crime. They’ve tried to dull their sense of reciprocal justice but it comes roaring back in the cases they find particularly shocking.
This also why improving the condition of prisons is so controversial. To those with no sense of reciprocity, improving prison conditions is simply a way to raise the standards of living of some people. What can be wrong with that?
The problem is that prison is a way of paying back the harm inflicted on society. A tough, spartan life is the prisoner’s way of paying his dues. A life where the greatest problem is a limited Playstation game catalog — as the mass murderer Anders Behring Breivik complained of — is not a suitable way of paying back a debt to society.
Loyalty has a mixed reputation. It might make you think of faceless, mindless hordes doing what they’re told. You might instead think of a band of brothers sticking together when their lives are on the line. You might even think of the romanticized loyalty codes of the past, like the codes of chivalry or bushido.
The ultimate meaning of loyalty is being reliably good to the people who’ve been good to you. It’s simply another example of reciprocity. The loyalty owed to others, then, is proportionate to the good they’ve done for you. People who don’t want to be loyal to a group (or to a partner, or friend, etc.) will try to describe all the ways the group has been bad to them, as justification for why that group isn’t owed (much) loyalty. The group members will take the opposite position and lay out benefits that person has received and why they do owe the group continued loyalty.
When someone talks about how their country has mistreated them, or their parents neglected them, they may be implicitly making this kind of argument for why they don’t have any duty of loyalty. When someone complains about their partner’s behavior, even after all they’ve sacrificed for their partner, they’re implicitly making the argument that their partner isn’t paying the ‘loyalty debt’ that they owe.
That doesn’t mean those arguments are automatically suspect: some people really have been mistreated and shouldn’t be expected to show a typical level of loyalty. Think of Muhammad Ali: one reason he refused to fight in the Vietnam War was the racism he experienced in the US. You could argue that he was right, that the suffering other Americans inflicted on him reduced his duty to them. You could argue the other way, too, of course; the hardships Ali experienced weren’t so bad that he could abandon his duty, or that his duty was to America writ-large and the bad behavior of racist Americans was irrelevant. The point is that there’s a real, intellectual argument to be had about the merits to this justification for draft dodging (setting aside his other, legally defensible religious objections).
Tradition is how we practice reciprocity towards our ancestors, and how our descendants will practice reciprocity towards us. Many things we do will benefit the people of the future, e.g. protecting the environment, or investing. One way future generations can pay us back is by respecting our values.
We would be demanding too much loyalty if we expected future generations to behave just as we do, but considering how much their lives will have been improved over hunting-gathering, it’s fair to expect them to observe (or at least pay lip service to) some of our most basic values, such as a high respect for freedom or a taboo against infanticide.
Is there a need to have a separate way of talking about a duty of reciprocity? Can it be covered by other ways of describing right and wrong? No. I’ll go over specific moral beliefs and why they can’t do the job.
You can’t make an omelet without breaking some eggs. When you cut down the forest, splinters will fly. The ends justify the means. These phrases all point to the same idea: that the end results of an action are what matters, and they can justify any collateral damage.
This is the moral philosophy called consequentialism. The consequences of an action are what matters; the motives are irrelevant, as are any ethical principles. All that matters is the end result. The most important consequentialist philosophy is called utilitarianism. Utilitarians believe that the specific consequence that matters is the net happiness created. If an action creates more happiness than unhappiness, it’s a good action.
Imagine a relationship between Tom and Jane. Jane dumps Tom, and he’s heartbroken. A utilitarian would look at that and say Jane did something wrong if she made Tom unhappier than she made herself happy. That’s not how we feel about break-ups, though. If Tom had spent years caring for Jane and being a good boyfriend, then we’d say Jane did something wrong- she owed Tom, in a sense. On the other hand, if Tom had been negligent or even had affairs, then we would applaud Jane’s decision. She deserved better- which is to say, Tom owed her more.
Utilitarianism wouldn’t be able to describe the relationship in a way that reflects our values. Reciprocity offers a distinct, useful perspective.
Golden Rule deontology
“Deontology” is just a philosopher’s way of saying ‘code of ethics’. The “Golden Rule” is possibly the most famous code of ethics, and it’s a single rule: do to others what you’d have them do to you. There are variations of it across cultures, such as the Jewish teacher Hillel saying that you shouldn’t do to your neighbors the things that are hateful to you. The Golden Rule is very flexible, so it can cover the same situations as our ethics of reciprocity, but perhaps not as well.
Imagine a young man named Steve. He had a falling out with his parents a few years ago over politics, and now they never talk to each other. He gets a call from his sister saying that their father has died and Steve should go home to comfort his mother and help her prepare the funeral. Steve thinks of the Golden Rule: if his girlfriend had died, would he have wanted his parents coming to comfort him and help him prepare for the funeral? No, he hates them and doesn’t want anything to do with them. Therefore, he shouldn’t help his mom.
Our ethics of reciprocity would give the opposite result. Steve owes a debt to his parents, even if he doesn’t like him, and the least he can do to repay that debt is help his mother in her grief. That answer jibes much better with our natural sense of right and wrong.
The brilliant German philosopher Immanuel Kant invented his own code of ethics. He called it the “Categorical Imperative,” and it consists of three (or more) formulations.
One part of the Categorical Imperative is that you should never treat people as a means to an end, but instead as an end unto themselves. Don’t use people, basically. That’s certainly good advice, and it does cover some situations we’re interested in: if you just take from other people without acknowledging your duty of reciprocity, then you’re treating them more as a means to an end (getting stuff) than as individuals just as worthy as you are.
It doesn’t cover all the situations, though. What about our debts to abstract entities like our community or nation? They aren’t people, so it’s not clear under the Categorical Imperative that we have a duty to honor our debts; the reciprocal approach is clear. It’s also fuzzy on the nature of how we could avoid using generous people as a means to an end. If someone is always there for us and helps us out, we certainly ought to do something instead of taking them for granted, but Kant isn’t clear on what we should do, just what we shouldn’t do. Reciprocity does — to an extent — tell us how to act.
Another part of the Categorical Imperative is that you should behave in a way such that everyone else in the world could act the same way and it would be fine. You can’t steal, because otherwise everyone else would steal, and the whole idea of private property would collapse and stealing wouldn’t even make sense any more. It’s a contradiction.
This formulation does allow for a duty to abstract entities. If no one helped their community, then communities would no longer exist as such, and no one would be able to survive long enough to make that choice. No man is an island, after all. It has the same fuzziness issue as before, though, as it still only tells us what we shouldn’t do, not what we should do. To continue our example, how much do we owe our community? Just enough to allow the species to survive? Kant would call this an imperfect duty, which means we don’t owe it our entire time and energy, but he doesn’t give us much more help than that.
The idea of virtue ethics dates back at least to Aristotle, and it’s regained popularity recently. Virtue ethicists believe that we should focus less on actions in the abstract, and more on what kind of person we want to be. There is some overlap with ethics of reciprocity: a virtue ethicist could say that gratitude is a virtue that should be cultivated, therefore it’s important to pay back your debts.
Virtue ethics is a very personal view of morality. That makes it great for finding our direction in life. That makes it less great for answering questions about social issues like justice or civic disobedience. Reciprocity can tell us more about these things.
Moral nihilism is the view that there is no such thing as right or wrong. Nihilism can’t be used to judge right in wrong in the kinds of reciprocal situations we’re looking at, because it can’t be used to judge right or wrong in any situation. It denies the validity of any such judgment. There’s no question that it’s distinct from the ethics of reciprocity.
Moral hedonism is the philosophy that doing good means having fun. An action is good if it pleases you, and bad if it makes you feel bad. Hedonism is opposed to principles of duty, obligation, and responsibility, which is a core part of reciprocity. It’s also opposed to doing things for other people at your own expense, which is another core part.
Ayn Rand is a controversial figure. A refugee from communist Russia, she developed a philosophy of Objectivism which is almost the opposite of communist ideals. Her attitude and approach towards other philosophy lead many to view her as not really a philosopher. Still, her ideas are interesting and have been very influential, especially in the US, so it’s worth addressing them.
In Objectivist philosophy, something is right so long as it serves your self-interest. Objectivism’s distinct from hedonism, as Rand defines self-interest as something other than just satisfying your desires. It’s not completely clear what self-interest means to Rand, though.
Objectivism, like hedonism, is directly opposed to reciprocity. If you’re given a gift, a sense of reciprocity demands that you return the favor. Objectivists deny that you have any such duty. Your only duty is to serve your own self-interest, and if you spend your time repaying unspoken debts then you’re misguided or even immoral.
Not all moral intuitions are equal
Why should we treat all moral intuitions as equally legitimate? Why should we think of this kind of moral debt as being on the same footing as the Golden Rule, for example? If we do treat them equally, wouldn’t we have to start recognizing all moral feelings as legitimate, and treat ‘blasphemy’ as immoral, and condemn eating ‘unclean’ foods, and all the other moral beliefs humans have had?
If we could find other broadly shared moral sentiments like reciprocity, then I would bite the bullet and say we should account for those sentiments as well. There just aren’t, in fact, very many of those, so accounting for them isn’t difficult. Maybe you could look around human societies and say “all human societies treat their dead with respect, even if ‘respect’ means different things to different groups. Must we therefore consider treatment of our dead to be a moral issue?”
I would respond yes, it’s fine to start thinking of respecting the dead as a moral issue, arguing about it the same way we argue about offensive speech or adultery or corruption or any other moral concern. It’s just that “respect” is so subjective, and so bound up in specific traditional practices, it will be hard to reach any consensus about how to respect our dead. Whether it’s a moral issue isn’t the problem; whether it can be handled philosophically is the problem. That’s true for other moral sentiments, but not for reciprocity.
Creating moral blackmail
If reciprocity means you owe a debt to anyone who gives you something, then people who keep giving you things — even against your objections — will hold power over you. By creating a debt, they will gain influence you, in a kind of ‘moral blackmail’ (or, perhaps, just an extreme version of guilt-tripping). To an extent, we already recognize this power of gifting: giving gifts to politicians is heavily regulated, and many times people don’t accept gifts from enemies.
Our duties to over-givers like these are naturally lessened. As an analogy, think of someone who complains all the time. Normally we have an ethical duty to avoid making people feel bad, but if someone always finds a reason to feel bad about everything we do, there’s a point where we can stop taking their objections seriously. Our duty to be nice to them is reduced. Likewise, if someone bombards us with gifts, then we don’t have to treat that debt seriously.
Wouldn’t recognizing the moral force of reciprocity therefore lead to a society where we’re trying to help each other all the time to hold power over each other? That’s certainly not the worst dystopia imaginable, and even resembles some real-world cultures. Still, if we were to explicitly recognize the moral weight of reciprocity, then we’d be more likely to turn gifts down. Rejecting gifts would be less insulting when it has a known, rational explanation.
Not everyone senses this reciprocal debt
If reciprocity is a universal moral truth like duty and compassion, then why do some people not feel it very strongly, if at all? And why is it lessened in some cases, e.g. we don’t feel any duty when a company gives us free samples?
Not everyone feels the pull of duty, compassion, empathy, or other moral goods, either. Some people are amoral or selectively moral. The near-universality of slavery throughout history doesn’t prove that compassion and egalitarianism aren’t moral values, it just shows that people can find a way to work around their morality and ignore uncomfortable realities.
In brutal societies, treating executions as entertainment is normal, so one’s compassion is attenuated. In corrupt societies, fair play is for fools, so one’s sense of justice is attenuated.