Reciprocity & Responsibilty Trump Equality & Generosity.

I dislike how the ideas or equality and rights are currently evolving. They are analogous to a drug where the dosage determines whether they are a lifesaving life-saving medicines or deadly poisons. The kinds of rights I dislike tend to be entwined with egalitarian ideas, which is why I paired them in this essay. A good society values rights and equality, but depends on reciprocity for its real strength.

Let me make a short detour over the familiar, but often overlooked, ground of positive and negative rights. Negative rights are those that you can have w/o forcing others to do anything but leave you alone. They are usually associated with natural rights. Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness are among them. So are things like freedom of speech, religion, association. In fact, almost all the rights we can all agree that people should have fall into this category. I don't have to like you or what you ae doing to recognize that you have the right to do it, absent obvious harm to others. And this harm to others needs to be very clear. Your speech cannot harm me unless it actually incites immediate violence. Being insulted or outraged is not harm.

Consider the right of free of speech. I have the freedom to speak, but you have no corresponding duty to listen to me or facilitate my communication. Here you can see how positive rights develop. I might complain that my right of free speech is useless unless others hear me and demand that you pay attention as part of my "right." We can imagine ever more absurd demands and this is how positive rights develop. Over time, they tend to ratchet up.

The problem with positive rights is that they impose duties on others w/o a corresponding cost for the demander. I can be very unreasonable when I have an enforceable right and can easily fall into moral condemnation of anyone who questions my ever expanding concept of what I deserve and what others owe me. It makes everybody unhappy, including the demander, who condemns himself to a perpetual state of agitated grievance. Everything comes to be defined in broadly political terms and the real freedom of being able to tell someone that something is none of their business is lost.

The usual stalking horse of the expansion of political rights into private spheres and the creation of affirmative duties is usually the cry for equality. No two people are equal in their talents or desires and even if they were random events would change outcomes. The pursuit of "true" equality is a chimera. Reasonable people have long recognized this and adapted in their lives. People are not equal and do not want the same things. This is the basis of trade and community and it is where reciprocity enters.

Reciprocity simply means that you give something with reasonable expectation of getting something or that you get with reasonable expectation of having to give. It could be in a market transaction where you give value for something you consider a fair value in exchange. But it need not be material and it need not be symmetrical. Parents usually expect - and often desire - to give more to their children than they expect to get in return. People often give time and resources to others with the reciprocal expectation that those people will be helpful to someone else in future.

Most people give to charity with no expectation of getting anything back materially, but that does not mean that they do not expect reciprocity. A gift to charity comes with the expectation that something you consider good will happen, whether or not it benefits you directly. The recipient has the reciprocal duty to do something good with the gift. If he just steals the money, you feel cheated. Why? If you give $100 to charity with no expectation of getting it back, you have $100 less whether or not the charity used the money as intended. Of course you are angry because the guy who stole the money violated the idea of reciprocity.

Good people feel an obligation when they receive something of value and they want to pay it back or pay it forward. It is a sad person who lacks the capacity to feel grateful for favors and it is cruel to give somebody something w/o expectations of reciprocity.

In the novel "Les Miserables," the protagonist, Jean Valjean, steals silver candlesticks from a bishop who has been generous to him. When he is later caught by the authorities and brought before the bishop, the bishop tells the police that the candlesticks were a gift, saving the thief from prison. But this gift does not come w/o conditions. The bishop explains to the erstwhile miscreant that now he must be a good man. The bishop has bought his soul and given it back to him on the condition of reform. He is offering redemption and asking for it on the terms of reciprocity. Mere generosity would have been the worst strategy for all involved, most cruelly the thief himself. This is part of the reciprocity paradigm. We all live in a network of mutual responsibility. This is what gives our lives meaning. Nobody is above it and nobody below. The participants are not equal in their situation but they are equal in their humanity as evidenced by the mutual responsibly.

Consider how this would be in a rights and equality perspective. The bishop could have demanded his right to have the candlesticks back and punish Jean Valjean. The bishop "wins", at least relative to Jean. But what does he win? Humanity in general is worse off. Jean could have asserting his "equality," called the bishop a chump for giving him the candlestick and returned to his evil ways. He may even have robbed the bishop a second time, seeing it as an easy target and justifying his behavior in terms of his rights that had been previously denied him. In this scenario, Jean, at least relative to the bishop loses, but in a bigger sense they both lose and humanity is worse off in a small way. Clearly reciprocity produces the best outcome and the only one in which everyone is really better off.

So let's recognize the reciprocal network. It applies most immediately to people with whom we have actual contact, but it reaches to relationships with institutions and even to the natural community.

I know that I am personifying impersonal nature. I do not mean to imply and actual intelligence, but rather a type of ecological reciprocity. In fact, thinking about the environmental nature of reciprocity is how I got to the human one. It works in similar fashion with or w/o a human agent, which is why I think the principle of reciprocity is robust even in situations where personal relationships are obscure or impossible. The human relationships are more satisfying and easier to understand, but the system still works even w/o them.

The general idea is that you give value with the expectation of getting something. This need not be selfish, and often is not. One of the principles is that you do not expect something for nothing and it is often better for you to be the first to offer value rather than wait to get something. This does not imply that you just give things away or do things with no expected return. On the contrary, self-interest (not selfishness) will motivate you to look for areas of greatest leverage, payoffs or need. The key concept should be sustainability. Again, this applies to human and natural ecosystems. In both systems, the gold standard is to find and use an "upcycle" where inputs create greater and sustainable value. In our human societies we often call this profit. But it applies in natural ones too. A wolf pack does not chase a moose farther than the anticipated "profit" in calories or generally kill more than it can eat, since it is not profitable.

We need to get back on the reciprocity track. We should not grant rights w/o corresponding responsibility, nor create responsibilities for things beyond the reasonable control of the individual tasked with the responsibility. Both can be justified in rhetoric by referring to nasty current or historical conditions but both lead to abuses and are ultimately unsustainable in the harm they cause society and even, maybe especially, in the harm they cause in the recipients of the special favors.

Posted by Christine & John at September 28, 2015 6:52 PM
Comment #399007

C&J, as I can tell your post follows the Judeo-Christian tradition of charity, give without expecting anything in return, and hope for responsibility from the recipient.

This approach works well under certain conditions. Religious organizations are at the forefront of well run charity, expecting only responsibility in return. Some NGO’s and some private charity organizations successfully operate this way.

Few question or doubt the charity extended by through a religious entity. Did they give on unbiased terms, give to the non-deserving as opposed to the deserving and so on - -

Where many of us voters/taxpayers/citizens have a problem is with gov’t policy/regulation as it relates to inequality and charitable giving.

Couple of examples: the way gov’t expends tax revenues, dispenses foreign aid, provides low income housing and so on, often creates dissention within the taxpayer ranks.

Gov’t expended some $175k in funding a study to determine if a pregnant woman had more emotion for her pet or her baby, or something like that.

Gov’t management of certain aspects of healthcare draws the ire of many taxpayers. Many are not on board with providing healthcare to illegal immigrants. Many are upset with the medicare system wherein insurance companies can’t negotiate across state lines re drug pricing. Without competition big pharmas can set the price for a drug based on a whim rather than any free market principles. A US taxpayer may pay $10k for a pill that can be purchased in Europe for 10 cents yet, we are in competition with them for wages, commodities and so on - - -

My think is that you are alright with the current level of inequality as it relates to the economy. Let’s say a CEO makes 1000 times what the average worker makes in one hour. If that’s ok, would it be ok say, five years from now when the CEO is making 5000 times the average worker wage, and so on - - -

Corporate crime versus civil/domestic crime: Volkswagen will probably suffer a big fine for using certain software apps to defeat auto pollution certification testing on some of their new vehicles. No managers will do any jail time. Meanwhile, a young buck caught with a fist full of mary jane might do 5 years in some states. In some ways this can be seen as charity gone wrong, IMO.

Having watched the corpocracy in action for some 60 years I’ve lost much faith in the system to act in a charitable way as it relates to charity as the way you and the Pope ascribe.

So, this new fellow from Calif that is looking to replace John B as speaker is saying he will build a wall to control the southern border, as is just about every GOP’er standing as a candidate for president. When pigs fly, and so on - - -

Otherwise - - -

Posted by: roy ellis at September 28, 2015 10:31 PM
Comment #399008


Exactly the opposite. I think we should NOT give w/o expectation.

Re equality it is not really a big deal for me. I prefer that there not be great inequality, since it causes social problems, but I don’t think it unjust.

Posted by: C&J at September 28, 2015 10:41 PM
Comment #399019

I am charitable to others. My moral code leads me to believe that; but for the grace of God, I may need charity myself.

Posted by: Royal Flush at September 29, 2015 11:46 AM
Comment #399020

Income inequality when it is as wide as it is today points to a flawed system. Hell I know you don’t believe me C&J so lets let Carl explain it to you.

The usual stalking horse of the expansion of political rights into private spheres and the creation of affirmative duties is usually the cry for equality. No two people are equal in their talents or desires and even if they were random events would change outcomes. The pursuit of “true” equality is a chimera.

Equal rights under the law creates positive rights and you are against positive rights, do I have that clear? You seem to be saying only those wealthy and educated enough to but a representative in Congress can have rights and these elites shouldn’t be bothered worrying about their responsibilities, of course you say it so sweetly it sounds a bit nicer but do you really believe this?

Posted by: j2t2 at September 29, 2015 11:53 AM
Comment #399022

Oh C&J I know what you are thinking but read it anyway, it seems to be a good example of “reciprocity and responsibility”.

Posted by: j2t2 at September 29, 2015 12:06 PM
Comment #399025

I reread and believe you are painting with too broad a brush. Words like ‘responsibility’ and ‘reciprocity’ have a wide range of meaning. A couple of examples: when the taxpayer funds low income housing are they expecting to get something back in return, other than hoping for responsibility on the side of the recipient homeowners? Reciprocity is better understood using an example where a corporation ‘donates’ to say, the Clinton Foundation who in turn purportedly passes some of the loot along to some needy person on ecological need, while expecting some reciprocity from the foundation. More nuanced; a foreign coal producer might want to donate to the Clinton Foundation and expect some reciprocity whereby Bill or Hil would intervene on behalf of the company on say, an environmental issue or tariff regulation, etc.

In some cases, like charitable funding for abortion, it’s hard for me to see where one can expect much reciprocity from the woman receiving the abortion. One would hope there is some responsibility on the side of the woman as in, maybe she won’t need a second abortion, but I’m not sure we could demand reciprocity from her.

On inequality: having Carl Icahn lamenting the inequality gap indicates that even some of the heavy hitters recognize this as a problem.

I recall when I got my first real job. I was making $25G and purchased a brick home near a progressive city for $25G. I believe there are a number of college grads out there starting out at around $25G and looking at new home prices tween $200 and $400G. My first mortgage must have been around $350 at 6-7% interest. Today, a mortgage might range from $1800-2500/mo with a 3.7-4% interest loan.

I paid case for my first real car – a 1965 Plymouth Valiant for $1850. Today, a young person would be looking at $20k for a knocked down new car.

On my $25k salary I couldn’t swing college cost of around $3G/yr. So, how are young people today expected to swing $20-30G/yr for a watered down degree?

Ad nauseam: in 75 I bought a piece of land for my second home. Paid $27G for 25 acres. Middle income wages have fallen, and/or lost value thru inflation by about 20% since then and now a young person would be looking at something like $350G for that same parcel.

So, Icahn and others are starting to join me in saying it’s unsustainable. We must ask why, and that brings us to gov’t charity using taxpayer money to fund housing with no money down, to fund college tuition grants while asking for no ‘reciprocity’ by college admins, funding NIH to develop drugs and then licensing the drug to a company who prices the drug based on a CEO’s whim, and so on - - -

New 3rd party w/a/dif/pol/att, IMO

Otherwise - - -

Posted by: roy ellis at September 29, 2015 5:32 PM
Comment #399026

Uh-0h - and where was the FDA when the pharmas pushed calcium pills as necessary, if not mandatory, for strengthening bones among the masses? I suggest they were flitting around the world on big pharmas dime - -

Otherwise - - -

Posted by: roy ellis at September 29, 2015 7:26 PM
Comment #414274

My think is that you are alright with the current level of inequality as it relates to the economy. Let’s say a CEO makes 1000 times what the average worker makes in one hour.

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