‘Reciprocity’ As Organizing Principle For The Moral Instruction Of Young Women

I’ve often wondered how best to provide moral instruction to my daughter as she grows up, what principles and duties to keep front and center in the course of my conversations with her as she begins to grow into an age where her interactions with other human beings start to grow more complex. Over the past year or so, I’ve strived to organize this ‘instruction’ around the concept of ‘reciprocity,’ around a variation of the Golden Rule and the altruism it implies: do good unto others; but only continue with the good if it is reciprocated; do not feel obligated to respond to unkindness with kindness; indeed, you shouldn’t respond to unkindness with kindness; if good is done to you, then you must reciprocate with good. There is one conditional duty in here: that of doing good to others, whose obligations continue to hold only if your acts are met with good done to you in turn. There is no duty to do good in response to bad being done unto you; and there is an absolute duty of doing good to others when they do good unto you.

I’ve tried to provide this instruction by way of simple examples: we should not litter because in doing so we would make our neighborhoods dirty for ourselves and our neighbors; they should do the same for us; if some kid in school is nice to you, you should be nice back to them; if someone in school is not nice to you when you have been so to them, then don’t feel the need to continue being nice with them; acknowledge people’s generosity and kindness in some fashion, even if with a simple ‘thanks’; and so on. I’ve tried to make the claim that society ‘hangs together,’ so to speak, because of reciprocity. Without it, our social arrangements would fall apart.

Reciprocity is not as generous and self-sacrificing as pure altruism. I chose reciprocity as an organizing principle because I believe a commitment to altruism can hurt people, and moreover, in our society and culture, altruism has proved to be largely harmful to women. I was, and am, especially worried about a girl growing up–as too many in the past have–to believe that her primary duty is to make others happy, to do good to others even if good is not being done to her in turn. I believed that stressing reciprocity as an organizing moral principle would point in the direction of some positive obligations to make others happy but it would also place some limitations on those obligations. Aristotle wrote of the need to maintain a mean of sorts as we ‘practiced’ the virtue of generosity, between wastefulness and stinginess–the altruist gives too much in this reckoning. A moral agent guided by the principle of reciprocity aims to find a mean in the generosity of their benevolent or good actions: by all means be generous, but pick the targets of your generosity wisely.

I realize that the injunction to only do good if it is reciprocated in some way sounds vaguely unforgiving or unkind and perhaps self-defensive; but again, as I noted above, some such measure of protection is necessary for women, who for too long have been crushed by the burden of unfair or unrealistic expectations of their conduct, to the detriment of their well-being. I want my daughter to do good unto others, but I also want good to be done to her.

My daughter, to her credit, seems to have listened; she can now use the word ‘reciprocity’ in conversation and sometimes to describe a plan of ac; I wait to see how well she will internalize the ‘lessons’ it forms the core of. (She likes the rhyming with ‘gravity’; as I say to her, gravity makes the world of things work, reciprocity makes the world of people work!)

Note: ‘reciprocity’ enjoys two entries in Wikipedia. One drawn from social psychology  and the other from social and political philosophy.





The Nature Documentary and its Edifying Functions

In response to my post on nature documentaries, reader Noor Alam offered the following thoughtful comment:

How the nature documentary is made, what types of animal behavior are depicted, and how they are then interpreted, provide early and formative impressions about the world around us. Does the documentary empasize nature as a world in which life is “nasty, brutish and short” or does it choose to focus on instances of social behavior in nature, such as the social coordination prevalent amongst bees, or the seeming altruism exhibited by dolphins? Does it emphasize the similarities between humans and other animals, or does it marvel at the alien nature of those animals. With such questions in mind, the “uncontroversial” nature documentary becomes inherently political, and we as parents should have an awareness of this so that we can not only expose our children to the wonders of the world that they portray, but so that we can discuss with them the different issues which any one nature documentary may raise.

As I had perhaps only hinted at in my post, the nature documentary often emphasizes or glamorizes the predator’s work, and may provide a form of ‘predator porn’: the kill is the ‘money-shot’, leading up to which is the foreplay of the slow, drawn-out stalking and set-up. Besides being a form of catexploitation, this emphasis can valorize a crude Nietzschean view of nature: the beautiful animal is the strong, the valiant, preying on the hapless weak, the timid, the meek; the strong feed on the weak because such is their nature, the weak serve as food for the strong because, well, such is their nature. It may too, reinforce a facile social Darwinism: survival depends on feasting on others, using stealth and violence and subterfuge judiciously blended; those who are unable to resist meet their deserved fates all too quickly. These ‘nature red in tooth and claw‘ visions can be problematic sources of moral and political edification.

As Alam points out,  we need to query whether the vision of the documentary maker extends to noticing and showcasing Kropotkin would have called the mutual aid of the wild–“the social coordination prevalent amongst bees, or the seeming altruism exhibited by dolphins”? Is nature understood as continuous with human societies or is it regarded as separable from us by radical discontinuities–biological, moral, cognitive? Does nature appear as unfinished, primitive human society or does it appear as a distinctive entity in its own right?

The nature documentary has the capacity to provide intervention elsewhere. For instance, the chauvinistic vision of the Great Chain of Being–which saw all of nature through a blinkered human-serving teleology–is not an easily displaced one, and neither is the notion of the human species and its achievements as representing an onward and upward movement through an arc of moral and technical progression.  These two easily combine to provide a motive force for unthinking and rapacious  environmental degradation–the kind that threatens to render this world uninhabitable for a generation not too distant from ours.

The nature documentary–whether those who make it like it or not–is saddled with the expectation of providing an ‘appropriate’ vision of the relationship between man and the wild.