‘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.





A Pleasantly Illegal Side-Effect Of A Humanized Interaction

For almost three years now, during those weekdays that I spend in the CUNY Graduate Center library trying to get some reading and writing done, I have, on occasion, been a participant in the following ‘encounter’ or ‘exchange’: I pour myself a cup of coffee at the dining commons and on arriving at the cash register to pay for my ‘purchase,’ I am waved through by the lady who works there with a cheery ‘you good babe.’ The coffee is on the house. I have not seen this ‘favor’ extended to any other customer of the dining commons; this ‘gift’ is sporadically given, with no regularity to it. Quite simply, every once in a while, I get a ‘free coffee.’ I know the worker in question: that is, I know her name, which is written on her name tag. She does not know mine; she has never asked me for, and I have never volunteered it. I feel unsure about whether she knows that I’m faculty or whether she thinks I’m a graduate student. We do not really know each other; we are acquaintances of a sort. I wish her a ‘good morning’ when I enter, and occasionally ask her how her vacation or days off went. She answers with a brisk ‘all good!’ Once in a while, in response to her asking me how I am, I mutter something about my lack of sleep. When I receive my ‘gift’ from her, I beam and say ‘thanks’ and wish her a good day; she reciprocates. I sometimes wonder, uneasily, about whether what we are doing is ‘legal;’ it clearly is not. I do not know why I am the beneficiary of this minor largess.

But I can venture a guess. My ‘donor’ is used to anonymity in her job; she rings up purchases, gives back change and receipts. Her interactions with her customers are brisk and efficient; they can easily shade into brusqueness. Customers walk over to her counter with food; they pay, they move on, perhaps offering a quick ‘thank you’ before they leave. There are few to none conversational niceties visible in these interactions. I did not follow this template in my initial interactions with her; I used her name, smiled, inquired into how her day was going, and then thanked her as I left. My interactions with her were perfunctory and still remain so to this day, but in retrospect, they strike me as being orders of magnitude more personal than the interactions she might have been accustomed to. I would like to think the little freebie I receive on the side every once in a while is an acknowledgment of the slightly elevated personal level of our encounters with each other; tiny islands of recognition and greeting and response in a sea of anonymous exchange.

My ‘friend’ works, like most people do, in a job that renders her faceless and nameless even when surrounded by thousands of fellow human beings; like them, she acts to dispel her workday state of affairs with little affirmations of her humanity. I’m ready to aid and abet her–for partially self-serving reasons–in the commissioning of the minor illegality her so acting entails.

A Simple, Memorable Act Of Kindness

In a pair of posts which cast a wistful glance back at my running days, I made note of a graduate school summer in which I brushed up against the edges of genteel poverty:

I had no financial aid from graduate school and no regular employment (I worked hourly as a waiter once in a while, getting called in by my boss when she needed me), and to make things worse, my girlfriend and I broke up halfway through the break. I was up the proverbial creek. [Original post here]

[W]ith my impecunious condition  making it ever harder to indulge in even the occasional beer or large meal, my running transformed me into a whippet-like creature, with sunken cheeks that enabled a resemblance to a prisoner of war at a not-particularly salubrious holding facility. [Original post here]

Those ‘sunken cheeks’ had come about because, as I note above, I just wasn’t eating or drinking too much; I couldn’t afford to. I went back to an old and dreaded routine: fueling myself on coffee during the mornings, and then buying 99-cent burritos at Taco Bell for lunch and cooking some rice and beans for dinner. (Another possibility was rice and beans at a Tex-Mex joint on 42nd Street.)

My dire financial straits were not known to all around me. My graduate school friends thought I was absent from parties and drinking dates because I was avoiding awkward social encounters with my girlfriend–partially true–and busy working on incomplete term papers–also partially true, even if a rather charitable description of the hours I spent in the computer labs staring idly at word processor screens. But I was also absent from life in the polis because I could not afford to be out and about. Hermithood was mine by choice and circumstance alike.

But my physical appearance, my relentless consumption of the endless refills of coffee at my favorite diner–the now-defunct Grace on 43rd Street,  and my persistent declining of other menu choices had not gone unnoticed by the waiter–‘Joe’–who was our regular server there. Joe was affable and gruff, with enough time for a sardonic quip or two as he hustled from one table to the other, running a tight ship for his boss through the busy breakfast and lunch times of the day. He saw me every day, and he was paying attention.

One afternoon, I finished my third or fourth cup of coffee, and prepared to head out to the lab for a couple of hours before heading out uptown for my waiting gig. (On the days I worked there, I was guaranteed a full meal at the end of the day.) As I picked up my backpack, Joe walked by and said, “Wait up.” I waited. Joe walked over to a basket full of leftover bagels with cream cheese, picked up one, walked over, tossed it on the table, and walked away. I picked it up, put it in my backpack and walked out. The boss was busy at the cash register, his eyes still facing down.

Joe and I never talked about that bagel. We didn’t need to. And I haven’t forgotten.

Colorado Notes – II: The Kindness Of Strangers

Before my recent trip to Colorado, I had not hitchiked in many years. There was no need to. And it seemed like a bad idea in most cases. (As in anywhere in New York City.) But over the past week or so, I racked up an impressive number of hitched rides. All thanks to the kindness of strangers who rescued me from inconvenience of varying degrees. One stranger did not give me a ride, but a roof for the night. Yet another provided a home in Denver. Those strangers are friends now.

On 9th August, my partner and I hiked up to Cottonwood Pass planning to make a short resupply run to the town of Buena Vista. At the pass, we met several day-trippers out to ogle the Collegiate Peaks, Cottonwood Lake, and other attractions. We struck up a conversation with a pair of women who turned out to be a retired school-teacher and her former student taking their vacation together, and who offered to drive us the eighteen miles into town. After resupplying, we needed a ride back to the trail. On asking a local jeep service, it seemed like we would get a ride much later in the evening. I asked around a bit more. Hearing me ask for referrals to jeep services, a young man at a kayaking store offered us a ride, refusing payment as he did so. We finally persuaded him to accept some gas money. Bad weather forced us off the trail that night, so incredibly enough, we needed a third ride, this time back to Buena Vista again. A Texan couple whom we asked for a ride said they were only going to a campground along the way, where they could drop us. We accepted and hopped in; a short while later, our conversation was flourishing to such an extent that our hosts kept on driving right till Buena Vista.

A day or so later, I made a trip to Salida for the day. I was dropped off by my new host, ‘L,’ the same young man who had given us a ride to Cottonwood Pass. He had also offered to pick me up in the evening and drive me back to Buena Vista after he was done with his river running work for the day. On arriving in Salida I found myself facing a longish walk of sixteen long blocks. No matter; by now, I knew the routine. I stuck out my thumb. A few minutes later, I had my ride. When I returned to the city center, I hitched another ride. My hitchhiking instincts, long made dormant in urban settings, had been reawakened by the kindness of Colorado’s drivers.

The best, obviously, was reserved for last. This past Sunday, I decided to hike from Cottonwood Pass  to Tincup Pass Road. I wanted to start hiking at 6AM, and would need ride. Needless to say ‘L’ was on the case. He offered to pick me up at 530AM in the morning from my accommodations, and to pick me up late in the evening from my hike’s endpoint. (My accommodations deserve a special mention. The night before I had rented an AirBNB room on a discount from a very generous host, ‘E,’ a prominent local figure in town known for his involvement in civic affairs after a career in a successful river running business. As  I checked out, I told my host I did not have anywhere to stay for the night. On hearing this, he offered me crash space; his seven-year old son was away on vacation, and I could have his room. ‘E’ even offered to drive me to the trailhead if my morning ride did not materialize.)

On completing my hike, I found myself at Tincup Pass Road trailhead, and quickly realized I had made a mistake and faced a severe problem. I had asked ‘L’ to pick me up at Tincup Pass itself, which was several miles away. He would not be arriving till 830PM; I had finished my hike by 330PM. I would not only have to wait five hours for his arrival, I would also have to hope he would realize my mistaken directions and drive to the trailhead instead. My phone had no service, so there was little chance I could contact him and correct the miscommunication. I was facing a long, cold, confusing and anxiety provoking wait, and possibly a very long walk back down a dark 4WD road back to the main highway. My best bet was to, you guessed it, hitch a ride. I saw an elderly gentleman with a young woman emerging from a trail close by and walked over to ask for help. I was told that I could count on a ride because ‘my son has done this sort of thing in the past many times and people have always helped him with a ride.’ I was to be the grateful recipient of an act of paying forward. Sure enough, his son, who had climbed fifty-three of Colorado’s fifty-four fourteeners, and offered me a beer as a well-earned reward for my hike, was willing to drive me into town. An hour later, I was safely back in my  cabin. That night, my new friend ‘L’ spent the night at my motel so that he could rise early in the morning and drive me to the Buena Vista bus station for my bus back to Denver. On reaching Denver, I knew I could count on the hospitality of my host, my hiking partner’s friend, who had also put us up on our arrival in Denver a week ago.

The most straightforward expression of my feelings on leaving Colorado was that I was overwhelmed by the kindness and generosity of all those I had met: the folks I met on the trail, and the ones who helped me off it. The acts I encountered were among the simplest and most complex of all–extensions of help and caring and hospitality. But they were rescues from inconvenience and danger too. They were reminders that the human bonds so necessary for the sustenance and flourishing of our most important relationships can be made visible by these sorts of gestures. If only we would try.

A Sympathy Inducing Reminder Of Basic Human Wants

A few years ago, a young union organizer stopped by my office to talk with me about an upcoming campaign of activism directed at CUNY administration. As we spoke, I felt increasingly impatient. I didn’t need to be ‘organized’; my participation in the activities planned by the union was a foregone conclusion; this young man was preaching to the converted. I tried to indicate as much so that his energies could be more usefully utilized elsewhere, but he was undeterred; it was quite clear he–a novice activist–was working with a script, and was going to stick to it to no matter what. Finally, struggling to keep my irritable disposition under control, I brought the meeting to a close, and ushered him out. Later, still put off, I commented to a friend of mine on how the young organizer needed to ‘get his act together.’

A couple of weeks later, walking through campus, I saw the same young man sitting by himself, eating a sandwich for lunch. My initial reaction on seeing him had been to hope that he would not catch sight of me and launch into his organizing spiel. But as I looked at him, quietly working his way through his solitary meal, an entirely different emotion ran through me, one that replaced the irritation I had come to associate with him.

I felt, most of all, a curious emotion that I can only describe as a hybrid of sympathy, pity, and affection; it might be the feeling that courses through us when we see a small child playing by itself. Strangely enough, as I looked at that young man, I felt protective of him. I felt too, regret at yet another failure of kindness, even if not overtly expressed; I had not been accommodating and understanding enough of his enthusiasm for his work, of his naiveté and sincerity. I felt ashamed I had ever thought so harshly of him, spoken so unkindly about him. I had been impatient and dismissive; he had merely been doing his job even if one could quibble with his tactical allocation of effort.

This change in my perception of this young man had been brought on, I think, by witnessing him at a moment of acute vulnerability. He was all alone, engaging in an act that all humans engage in,  eating a meal. Somehow the simple business of quietly eating a sandwich in solitude had reminded me of his humanity. When I had encountered him in my office, he had been a pesky irritant, diverting me from my work, subjecting me to an argument the contours of which I knew too well. Here, all that was gone; now, there was only a young man nourishing himself. All alone. Somehow, at that moment, he became just another person trying–imperfectly, at the best of times–to find his way in this world, all the while not free of his most basic human wants. Here, by himself, he was taking care of them.

At that moment, that little glimpse of that young man was all that was needed for me to see him in an entirely new light. My old feelings could resurface were I to encounter him in a similar context, but perhaps then, hopefully, they would be tempered by the knowledge of the sensations that I had just experienced.