‘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.

Self-Promotion And Failures Of Generosity

Like most authors today, I am expected to hustle a great deal–to ‘market’ my books.  I am supposed to set out a shingle on social media–like a Facebook page, or a special Twitter account. I should post news of reviews, flattering things that people have said about my writing, and provide updates on podcasts, interviews and the like. I have to solicit reviews and blurbs and kind words, hope for retweets and ‘Likes’ and status shares, ask friends on Facebook to spread the word on their pages, and all of the rest. When a favorable review goes into print, I bring it to everyone’s attention: my Facebook friends, my Twitter feed. According to those authors who self-publish, and I am not one, except for here, this work can take up so much time that there is little left for actual writing. C’est la vie de l’auteur.

This constant hustle is more than a little wearying. You are constantly aware of being a supplicant with an outstretched bowl, a nuisance of sorts; it is all too easy to spiral down into a bottomless pit of self-loathing and diminishing self-esteem. Even worse, you can become awfully self-centered, coming to regard all around you as potential avenues for the exploration of marketing pitches. Your hammer is the marketing pitch, the marketing plea, and everyone is  a nail. In behaving so, you can easily forget that reciprocity remains a virtue.

I’ve just concluded an email conversation with a senior journalist whom I’d approached–after I’d seen him mention my latest book on Twitter–to perhaps write a review of it. (Yes, I did search for my name on Twitter, hoping to find a mention of my book. It’s like googling yourself; we do it all the time.) We chatted, and in the course of this conversation, which included some kind words about my writing, he told me how, on several occasions he had been approached by other writers for similar ‘favors’. Sometimes he obliged; sometimes he didn’t. But without fail, none of the authors he thus helped ever reciprocated the favor; not one said anything about his writing in a similarly public forum. He concluded with a laconic ‘People are like that.’

I wonder if I have been ‘like that.’ I wonder, if this constant hustling of mine has made me blind to the duties I owe those who have deigned to help me. In my constant, anxious hustle to hawk my writing, to self-promote and aggrandize, I might have committed many failures of generosity–the kind that bothered my interlocutor.

I’ve written, here on this blog, on the need for writers in this brave new social media dominated world, to take care of each other. I’ve also written about the need for academics to send encouraging and appreciative words to their counterparts when they read something by them that they like. I have tried to live up to the standards I have sought to promulgate. But I have no doubt I have failed.

Time to relearn those lessons.