‘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.





Ambition, the ‘Dangerous Vice’ and ‘Compelling Passion’

In reviewing William Casey King‘s Ambition, a History: From Vice to Virtue (‘Wanting More, More, More‘, New York Review of Books, 11 July 2013), David Bromwich writes:

Machiavelli thought ambition a dangerous vice…for Machiavelli ambition was also a compelling passion—a large cause of the engrossing changes of fortune that happen because “nature has created men so that they desire everything, but are unable to attain it.” All men, the grandees and the populace alike, are implicated in the “nature” that created this unreasoning desire….Francis Bacon was deeply influenced by both Machiavelli and Montaigne….a useful “means to curb” the ambitious, says Bacon, “is to balance them by others as proud as they.” The dry realism of that suggestion would be echoed by Madison in Federalist Number 51: “Ambition must be made to counteract ambition.”…Bacon made his acutest observations on ambition in another essay, “Of Great Place.” Men in great places, he writes, are servants of the state, of fame, and of business:

They have no freedom; neither in their persons, nor in their actions; nor in their times. It is a strange desire, to seek power, and to lose liberty; or to seek power over others, and to lose power over a man’s self.

The path to great place may involve base actions and so “by indignities, men come to dignities.” They buy their power at the price of their own liberty. There is a freedom of the spirit, Bacon seems to say, that has nothing to do with political leverage or social success.

The terrible irony of ambition, which Machiavelli and Bacon so perspicuously capture, is that the same drive that can make us happy by spurring us on to great, hopefully fruitful effort, can be the source of the greatest unhappiness as well. Not for nothing is it said that the time of the greatest melancholia in one’s life is when we come to realize we must downsize our ambitions, cease our endless prospecting, give up our illusions, and look around for a suitable bower on which to rest our heads and begin the process of reconciling ourselves to a life unfulfilled. The greater the original ambition, the steeper the fall into the darkest recesses of gloom.

Ambition does not just make the ambitious unhappy, of course. All those singed by its flame suffer: sometimes those who support the ambitious and are then cast aside; sometimes those whose ambitions must give way in the face of a greater one.

If ambition is to be a virtue, then it must be infected by yet another one, that of moderation. But the balancing of ambition with realism, the tempering of our drives, the recognition of the presence of the reality principle in our lives, is not an easy task. For we remain haunted by the worry that we might have simply fallen prey to weakness of the will, to laziness and indolence, and sought the easy way out. Homilies like ‘obstacles are what you see when you take your eyes off the goal’ don’t help. This cognitive dissonance might be even more painful than that caused by the dousing of the flames of ambition.

Bacon and Madison’s remarks about balancing ambition suggest a possible means of amelioration: when giving up one ambition, replace it by another, just as great. The ambitious artist may then, for instance look elsewhere, perhaps inward, considering himself a work in progress, or perhaps outward, finding in some other work a potential reward as great as the ones that drove him previously.

So, there might be no getting rid of ‘ambition,’ but that might be because it may only be a compound description of a host of other, necessary, life-sustaining drives.