Reciprocity – the basic problem with First World living

Posted: February 10, 2013 in Ethical decision-making
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Red Packets

Red Packets (Photo credit: xcode)

Reciprocity is so fundamental to social organisation yet we don’t often bother to name or think about it.

An underlying norm of reciprocity is by itself a powerful engine for motivating, creating, sustaining, and regulating the cooperative behavior required for self-sustaining social organizations, as well as for controlling the damage done by the unscrupulous. (Wikipedia)

An example of reciprocity in action are the hundreds of millions of packets of money being exchanged around the world today wherever Chinese culture has had an influence.

Reciprocity as a norm pre-dates its more recent manifestations such as the Golden Rule of Christianity or the similar formulation promulgated by Confucius (Do not do to others what you would not have them do to you).

In contemporary nation-states it finds its way into positive law and, when it doesn’t, it is what drives activism to make laws fairer.

The problem is that it is something we devised in a small group world, where co-operation is necessary for survival, whereas today we live in a planetary society. However the underlying necessity is no less valid, in fact if anything it is even more valid than it was in millennia past.

Pre-modern humans knew survival skills. They knew how to find their own food and could survive if isolated from their community. Larger scale social organisation meant specialisation and abandoning the ability to fend for oneself in every respect. Now that has gone a step further and arguably entire nations are now integrated in the same manner.

Yet … where’s the reciprocity gone in this equation? Those people who work in other nations making our clothes, growing our food, assembling our consumer knick-knacks, what do they get for their trouble? Poverty wages that would never allow them to aspire to the same kind of lifestyle. How fair is that?

We all tolerate this, we are all aware that we are tolerating it, and we feel uneasy about it because of reciprocity. If they were merely poor it would be another matter, but they are poor because people pay them peanuts, in the name of the consumer: i.e. you and me.

All of this because “they” are so far away we never get to meet them or learn their names.

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  1. […] Reciprocity – the basic problem with First World living « Fair For All. […]

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