Friday, August 5, 2011

On the Ethics of Quid Pro Quo

I disgusted a friend recently when I suggested that human beings might be better off if we adopted the moral stance of my Italian ancestors—what I call the ethics of quid pro quo. Now, my grandmother, my aunts and uncles, and my parents probably wouldn’t use that particular expression to describe their unique moral outlook on life, but that is precisely what they always advocated as the only decent form of moral behavior that a person could adopt.

Quid pro quo. You take care of me and I take care of you. I come to your assistance when you are in need and you do the same for me when I’m in trouble. I don’t ask of you anything more than I’d be willing to give and expect you to provide me with the same courtesy. There’s an exquisite harmony involved in this sort of exchange. It’s the way good friends almost automatically operate, and, when the delicate balance between the “quid” and the “quo” is maintained, both parties feel enriched, and neither is diminished morally or spiritually.

When I was growing up in Queens, my parents instilled the idea in me that we had a duty to give just as much as we have received from others—whether these others were family, friends, neighbors or members of the larger community. If a family member had us over to celebrate Thanksgiving at their house, we’d always have them to ours for Easter. If an aunt gave my sister or me a gift worth $10 for our birthdays, you can bet your bottom dollar that my cousins would receive a gift worth at least that much from my parents on their birthdays. If a neighbor was generous with food or time, you could automatically assume that my parents would make sure to take care of them in some equally beneficial way. The formula for reciprocity was never exact, but it always worked out in a way that seemed to satisfy everyone.

The reason my friend, who is an incredibly spiritual person, was horrified by this position was because he thought that the proper moral stance should be one of Christian altruism. In other words, we should give to those who are in need with no thought at all to being paid back for our efforts. My friend certainly understands the spirit that animates the Gospels—unlike those hypocrites who call themselves Christians, but whose true gospel is that of crass, unfettered Capitalism—and I respect him for his consistency. My problem with this moral position, however, is precisely that it expects little or nothing from those whom we serve. In the end, it treats the recipients of our largesse like moral inferiors who are incapable of authentic human relationships (since true relationships between individuals always involve at least some degree of reciprocity) and renders them impotent as moral beings (since they have no incentive to act on their own behalf).

Despite my reservations with Christian altruism as a moral system, it certainly is preferable to the kind of egoistic ethics that most Americans seem to practice. We’ve raised generation after generation of men and women who assume that everyone—their parents, their teachers, the State—should take care them, but that they have no obligation to care for anyone else. Americans have no problem cutting essential programs for the poor or sending Blacks and Latinos off to fight their wars, but don’t ask them to give up any of their cherished entitlements, pay a bit more in taxes for the social goods they receive, or send their own sons or daughters off to fight our absurd wars. America, by and large, has become a nation of all quo and no quid.

Restoring the proper balance in our relationships with our fellow human beings, I believe, is the first step in getting our country back on the right track. A quid pro quo approach to ethics automatically assumes that we are all equal, all in this together, and have an obligation to provide reciprocal care for one another. Naturally, there will be those in our society who, for one reason or another, cannot reciprocate for the goods that they’ve received (infants, children up to a certain age, the seriously mentally ill or physically disabled). But we can ask a bit more even of those who, on the surface of it, might seem to have less to give, and we can ask a heck-of-a-lot more from those who have been blessed with abundance.

You take care of me and I’ll take care of you. It sounds like a petty approach to life, but just imagine if everyone—you, me, members of Congress, CEOs of large corporations—tried to live according to this dictum every day. Is there really any doubt that we’d be in much better shape as a society than where we are right now?

1 comment:

  1. you are probably being too optimistic in thinking that the average american is interested in anything more than his own selfish interests.