I’ve got to acknowledge that my moral perspective has gotten much more restrictive in recent years than it was when I was younger. As a college student, I had a wonderful, idealistic moral vision that was founded upon the radical altruism of the Gospels, the progressive social activism of the 1960s, and the example set by the great social exemplars of the 20th century—Gandhi, Bishop Romero, Martin Luther King, and Ralph Nader, in particular. Back then I honestly believed that selfless compassion for those in need was possible and that through collective sacrifice we could transform the world into a much better place.
As I entered middle age, I began to recognize that there was little likelihood that I would ever become a saint and that personal and collective sins are not quite so easy to eradicate as I had assumed they were. My moral position at this point is the happy mean between the Christian altruism of my youth, which I now find far too idealistic to implement in any kind of meaningful way, and the libertarian ideology which is running rampant throughout the United States, and which I find abysmally devoid of any concern for the common good. I call this approach the Ethics of Quid Pro Quo and wrote about it in an earlier piece.
In a nutshell, my position is that real reciprocity is the key to authentic moral interaction with other human beings. Our obligations extend to autonomous others to the extent that they have entered into a relationship with us in which there is a balance between what is given and what is received. Those who take without ever giving are moral pariahs who ought to be shunned; and those who give without ever expecting anything in return are moral fools, who almost deserve to be taken advantage of. In the balance between the quid (that which is given) and the quo (that which has been received) a true moral relationship is formed in which the mutual needs of the parties involved are recognized and respected, and as a result both parties are morally and existentially affirmed through their interactions.
I’ve come to believe that there is absolutely nothing wrong with expecting others to reciprocate in some form when we care for them or do some act of kindness for them. The expected reciprocation (the quid) should be roughly comparable in significance to the initial act (the quo), although, depending on the specific circumstances of the other, the act of reciprocation can at times be as minimal as an expression of appreciation (a sincere and heartfelt “thank you,” in other words). I also think that it is a sign of decent moral character to consider how to reciprocate—and to what extent to reciprocate—when one has been treated kindly or generously by another person. The person who never thinks about reciprocating at all is either a moral imbecile, and therefore not responsible for his actions, or, as I’ve already indicated, a moral pariah, who is best not associated with by anyone but the most committed masochist.
As I contemplated how this ethics of quid pro quo might be implemented, I began to wonder what exactly our obligations are towards those who are not able to engage in the kind of exchanges demanded in this kind of moral system. The answer quite simply is that, if an individual is incapable of truly reciprocating because of mental or physical incapacity or limitations (the seriously mentally or physically disabled or ill) age (young children), lack of free will (animals), or by virtue of the fact that they do not yet exist (future generations), then, individually and collectively, we have an obligation to work for the good of such individuals regardless of whether or not they can reciprocate. Once again, however, we must be careful not to demean such individuals by automatically assuming that they are completely incapable of any sort of reciprocity at all. Young children, for example, are able to give back much more than we typically assume and should be trained from a very early age to contribute to the good of their families and to the larger community in whatever way they are capable.
I also think that it has been a mistake of otherwise well-intentioned liberals to treat the economically disadvantaged as though they lacked the ability to either care for themselves or provide some service in kind for the public generosity bestowed upon them. When charity, for example, is given to the poor in the form of food stamps or below cost public housing, with no expectations of any kind of reciprocating action on those receiving it, we treat such individuals as though they were not fully autonomous and therefore not quite as human as we are. It really is an insult to their dignity as human beings, and does little more than make the distributor of charitable offerings feel morally superior to those who are the recipient of his or her largesse. On the other hand, a well-constructed workfare program—and I’m not sure that such a thing actually exists right now in the United States—asks recipients of taxpayer support to give something back to the lager community, and in doing so allows those individuals the dignity of feeling like full participatory members of that community.
One should not assume that my focus on reciprocity in moral actions means that I reject the value of charity completely. There are those towards whom charity is certainly appropriate. Victims of natural disasters, wars, and famines, for example, deserve our sympathy as well as our financial and emotional support; the same is true for those who fall victim to circumstances beyond their control (sickness, disability, mental illness, etc). We have an obligation to individually and collectively care for such individuals, if they are not able to care for themselves. And this is true, even if they are strangers who might never be able to repay our generosity in any meaningful way.