Thursday, October 25, 2012

Reciprocity – Like Water to Fish, Part Two

Bob Fiske

Reciprocity – Like Water to Fish, Part Two

CLICK HERE to go to Part One.

Deep Values.  Let us propose that not all values are equal.  Some values may be woven so tightly and deeply into the fabric of a culture that they are held by virtually every person who has grown up in that culture.  Deep values of this type are so common that I compare them to the water in which fish swim.  Do fish notice that they are constantly surrounded by water?  Similarly, how often does a person in our society notice he or she is guided by a deep value?  Not only that, but the rare person who goes even farther and dares to question whether a certain deep value is good or necessary may be regarded as crazy or threatening.

Now, some fish may be in a position that allows them to become aware of the water.  (Think of flying fish or trout leaping at bugs buzzing over the pond.)  By the same token, some people may be in a position to recognize a deep value in their culture long before the majority of that culture’s inhabitants do.  Perhaps that person is forced by a quirk of history to inhabit a social niche in which that value is not such a certainty.

Or, recognition of the deep value might occur because it has negative consequences.  This can happen if “the system” is already in a grotesque state of imbalance.  An imbalanced system is in a state of stress, therefore, negative consequences can add to that stress.  If so, then it becomes harder and harder to ignore the damage that a deep value is doing.  (By way of analogy, imagine a cracked fishbowl in which fewer and fewer fish can rely on the presence of water.  In this stressed system, all the fish become aware of water.)

I now wish to discuss one of these deep values, reciprocity.  This value has been central to civilizations for thousands of years.  It must have occupied an important place in the social structure to have not been displaced.  Yet, modern society has pushed this value to such ridiculous extremes that terrible consequences are unfolding.  Later, I will discuss an alternative to reciprocity and why that alternative’s importance should be elevated.

What is Reciprocity?  Reciprocity is an important type of value, the type that we use to evaluate the worth of things and actions.  We also use it to regulate our use of another precious commodity: time.

Reciprocity—this sounds like I’m using a fifty dollar word where a fifty cent word would suffice.  Well, I’ve been known to do that…  Let’s see if some related phrases can clue us in to the idea: return on investment, payoff, fair trade, good deal, not ripped off, equitable business transaction.  Reciprocity has to do with fair exchanges, and that idea has been with us for millennia.

I believe that ever since people recognized opportunities to exchange things—call it what you will, barter, trade, exchange of goods and services—they were confronted by the issue of fairness.  Why even children show a propensity to think this way.  There is an underlying concern about being taken advantage of, or giving away more than you’re getting in exchange.  In fact, I find it plausible that the institution of monetary currencies owes its existence to this concern about fair exchanges.

And why does this concern exist?  Because it is natural and tempting for a person to want to maximize his or her resources, even if this means that a trading partner ends up with less than a fair share.  (By the way, there are interesting similarities in biology.  Nature learned to deal with these issues long before the thinking brain appeared on the scene.)

Think of the business person or the private investor.  It is “natural” to want to maximize your return on investment or to leverage your profit.  Why, it is simply a case of efficiency, of doing more with less, and who could question that?  When a deal profits us, do we question that?  Does it occur to us that our good fortune might be a distortion of true fairness, or reciprocity?

In an earlier age, the earth appeared to have plenty of everything humans needed (space, water, resources, labor).  Therefore it was easy to accept the efficiency of maximizing return without regard to what might be happening on the side that you weren’t inhabiting.  But as the human population approached and crossed the three-billion mark, the system began to display strain.  Hence the concern of a few individuals to come together in the Club of Rome.

I believe that right now it is much easier to question the value of maximizing “payoff”.  Why?  Because the earth is crowded with seven billion of us (and growing).  Every negative effect of a deep value is multiplied many billions of times.

Summary of Part One.  Some values are “deep values”.  They are woven tightly into the culture and are held by virtually every person.  But deep values are hard to recognize unless the system is in gross imbalance.  This essay focuses on the deep value known as reciprocity.  Although reciprocity suggests the idea of fair exchanges, it is usually modified by the natural human tendency to maximize payoff.  Some people justify this as efficiency, or doing more with less.  Our huge human population is causing this distortion of reciprocity to deliver more and more damage to the world system in which we live.

CLICK HERE to go to Part Three.


  1. Nice essay, very true , would like to read a part three. What do you think is a solution to this problem?