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The foundation for human relationships, upon which the human ethical sense, the sense of justice and injustice, and consequently law, and trade (payment for goods and services) are based, is the powerful human awareness of reciprocity; that is that actions deserve reactions. Such actions may be positive (known as tit for tat) in the case of a favour returned, or negative as in the case of a reprisal, but, as implied by the eye-for-an-eye text (Exodus 21:23-27), it should be measured precisely in proportion to the nature of the hurt.

So strong is the sense of reciprocity to humans that its measure directs responses at all scales of human operation, from the nature of relationships between individuals, to military reprisals between nation states, even if leading to what became known as Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) during the Cold War. At the level of individuals, failure to return a favour, or even a smile or simple gesture of friendship (to say good morning, or return a welcome, for example) between individuals who meet regularly (or are colleagues) leaves the donor party feeling cheated and uneasy, and can be misread as hostility or arrogance. This can be a significant basis for tensions between individuals.


Reciprocity - a natural response

Frans de Waal (2006) describes experiments showing how the awareness of reciprocity as a moral force can be seen developing through the lower primates up through the apes, so that a sense of fairness is well developed in chimpanzees. These observations give the lie to the suggestion that ethics are merely cultural constructions. The recognition of significant ethical constructions, such as hypocrisy, whose condemnation is expressed in many of the world’s great faiths, also have their roots in the recognition of reciprocity – since hypocrisy is the expectation of others beyond that which one would have oneself done. As Christ put it, you see the splinter in your brother’s eye, but not the plank in your own (Matthew 7:3-5). In the appearance of reciprocal awareness through primate evolution, and through the deep sense of injustice that humans are capable of feeling and in feeling the need that justice be done and seen to be done, one can say that ethics based on the sense of reciprocity are natural and not cultural constructs.

Reciprocity and evolution

However, the importance of reciprocity for humans may be even yet more significant than this: indeed it may have contributed significantly for mankind's evolution, and especially the rapid evolution of human brain size (cranial volume) that took place from about 2 million years ago up to 200,000 years ago. Robin Dunbar (2004) has argued that the very need to remember previous social encounters with fellow humans in small but growing groups, and to account for who had paid back and who not, might have been one of the very drivers of human brain size, so that today most people can keep track of such encounters with some 150 individuals (Dunbar's number).

The anthropologist Nurit Bird-David (1990, 1992) reported how hunter-gatherers inhabiting natural forests in several regions of the world regarded the forest as 'mother' or 'father', because they felt that in providing for all their needs (food, medicine etc.) the forest loved them and cared for them unconditionally. This sense of unconditional care, i.e. of gifts given without the need or expectation of repayment, is known in Christianity as Grace; see also gift economy. Bird-David (1992) further described how primitive cultivators living near to these hunter-gatherers had a different relation to the Earth, since it did not always yield a crop in proportion to the effort expended in its sowing. In transferring the assumption of the reciprocity principle to underlie their relationship with the Earth, this resulted in beliefs that great sacrifice might be necessary to appease the gods.

Reciprocity can be seen to underlie the principles of trust, respect and the sense, deserved or undeserved, of right and wrong. However, the significance of the human ability to rise beyond the simple demands of reciprocity, as recognized in religious traditions, can be seen in the fact that the greatest respect in human societies is earned by those who give their time, knowledge, wisdom or service without expecting payment.


See also


Author: Andrew Gosler