Thursday, 10 January 2013


Reciprocity runs very deep in the human psyche. We feel the urge to reciprocate for good and ill. When someone does us a good turn we feel a need to return the favour. When a psychology researcher posted Christmas cards at random to strangers, she found that most responded by sending her a card too. Mints left in the saucer by the waiter at the end of a meal result in more generous tips being given. The Golden Rule is based on the deep-seated human sense that reciprocity is right. "Do unto others as you would they would do unto you." Many of us feel distinctly uncomfortable when we are in debt to someone's generosity. We have to find a way to rebalance the situation. Failure to reciprocate or, even worse, to return ill for good is cause enough for great moral opprobrium.

Reciprocity most definitely underpins some of the best guidance for living. Confucius extolled its virtues; many religions uphold it as a fundamental principle. But can it mislead us too? What happens when the assumption of reciprocity is used as the founding principle for foreign policy towards a culture that does not accept the principle of reciprocity (at least not as far as we're concerned)?

The Obama administration, with its absurd notion of smart power (how arrogant), is proceeding on the basis that if we show sufficient goodwill towards the Muslim world, they will feel better about us and respond in kind. But they fail to understand the rift that Islam creates between believers and non-believers; a fact which undercuts reciprocity completely. There must be some research somewhere into the way in-group/out-group perceptions affect reciprocity.

Other possible viewpoints that are inspired by reciprocity: the belief that others only threaten us because they in turn feel threatened by us. If we adopt a more welcoming and less hostile attitude they will reciprocate. Israel has often been urged to concede land in order to achieve peace. Just give the Palestinians more land and you will get more peace and because anger at the Israel/Palestinian conflict spreads into so many areas the whole world will become more peaceful. This whole argument rests of the principle of reciprocity which simply does not apply between Jews and Muslims since Muslims are religiously committed to the elimination of Jews.

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