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The classic anthropological example is the Kula exchange in the Trobriand Islands. One-to-many and many-to-one reciprocity often lies somewhere between direct reciprocal arrangements and generalized reciprocity. Informal clubs in which the hosting arrangements circulate among members are examples of the one-to-many variety. Bridal showers are examples of the many-to-one variety.

So are barn raising practices in some frontier communities. All of these are similar to direct reciprocity, since the beneficiaries are identified as such in each case, and contributors know exactly what they can expect in return. But because membership in the group changes, and needs for new meetings or marriages or barns are not always predictable, these cases differ significantly from precisely defined one-to-one cases. Generalized reciprocity is even less precise. Here donors operate within a large network of social transactions largely unknown to each other, and without expectations about getting specific benefits in return — other than, perhaps, the sort of social insurance provided by the continuance of the network itself.

Recipients may not know the donors, and may not themselves be able to make a return in-kind to that network, but perhaps feel obligated to make a return to a similar network. Blood banks and food banks are examples. But in fact any stable social structure in which there is a division of labor will involve a system of reciprocal exchanges of this generalized sort, as a way of sustaining social norms. All of these patterns of reciprocity, along with related ideas such as gratitude , have been central to social and political philosophy from Plato onward.

Aristotle is stating the problems of this approach. These philosophical discussions concern the ways in which patterns and norms of reciprocity might have a role in theories of justice, stable and productive social systems, healthy personal relationships, and ideals for human social life generally. Philosophical work on reciprocity often pays considerable attention, directly or indirectly, to the proper interpretation of one or more of the following conceptual issues.

Reciprocity as distinct from related ideas. Many other philosophers have considered similar questions. See the references below to Sidgwick, English, and Jecker for modern examples.


This is certainly a legitimate question. Charging a child or a citizen with ingratitude can imply a failure to meet a requirement. But confining the discussion to gratitude is limiting. There are similar limitations in discussions of the do-unto-others golden rule , or ethical principles that are modeled on the mutuality and mutual benevolence that come out of the face-to-face relations envisaged by Emmanuel Levinas or the I-Thou relationships described by Martin Buber.

Like gratitude, these other ideas have things in common with the norm of reciprocity, but are quite distinct from it. Reciprocity, in its ordinary dictionary sense, is broader than that, and broader than all discussions that begin with a sense of mutuality and mutual benevolence.

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See the reference below to Becker, Reciprocity , and the bibliographic essays therein. Moreover, norms of gratitude do not speak very directly about what feelings and obligations are appropriate toward wrongdoers, or the malicious. Reciprocity, by contrast, speaks directly to both sides of the equation — requiring responses in kind: positive for positive, negative for negative. Reciprocity, by contrast, because it does not necessarily involve having special feelings of love or benevolence, fits more comfortably into discussions of duties and obligations.

Further, its requirement of an in-kind response invites us to calibrate both the quality and the quantity of the response. The norm of reciprocity thus requires that we make fitting and proportional responses to both the benefits and harms we receive — whether they come from people who have been benevolent or malicious. Working out the conceptual details of this idea presents interesting questions of its own. The following matters are all considered at length in many of the sources listed below under References, and those authors typically defend particular proposals about how best to define the conceptual details of reciprocity.

What follows here is simply an outline of the topics that are under philosophical scrutiny. Qualitative similarity.

If one person invites another to dinner, must the other offer a dinner in return? How soon? Must it be directly to the original benefactor, or will providing a comparable favor to someone else be appropriate? If the dinner one receives is unintentionally awful, must one reciprocate with something similarly awful? Sometimes an immediate tit-for-tat response seems inappropriate, and at other times it is the only thing that will do. Are there general principles for assessing the qualitative appropriateness of reciprocal responses?

Reflective people typically practice a highly nuanced version of the norm of reciprocity for social life, in which the qualitative similarity or fittingness of the response appears to be determined by a number of factors.

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The nature of the transaction. One is the general nature of the transaction or relationship between the parties — the rules and expectations involved in a particular interaction itself. Tit for tat, defined in a literal way as an exchange of the identical kinds of goods client list for client list, referral for referral may be the only sort of reciprocal response that is appropriate in a clearly defined business situation.

Similarly, dinner-for-dinner may be the expectation among members of a round robin dinner club. But when the nature of the transaction is more loosely defined, or is embedded in a complex personal relationship, an appropriate reciprocal response often requires spontaneity, imagination, and even a lack of premeditation about where, what, and how soon.

Fitting the response to the recipient. Another aspect of qualitative fit is what counts subjectively, for the recipient, as a response in-kind. When we respond to people who have benefited us, it seems perverse to give them things they do not regard as benefits. The general principle here is that, other things equal, a return of good for good received will require giving something that will actually be appreciated as good by the recipient — at least eventually. Similarly for the negative side. When we respond to bad things, reciprocity presumably requires a return that the recipient regards as a bad thing.

Unusual circumstances. A third aspect of qualitative fit is the presence or absence of circumstances that undermine the usual expectations about reciprocity. If a pair of friends often borrow each other's household tools, and one of them suddenly deranged with anger asks to borrow an antique sword from the other's collection, what is a fitting response?

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The example, in a slightly different form, goes back to Plato. The point is that in this unusual circumstance, reciprocity as well as other considerations may require that the recipient not get what he wants at the moment. Rather, it may be that the recipient should be given what he needs, in some objective sense, whether he ever comes to appreciate that it is good for him. General rationale. A final determinant of qualitative fit is the general rationale for having the norm of reciprocity in the first place. For example, if the ultimate point of practicing reciprocity is to produce stable, productive, fair, and reliable social interactions, then there may be some tensions between things that accomplish this general goal and things that satisfy only the other three determinants.

As Plato observed Republic , Book I , is not rational to harm our enemies in the sense of making them worse, as enemies or as people, than they already are. We may reply to Plato by insisting that reciprocity merely requires us to make them worse-off, not worse, period. But if it turns out that the version of the reciprocity norm we are using actually has the consequence of doing both, or at any rate not improving the situation, then we will have undermined the point of having it.

Quantitative similarity. Another definitional issue concerns proportionality. What counts as too little, or too much in return for what we receive from others? In some cases, such as borrowing a sum of money from a friend who has roughly the same resources, a prompt and exact return of the same amount seems right.

A Question-Based Approach

Less will be too little, and a return with interest will often be too much, between friends. But in other cases, especially in exchanges between people who are very unequal in resources, a literal reading of tit-for-tat may be a perverse rule — one that undermines the social and personal benefits of the norm of reciprocity itself.

How, for example, may badly disadvantaged people reciprocate for the public or private assistance they receive? Requiring a prompt and exact return of the benefit received may defeat the general purpose of the norm of reciprocity by driving disadvantaged people further into debt.

Yet to waive the debt altogether, or to require only some discounted amount seems to defeat the purpose also. Anglo-American legal theory and practice has examples of two options for dealing with this problem.