Reciprocity is the state of mutually addressing the same attitudes or feelings as another. It indicates an equal exchange. This implies intersubjectivity and interaction not only between individuals, but also between groups. It may, therefore, be applied to many fields of social activity and has acquired special importance in psychology, education, ethics, politics, and law.
Although the quality of the reciprocal attitudes or feelings is neutral (there may be a positive or a negative mutual exchange), the term is most commonly used for sharing something considered to be positive.
Reciprocity is one of the first elements that contributes to a child’s psychological, physical, and social development by the spontaneous imitation of the parents’ attitudes, expressions, and movements. The feeling of reciprocal love between parent and child is one of the most important factors for the creation of an equilibrated individual personality. Besides the emotional flourishing it creates, it establishes a psychic environment of security and confidence, which is vital for young human beings and of crucial weight for their future evolution. On this basis of reciprocal confidence and goodwill is founded any other successful educative relationship in the following years of the human life.
The “reciprocity of consciences” consists of sharing the same ideas, values, or points of view. It facilitates mutual empathy, the capacity of “putting oneself in the other’s place,” integrating the other’s sentiments and positions, and may thus create a sense of harmonious unity between individuals. In this sense, the Other becomes like “another Self,” an alter ego, who is felt at the same time as a distinct person and as a part of ourselves.
This kind of reciprocity is notably present between friends. Aristotle (384-322 BC) was one of the first thinkers who insisted on this point. In his ethical works, he considers the best kind of friendship to be the one that is founded on mutual affection, due to the virtuous character of both persons. Many centuries later, Michel de Montaigne (1533-1592) omitted the notion of moral value of the character from reciprocity in friendship—a human relationship for which he had a high consideration—putting it beyond any social conventions. He believes that true friends realize equality by the purest of all the different kinds of love. They love each other just because they are who they are, and this engenders all the pleasure of sharing. The reciprocity of feelings of love, accompanied this time by desire, is also the basis of the amorous relationship. Eros without response results in frustration and distress, which have too often been the subject of literature. The contemporary philosopher who has particularly valorized reciprocity as a central notion of his thought is Paul Ricoeur (1913-). Considering that the previous theories on self-definition and self-conscience, as well as on the foundation of ethical behavior, have stayed within the limits of egocentrism, he insisted on the definition of the self as a structure derived from “being together.” Self-esteem and respect of the Other manifest themselves in a reciprocity that may be conceived as a “symmetrical” relationship, as it doesn’t accentuate the role of the “I,” as opposed to “the Other.” Ricoeur proposes to replace the “I” with the “self” in our way of thinking, as a means of reestablishing the fundamental resemblance among persons: the other is a “self” as much as “myself,” and can also say “I.” Only a relation of reciprocity may establish the feeling of “being the same” as the other and create the sense of equality and friendliness among people. Even for each one of us separately, the maintenance of a stable identity (the continuous “similarity to oneself”) is achieved, according to this thinker, thanks to a kind of “promise” given to someone who counts for us. Ethical behavior is therefore more than an “obligation”; it is a free mutual affectionate consent.
Reciprocity becomes extremely important for the ethical and legal relations among all members of a society. If the moral and social rights and obligations that guarantee the harmonious functioning of any human society aren’t mutually recognized and applied, the society can’t continue to exist.
The ethical attitude founded on the principle of reciprocity is expressed negatively in the Hebraic Talmud of Babylon (Shabbat): “Don’t do to your fellow man what you would detest he did to you,” and positively in the Christian New Testament (Luke 6:31; Matthew 7:12): “Do to others what you would have them do to you.” The Koran (Sura 109:1-6) also presents a mutual recognition of the right of everyone to have his own faith.
Just ethical behavior, according to the theories of Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), demands mutual “respect” for the Other, being seen as an end in se, that is, for what he is himself and not as a means to acquire something else.
The Declaration of Human and Citizen’s Rights, a product of the French Revolution (1789), advances that all men are born free and equal by nature and defines “liberty” as doing whatever doesn’t harm others: “the exercise of the natural rights of each man has no other limits than the ones which assure to the other members of the society the enjoyment of the same rights. These limits can only be determined by the law” (Article IV).
Reciprocity in the recognition of human rights, founded on the natural equality of all human beings, becomes then the decisive factor for the limitation of personal liberty.
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the United Nations in 1948, starts with the following article: “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and in rights. They possess reason and conscience and should act towards each other in a spirit of fraternity.”
The notion of “fraternity” already accompanied those of “liberty” and “equality” in the well-known declaration of the French Revolution. Reciprocity in social life should, according to this point of view, not only refer to mutual respect but also be extended to a true “solidarity,” a kind of support like the one found among brothers and sisters.
There have been many different opinions concerning the reciprocity necessary for the proper functioning of human societies and the reasons why reciprocity is chosen.
Humans being by nature “social animals,” as Aristotle pointed out, some thinkers considered that it is by reasonable necessity that human beings, when they come to live together in a society, conclude a kind of “social contract,” a common agreement on what they will consider as “just” and “unjust,” on which the rights and obligations, as well as the whole legislation of their particular society, will be founded (see, for example, the theories of John Locke, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and Immanuel Kant).
Others thought that it’s only by the inevitable submission to a power higher than their own that people accept the least possible limits on their innate egoism, expressed in the simplest way as the essential instincts for survival and for the continuation of the species (for example, Sigmund Freud considered all culture to be founded on the obligatory “sublimation” of the libido), or as a will for absolute power, for the most extreme positions (like the one advanced by Friedrich Nietzsche).
Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) declared also that “men in a state of nature, that is a state without civil government, are in a war of all against all.” This philosopher believed, however, that under these conditions, “life is hardly worth living.” “The way out of this desperate state is to make a social contract and establish the state to keep peace and order.” The need to preserve peace as a means to assure personal security is considered then as the “first law of nature.” The second one is to accept reciprocity in the limitation of personal liberty: “that a man be willing, when others are so too, as far forth as for peace and defence of himself he shall think it necessary, to lay down this right to all things; and be contented with so much liberty against other men as he would allow other men against himself” Given the importance of the issue, Hobbes supports an extremely authoritative version of the “social contract.”
The utilitarian believes that a “rational egoism,” where everyone cares for his or her own interests and pleasure, although without causing any damage to others, is the only point on which members of a society need to agree to be able to have the best possible common life.
This kind of necessary “reciprocity” in the recognition of each person’s freedom and rights doesn’t always imply a sense of true unity in a society. We may go even further, saying that not even equality among all members of a society could be founded on this elementary conception of “reciprocity.” Indeed, if there is common recognition of a certain hierarchy in the distribution of rights or power within a state (every social class recognizing the other classes’ position), reciprocity might very well contribute to the creation and the maintenance of a society of inequalities. Revolutionary movements are based on a “withdrawal” of reciprocity for the acceptance of the status quo, at a certain historical moment, arising usually from the parts of the society who don’t enjoy the same privileges as the others.
Reciprocity is, as we see, particularly linked to the idea of “justice.” John Rawls (1921-2002) tried to moderate the negative impressions given by the utilitarian individualistic view by establishing his concept of “justice as fairness” as a basis for the reciprocally accepted “social contract”: “a society satisfying the principles of justice as fairness comes as close as a society can to being a voluntary scheme, for it meets the principles which free and equal persons would assent to under circumstances that are fair. In this sense, its members are autonomous and the obligations they recognize self-imposed.” The persons participating in this hypothetical “initial” establishment of what is just in a society are considered here as “rational and mutually disinterested.” This means that “they are conceived as not taking an interest in one another’s interests,” but Rawls thinks that the pursuit of each one’s welfare separately will finally result in the fairest and most profitable common life for all.
There have been various reactions to this and other similar positions, on which a “liberal” conception of the best social organization is founded. Let us note here only two major ones.
The “communitarian” theories—of which one of the most well-known representatives is Charles Taylor (1931-)—accentuate the importance of the interrelation with others within a particular community for the realization of the best life for the individual. For these thinkers, the individual is essentially constituted through the sense of unity with others. There is no universal “natural” conception of ethical values, the stabilizers of a society, nor any abstract notion of justice, which might guarantee a successful political structure; only the empirical aspects of «socialization” can play this role. Communitarians particularly insist on the importance of the reciprocal recognition of the “right to be different,” concerning especially cultural minorities.
The “ethics of discussion,” introduced by Jürgen Habermas (1929—) and Karl-Otto Apel (1924-), valorize more than any other theory the notion of reciprocity. “Communicational rationality” defines the ethical foundations of human societies according to these philosophers. As language is the means for the actions’ coordination, social life is essentially constructed on “reciprocal recognition,” that is, on the intersubjectivity of interlocutors who recognize reciprocally their rational competences of communication.
The sense given to reciprocity as the crucial factor of social equilibrium (we might indeed call it the “cement” of a society) doesn’t imply any other community than the one accorded by the human rational faculties, and the only necessary background for any agreement of social import is the possibility of arriving at common definitions.
It is perhaps an ingenious way to respect the liberty of thought and the equality of all, as well as to leave the door open for various definitions of reciprocity at the sociopolitical level as a result of discussion among the members of each society.
- Apel, K. (1998). Aueinandersetzungen (Debates). Frankfurt-am-Main: Suhrkamp.
- Habermas, J. (1981). Theorie des kommunikativen handelns (Theory of Communicative Activity). Frankfurt-am-Main: Suhrkamp.
- Hobbes, T. (1998). Leviathan (J. C. A. Gaskin, Ed.). Oxford: Oxford University Press. (Original work published 1651)
- Rawls, J. (1971). A theory of justice. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press.
- Ricoeur, P. (1992). Oneself as another (K. Blamey, Trans.). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.