Winning a Moral Arms Race?

Winning a Moral Arms Race? May 2, 2012

The first person to comment on my post about The Hunger Games and not seeing gifts as debts had a pragmatic concern:

I don’t see this as moral progress. If more people would see a sacrifice as a debt the world would be a better place.

I’ve got a (richly deserved) reputation as a not-so-soft paternalist when it comes to social policy, so I’m sympathetic to this critique.  Isn’t there a benefit to chafing under a debt insofar as it spurs us on to better acts?  How is this kind of inducement different from picturing someone observing you when you act, imagining how you’d feel about someone else taking the act you’re considering, or some other exercise you take to build up your moral muscle?

I think the main difference is that we live in a culture where debt is shameful, and, therefore, it’s hard to be in debt to someone without resentment.  (I’d be curious about how this dynamic would play out in a culture that had a radically different approach to indebtedness, i.e. one that actually practiced a regular Jubilee where all debts were forgiven).

But, in the world where we live, we want to escape from debt as swiftly as possible.  The commenter’s question is premised on this fact: we urgently want to escape from obligation to another person.  And that’s the attitude I’m wary of encouraging in anyone, but especially in me.

If you’ve ‘won’ in the debt-as-spur world, you don’t owe anyone anything.  You get a Successfully Atomized Existence plaque or something.  And you’re likely to look askance at someone trying to do a nice thing for you; you don’t want to be entrapped now that you’re finally, radically free.  When this attitude crops up in gift economies, it really does look like an arms race, where people beggar themselves in order to humiliate their neighbors through generosity.

But even if you could secure a gift-giving non-aggression pact, and even if you didn’t live in fear that someone was going to sneak-attack be too nice to you, this attitude would still end up pernicious and unsustainable.  It’s a brute fact that we come into the world with debts we cannot repay.  The most obvious one is our debt to our parents (and Christians would presumably add our dependence on God).  It would be poisonous to resent our parents for their love or to chafe under their generosity.  We need a different way of talking about gifts and sacrifice.

Oh, no! I’ll need to take out the trash for a week to restore balance after all this unasked for affection!

We can’t try to discharge debts or want to be free of our dependence on others.  The way I try to curb these thoughts is to remember how happy it makes me to be of use to someone else and then to be glad that my friend can be similarly happy by being of help to me.  I shouldn’t spoil it by worrying about the good deeds score between us.  (Before all my offline friends jump into the combox, yes, I know I am still terrible at this).

And anyway, my duty to others isn’t something I could ever be free of, even if I had slacker friends or no friends at all.  I’m still called to forge my character and refine my conscience no matter which way the ledgers stand right now.  If I have any obligation, it’s an absolute obligation.  My responsibility to others isn’t something I can work off or live up to, it’s a law that I’m as subject to as I am to gravity.

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  • Brandon

    That last paragraph is an excellent point, and one that libertarians (at least the Ayn Randian, American variety I’ve encountered) don’t seem to be able to grasp at all (or just don’t want to). Being part of a functioning, effective society already carries with it an obligation to help others, and you can’t simply work this off by paying a certain amount of money or completing a certain number of good tasks, it’s an ongoing duty.

  • Andrew G.

    Have you read Graeber’s Debt: The First 5000 Years? It would seem relevant to your interests.

  • Cous

    +1 for the picture of Dudders. First things I’ll say is that there’s a reason we have the expression, “As a token of our gratitude.” We still try to communicate that we appreciate the sacrifice involved, even if we realize we can’t pay it back.

    Leah, if your ultimate concern is with “forging your character and refining your conscience,” I should think you’d would NOT want all sacrifice to be considered debt, otherwise it’s just external motivation; performed in such a paternalistic world, someone’s “good works” might benefit other people, but still leave her as a morally-dry husk. “If I give away everything I own, and if I hand my body over so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.” (1 Cor 13:3) That certainly does’t mean that NO sacrifice should be considered debt; I appreciate what that commenter said in that we often consider ourselves entitled to other people’s sacrifices, or don’t properly value them. For example, Americans are quickly losing the sense of obligation to take care of their parents when they become old or sick, it’s become more about how much they like their parents, or how convenient it is at the moment.

    I think a healthy understanding of sacrifice and gifts can only come with a healthy understanding of relationships between human beings, particulary friendship and love. If I get a “gift” from my friend in the form of him doing me a huge favor, I don’t immediately start stressing out about when I can pay him back or start feeling inferior to my friend because he’s “got one on me.” I know he did it because his main motivation for doing is that he wants me to be better off, and he knows that I would be willing to do the same for him if he asked it. And that’s enough. If I thought that friendship was a matter of bookkeeping, it would become an oppressive and chafing bondage instead of a freely undertaken adventure with an equal.

    That was an example of a gift between friends; an analysis of gifts between strangers would look different, because like I said the amount and type of “debt” attached to a gift depends largely on the type of relationship the giver and the recipient are in, as well as the size of the gift. Like with anything that touches on the complex world of human relationships, finding the proper response to a gift requires a lot of thinking/discernment and practice. But a good place to start is by considering that not all types of debt are shameful or signs of weakness; not all dependence is bad. For example, to have a friend or romantic partner is to say, “I care about you, and therefore you have the power to hurt me if you so choose. I am, to a certain extent, at your mercy.” And your friend is in the same position with respect to you.

  • Joe

    “I’m still called to forge my character and refine my conscience no matter which way the ledgers stand right now. If I have any obligation, it’s an absolute obligation.”

    My old spiritual director used to say “We Catholics worship a demanding Jesus, but at the same time Christ will absolutely not be out done in generosity, so be generous.” Kind of a neat paradox.

  • John Donne

    No man is an island entire of itself; every man
    is a piece of the continent, a part of the main;
    if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe
    is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as
    well as a manor of thy friends or of thine
    own were; any man’s death diminishes me,
    because I am involved in mankind.
    And therefore never send to know for whom
    the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.

  • anon atheist 78

    I fell kind of flattered that my comment spiked this blog post but anyway. I would argue that it is easier for people to feel indebted because of a concrete situation rather than due to this abstract moral obligation. I would agree that it is moral progress if people do the abstraction but not if people just drop the feeling.

  • Emily

    Another reading recommendation: Marshall Sahlins’ Stone Age Economics. He discusses pretty much *all* giving as reciprocity that uses behavior and timescales to build up different kinds of relationships, which has been pretty foundational in economic and social anthropology. Essentially, delayed reciprocity (e.g. birthday presents, everything that your parents give you that you can’t pay back, gifts received at a potluck, actual financial debt) sets up a relationship BECAUSE of the delay – it establishes debt.

    The particularly American thing here is thinking that’s automatically bad. Wanting to reciprocate as quickly as possible, as you do with credit card debt, implies wanting an “out” of the relationship, at least in that particular form. That’s why if you were to hand people money at your birthday party in the exact value of the gifts they gave you, it would be insulting: first, you’d be saying, “I want to discharge my obligation now” instead of continuing with your friendships and remembering their birthdays, and you’d be saying, “I want to pay back this debt exactly,” when more intimate relationships tend to involve somewhat uneven exchanges as a way of building trust and mutual dependence.

    So I agree with you entirely. But I think “a different way of talking about gifts and sacrifice” can be one that looks at them as instrumental means toward various interpersonal ends, rather than abstract moral acts separate from particular relationships.

  • Just a science fiction reading rec on gift economies: Kim Stanley Robinson’s _Red Mars_ talks a bit about alternative economics, one of which is gifting, and the first rule of which is “no potlatching!” The point is to establish good relationships, not indebtedness.

  • Just one anthropological note as well. I read an interesting idea once which was that before the invention of money, people “stored their wealth” in good relationships. If something went wrong and you needed help, the one with the most good relationships had the most resources to draw on to get help. And furthermore, people *liked* to help those in need because it strengthened the friendship. But money changes things – now instead of storing wealth as friendships, wealth is stored in money, and people become ways to get money, thus exploitation rather than friendships. Your fear of debt may be a fear of future exploitation, due to current cultural circumstances. But with friends things do not need to be this way – friends like to help. They like to lend you their jacket.

  • deiseach

    From my view, the problem with couching all exchanges as debts not gifts (or sacrifices) is that it does engender indebtedness, that is, you owe me (or him or her or them) something and have to repay it.

    Now, it’s one thing if I undertake a debt myself (e.g. borrow money from the bank; I understand that I have to re-pay that loan and I can’t complain if they send me letters reminding me of my obligation when I fall behind on the payments); however, having others imposed possibly unwanted or unasked for debts on me is another matter. And what of generosity? I think most people give gifts because they want to make the other person feel happy, not because they want to build up a bank of credit (either in goodwill or material obligation, which they will then cash in when they want favours from that person).

    I’m not generous by nature myself, but there have been times when I’ve bought and given a gift to someone purely because I saw the item, I thought “This is exactly the kind of thing X loves!” and there has been no other reason (a birthday, any other occasion that calls for gift-giving, repaying a favour or a gift I have been given) than the pleasure I get from contemplating the pleasure the recipient will get from the gift.

    That’s why we were all taught it’s polite to say, when receiving a gift, “You shouldn’t have!” In other words, there is a place for debt and mutual indebtedness, as citizens of society we all have rights and responsibilites, but gifts are different: there’s no ticking off lists, no weighing up of the kind that “I invited you to dinner, then you bought me a ticket to the concert, so I owe you a weekend’s baby-sitting while you and your partner go on a break and then you will owe me that expensive pair of shoes I’ve been drooling over in the shop window for my birthday”; it’s about generosity and joy and no obligations put on anyone.

    If you will pardon the use of quotation from a specific, sectarian Scriptural source, Luke 14: 12:

    “12 He said also to the man who had invited him, “When you give a dinner or a banquet, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, lest they also invite you in return and you be repaid. 13 But when you give a feast, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, 14 and you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you. For you will be repaid at the resurrection of the just.”

  • deiseach

    As an exemplar of generosity, there is the 7th century Irish king Guaire the Generous or the Hospitable, of whom it was said that his right arm grew longer than his left by dint of being constantly extended in giving charity, and that he would not refuse anything asked of him to anyone, even to a bush:

    “One time there was a great troop of the poets in Guaire’s house in the winter time, and a woman of the poets’ household had a desire for ripe blackberries. But everybody said there were no blackberries to be got, ripe or unripe, at that time of the year. But as one of Guaire’s people was out in the fields he saw a bush that was covered with a cloak, and under the cloak the blackberries were ripe and sound, and they were brought in to the woman, and there was no reproach upon the King’s house. This now was the way that happened: King Guaire was going through the field at harvest time, and the thorns of the bush took hold of the cloak he was wearing, and held it. And Guaire was not willing to refuse so much as a bush that asked anything of him, and he left the cloak there on the branches. And for that kindness he got his reward in the end.”

    You may not want to go that far, however 😀

  • The grace to simply accept a gift is a highly underrated virtue. It should be taught more.