Some of my earliest lessons in ethical behavior, as a child, came in the form of a question: “How would you feel if someone did that to you?” It was reasonably effective because it was simple. I could guess how I would feel, and I didn’t want to make anyone else feel that way. Although I couldn’t have spelled the word at the time, the theory underlying that lesson was reciprocity.
Reciprocity relies on an underlying sense of relevant equality. You and I may be different people in any number of ways, but we’re both fully human, and that entails some basic respect. There’s an implicit politics within the ethical norm of reciprocity, too. I’m no better than anyone else, but I’m no worse, either. Taken seriously, that ethical position tends to lead to a rough egalitarianism. There may be hierarchical roles for various reasons, but the people occupying those roles are just people. They have the same human flaws as everybody else. And the power they’re granted is both a grant—that is, removable—and for a limited purpose. It is not license. Nobody is entitled to abuse anyone else, and nobody deserves abuse.
Reciprocity isn’t a perfect ideal, of course. It can fail through a lack of self-awareness; if my prediction of how I would feel if someone did that to me is wildly wrong, I could draw the wrong lessons. It can also blind people to genuinely different preferences in others. Encountering someone grounded in a religion or culture that isn’t my own, or with a very different personality, may lead to a mismatch between what I would have expected them to want and what they actually want. Reciprocity can also become transactional, or a mechanism with which to attempt control. Without the requisite humility and curiosity, it can become a form of narcissism.
Granting its flaws, though, it has always struck me as a good default position for how to treat others. When in doubt, it’s usually safe to go with “treat others as you’d want to be treated.” Sometimes it’s possible to do better than that, as when you have deep knowledge of the other person. But for daily interactions with strangers, it’s a pretty good starting point. What we call “manners” in the broad sense are how we enact basic respect for other people.
In politics, reciprocity tends to restrain arbitrary power. If my party is in charge right now, I might be tempted to look the other way when it decides to break some eggs in the name of making the proverbial omelet. But if I know that my party could lose power soon, and the other party might step in and see me as an egg that needs breaking, then suddenly constraints on arbitrary authority start to make sense. Basic ground rules that limit what people in power can do to people who aren’t in power at any given time make it possible for a group to accept defeat when it happens. We’ll get ’em next time. If we accept that we’re all just people, none really better than any others, then basing some ground rules on basic reciprocity makes sense.
All of this is by way of explaining just how deeply disturbing the movement behind Governor DeSantis’s recent proposals is. One bill would treat any accusation of bias as defamatory per se, with significant monetary damages awarded; strikingly, truth is not a defense. Another would grant political appointees the power to rescind tenure for any individual at any time, even without cause. The attacks on New College are even more brazen. But parsing each one is a bit like arguing over which rock did the most damage in the avalanche. The avalanche is the point. And the catalyst of the avalanche is a fundamental rejection of reciprocity.
The animating idea behind all of these attacks is that some people are just better than others. The better ones, in this story, are tired of tolerating the annoying habits of their inferiors, so it’s time to restore order and take the inferiors down a notch or two. In this story, “better” is not a result of behavior; it’s an innate status. The betters are licensed to engage in behavior that would be considered contemptible if the roles were reversed. That’s because they reject the idea that the roles could be reversed. They see the roles as natural, even preordained. Some are destined to be eggs, and some to make omelets. Interfering with that can only lead to confusion and failure.
If that’s your view, then the legalisms based on reciprocity look like just so many technicalities to be swept aside. Best to “deregulate,” to liberate the strong to treat the weak any way they see fit.
In looking at the various abuses of power already enacted and others proposed, I’m struck not only by how awful each one is, but by the apparent confidence that it will never be the other side’s turn again. That’s how deep the rejection of reciprocity goes. Over time, of course, hubris doesn’t usually turn out well. But until it collapses, it can do catastrophic damage.
As academics, we have a luxury and a job. We have the luxury of being able to take a long view, and we have the job of clarifying what’s going on so others who are preoccupied with other matters can understand. At the end of the day, this isn’t about one state, one governor or one election. It’s about whether some people are just innately better than others, or whether we’re all just people. I’m proud to be on Team Reciprocity, and I welcome as many teammates as I can get.