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The Ethic of Reciprocity

October 31, 2012, 7:55 AM

My recent post "Building Justice" talked about how human beings have to work together if we want to build a just world to live in. I want to say some more about that, not least because this week, everyone on the U.S. East Coast had a vivid demonstration of what we're up against.

New York City, where I live, was among the worst hit by Hurricane Sandy. On Monday night, Twitter had one apocalyptic image after another: lower Manhattan eerily darkened, a Con Ed transformer exploding on 14th Street, flood waters pouring into tunnels and turning major streets into car-choked rivers, a whole street of houses engulfed in flame in Queens, all the patients in NYU's hospital being evacuated after the emergency generator failed. We can be thankful that relatively few people lost their lives, but it will take weeks to clean up all the damage. (I made it through the storm just fine, but I know not everyone can say the same.)

But I want to call attention to one problem that, to the best of my knowledge, we didn't have: there was no hurricane-related crime. Even in the evacuation zones along the shoreline, or in lower Manhattan where all electric power was shut off, there were no arsons, no muggings, no opportunistic looting. In fact, the opposite happened: there were so many offers of help from volunteers that it overwhelmed a New York City website. I witnessed this myself, on a small scale, while we were doing our pre-hurricane preparation the day before: the supermarket where we stocked up, though crowded and almost stripped bare, was calm and orderly, no one shoving or yelling. The only possible counterexample I observed was one sociopath spreading rumors on Twitter.

Contrary to the myth of the panicking disaster victim, the truth is that disasters bring out our altruistic side, not our selfish side. In most real crisis situations, people pull together and cooperate much more readily than anyone often expects. I imagine that this is because humans are naturally tribal - we think of ourselves as belonging to communities, whose members owe each other mutual protection and support. And in the face of a disaster so much bigger than any of us, that moral circle temporarily expands, encompassing the whole human race in the face of something vast and inimical to all of us.

The heroic stories like these are an excellent demonstration of the best of all humanist principles, the ethic of reciprocity, better known as the Golden Rule. As an overarching principle, it holds that we all have moral duties to each other; that there's a web of reciprocal obligation which encompasses all rational beings. Just as we hope that others would help us if we were in need, it's our responsibility to help them in turn.

These past few days gave us examples of people acting this principle out, pulling together for the common good in dire circumstances, expecting no reward except the chance to help others in need. And if we praise them as human beings at their best, as well we should, doesn't that make tham an example worthy of emulation? Doesn't it show that the basic potential for goodness in humanity is universal, or nearly so? And if it does, then we come easily to the conclusion that to behave morally, we need no religious rules or authorities, no saints or saviors. The heroism of ordinary people is, and should be, enough.

UPDATE: As a commenter pointed out, there were in fact some sporadic instances of looting - a few dozen people. Compared to the overall number of people affected by the storm, I still think this is virtually insignificant and doesn't affect the conclusions drawn here, but I'm mentioning it for completeness.

Image credit: Shutterstock

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The Ethic of Reciprocity

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