The Ethics of Reciprocity (Not as complicated as it sounds)

Mark Twain is quoted as saying “Don’t use a five-dollar word when a fifty-cent word will do.” “The Ethics of Reciprocity” is that five dollar word. We are all much more familiar with the simpler version:

The Golden Rule.

I’ve known about the Golden Rule as long as I can remember. Simply put, it is a derivation of what Jesus taught in Matthew 7:12 “Therefore all things whatsoever would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them:”

Pretty straight-forward Christian theology, right? Of course, now and again I find that something we attribute to our faith aren’t exclusively “ours.” (Like “Jesus Wants Me for a Sunbeam” being written by someone NOT in our Church. link)

The concept behind The Golden Rule is shared with most of the world. Here are a few examples: (link)

Buddhism: “Treat not others in ways that you yourself would find hurtful.” [Source: Udana-Varga 5.18]

Confucianism: “One word which sums up the basis of all good conduct….loving-kindness. Do not do to others what you do not want done to yourself.” [Source: Confucius, Analects 15.23]

Hinduism: “This is the sum of duty: do not do to others what would cause pain if done to you.” [Source: Mahabharata5:1517]

Islam: “Not one of you truly believes until you wish for others what you wish for yourself.” [Source: The Prophet MuhammadHadith]

Golden Rule in Jainism: “One should treat all creatures in the world as one would like to be treated.” [Source: Sutrakritanga 1.11.33]

Judaism: “What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbour. This is the whole Torah; all the rest is commentary. Go and learn it.” [Source: HillelTalmudShabbath 31a]

Sikhism: “I am a stranger to no one; and no one is a stranger to me. Indeed, I am a friend to all.” [Source: Guru Granth Sahib, p.1299]

Taoism: “Regard your neighbour’s gain as your own gain and your neighbour’s loss as your own loss.” [Source: LaoziT’ai Shang Kan Ying P’ien, 213-218]

Unitarianism: “We affirm and promote respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.” [Source: Unitarian principle]

It is obvious that much of the world has religious underpinnings which claim the concept of the Golden Rule as part of their theology.

Simple question: If that is the case, then why is the world such a mess?

Simple answer: Because we aren’t that great at practicing it. It isn’t that shocking though, as Paul predicted it would be like this nowadays:

“This know also, that in the last days perilous times shall come.For men shall be lovers of their own selves, covetous, boasters, proud, blasphemers, disobedient to parents, unthankful, unholy,” etc… (2 Timothy 3:1-2)

When you get right down to it, following the Golden Rule is basically just considering others’ needs as equal to our own – along the lines of another well-known command, “Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. ” (Matthew 22:39)

Can you imagine how our homes, our communities, and our world would be different if we made our decisions with “reciprocity” in mind, or valued others as much as we valued ourselves?

Here are a few quotes from our leaders about the ideas behind the Golden Rule, and plain old kindness.

“Wherever it is found and however it is expressed, the Golden Rule encompasses the moral code of the kingdom of God. It forbids interference by one with the rights of another. It is equally binding upon nations, associations, and individuals. With compassion and forbearance, it replaces the retaliatory reactions of ‘an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.'” President Russell M. Nelson.

“Kindness is the essence of a celestial life. Kindness is how a Christlike person treats others. Kindness should permeate all of our words and actions at work, at school, at church, and especially in our homes.” Elder Joseph B. Wirthlin

“Followers of Christ should be examples of civility. We should love all people, be good listeners, and show concern for their sincere beliefs. Though we may disagree, we should not be disagreeable. Our stands and communications on controversial topics should not be contentious. We should be wise in explaining and pursuing our positions and in exercising our influence. In doing so, we ask that others not be offended by our sincere religious beliefs and the free exercise of our religion. We encourage all of us to practice the Savior’s Golden Rule.” President Dallin H. Oaks

“Therefore, if ye do not remember to be, charitable are as dross, which the refiners do cast out, (it being of no worth) and is trodden under foot of men.” Alma 34:29

Nicely established teachings, from Jesus to modern-day prophets, and most other religions as well.

I think for some people kindness comes easier than for others. For example, my EC is bone-deep kind. It seems to come naturally to her, and it is part of her character. However, she is married to someone who will find himself in situations where he struggles with this concept.

My current vexation of choice is chronic irritation with inept customer service or tech support people on the phone. I am not always as “Golden” as I should be.

I know it is a coward’s way out to just say things like “I have a temper,” or sometimes my passions take over.” or “that’s just the way I’m wired.” That attitude isn’t gonna cut it as we are expected to improve on those flaws. How do we get better at it?

As in many aspects of our personal character development, the prophet Mormon has some answers in his teachings on charity:

And charity suffereth long, and is kind, and envieth not, and is not puffed up, seeketh not her own, is not easily provoked, thinketh no evil, and rejoiceth not in iniquity but rejoiceth in the truth, beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things.” (Moroni 7:45)

And how do we get some of that charity? We remember to ask for it in our prayers:  “Wherefore, my beloved brethren pray unto the Father with all the energy of heart, that ye may be filled with this love…”(Moroni 7:48)

The Golden Rule and the Second Great Commandment are essentially the same concept, being taught two different ways. Two witnesses to a simple demand from God: We need to love better.

I don’t hear as much about the Golden Rule as I did when I was young. In a society that craves to over-complicate things, it is a very simple “childlike” approach to loving our neighbor. Simple is good.

Widely followed, the Golden Rule could greatly alter the world, but a more realistic approach would be to attempt to alter what we can alter: our own world, and the world of those close to us. Imagine if every marriage, every home, every community was filled with the ethics of reciprocity, the world would not be much an angry place.

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  1. The ethics of reciprocity can actually be complicated. I studied reciprocity as part of my master’s thesis involving voting preferences. In many countries, politicians engage in “vote buying.” They give voters money, and then expect the voters to show “reciprocity” by voting for those that gave them the money. Not exactly the golden rule, but maybe the golden rule misused.

  2. Elbert Hubbard, a noted author and publisher wrote, “Do unto others as though you were the others.”

  3. Here’s a complication I kinda like: the Platinum Rule… do unto others the way THEY want to be done unto. Or something like that.

    While I like the intent of the sentiment, as a practicing behaviorist I struggle with its practicality. It requires me to know people well enough to actually understand what is meaningful to them. How many gifts to my EC were underwhelming because I gave her something I liked?

    BUT, we circle back to that’s really the Golden Rule because I would like people to know me well enough to treat me the way I want to be treated.

    Sigh… my head hurts now.

    Is it over complicating to just Be Nice?

  4. Are you familiar with the book “Do Unto Otters”? It’s a picture book I think you would enjoy. I have found that in my classroom I am much more patient and kind since I have been listening to the Book of Mormon and conference talks in the morning while I get ready. It really helps me.

Add your 2¢. (Be nice.)