Why Not Be Nice All The Time?

Most people think reciprocity means being nice; we return a favor with a favor, a kindness with a kindness. Someone invites us to dinner and we’re supposed to invite him or her to our house at some future date in return, we’re supposed to reciprocate.

For some of us, the only reason for doing something nice is to rack up points to be redeemed later. If we’ve done a favor, we expect a favor in return, reciprocity. For some, the reward of giving will be deferred to a next life after death. It’s still an equitable arrangement because we get back what we give in equal measure. For still others, the reward of giving is in and of itself reward enough, altruism. We just get a kick out of seeing other people happy. For still others, the reward of giving is being able to think of ourselves as good people who put the pleasures and needs of others ahead of our own selfish desires. Sometimes being the unconditional giver makes us feel like we are better than the takers.

After a while though, regardless of our motive for being nice, if we do all of the inviting, all the providing of goodies, all the accommodating to the needs of others, and all the forgiving and excusing, we have to scratch our heads and ask, what’s wrong with this picture? Are we being patsies? Are we being used and abused? Do the takers really like us or respect us or, are they laughing at us?

Look at it this way. Whatever our motives, what’s the message we’re giving to others, to those who consistently take advantage of our generosity and don’t return the favors, to those who insult us or hurt us, the ones we always excuse and forgive, and those we continually allow to intimidate us? Maybe we’re setting a good example, but perhaps, just perhaps, regardless of our motives, our giving encourages their taking, our "goodness" encourages their "badness".

It would be a beautiful world to live in if everybody reciprocated our good deeds with good deeds of their own. It looks like being unconditionally nice, however, can’t, all by itself, change the world into a nicer place for all.

Reciprocity has another face! Reciprocity wears the face of justice and respect for others. No one would deny that in all fairness, good deeds should be reciprocated. Reciprocity doesn’t only require a kindness for a kindness however; it requires an unkindness for an unkindness as well! Reciprocity is respectful. It respects others enough to expect them to be as responsible for their actions as we are for ours. It’s fair too. Retaliation for an offense received, isn’t a punishment, it’s a message to let the offender know, this kind of treatment will not be tolerated. It will not retaliate more harshly, (or softly) than the offense received.

And, reciprocity is predictable. What you see is what you get, no devious game playing here.

Reciprocity is also wise. It doesn’t hold grudges and it knows we’re not perfect. It knows when to give and accept an apology.

Even the most altruistic motives must consider that when we do all the giving unconditionally, and we don’t hold others accountable for their actions, we hog the role of good guy leaving only the bad guy role for them.

A fair and respectful relationship within which we can both enjoy the rewards of giving and taking can only be achieved through the fair and respectful system of reciprocity.

In the late sixth century BCE (Before Common Era), Confucius emphasized benevolence, respect for others, and reciprocity as the Foundations of Social Order.

    —M. LaCourt