By Joe Nalven
Confucius was asked what word could guide one’s conduct with others. The most important word for Confucius was shu, or reciprocity: “Do not do to others what you would not want others to do to you.”
Immediately, I thought of my research on a cooperative air pollution project in the San Diego–Tijuana region. The EPA was willing to make a permanent loan to the local Mexican environmental staff. The expensive air monitoring machine was appreciated but ultimately rejected.
Even though Presidents Lopez Portillo and Jimmy Carter lauded the joint project, the Mexican staff questioned what expectations would come along with this loan. They envisioned having to actually use the machinery. That was puzzling to their U.S. counterparts, but understandable once one considered the amount of staff resources that would have to be dedicated to the air pollution side of their multifaceted set of priorities in water and other contaminant sources.
Following Confucius’ admonition would have required the U.S. counterparts to step into the shoes, administrative and budgetary, of the Mexican staff. That was effort was either minimized or with a blindfold.
On a larger scale, I saw that the perception of size also mattered in thinking about reciprocity. Then, Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau compared the U.S.-Canada relationship similar to that of an elephant and a mouse. The elephant might step on the mouse, but it would be inadvertent.
From the Mexican perspective, the writer Carlos Fuentes saw the relationship as that of a shark and a sardine. A malevolent image. Same size comparisons, but with divergent understandings of shu.
However important shu or reciprocity is for guiding our conduct with others, neither Confucius nor most of humanity would think that is the magic wand for non-divisive relationships. Yet, we can also agree that the idea is a worthwhile starting point.
Karl Jaspers, a German-Swiss psychiatrist who turned to philosophy, an adherent of existentialism, found similarity in the great cultures of the first century BCE. What we might find interesting is the appearance of the Golden Rule during this era.
So, for Hinduism, we find a parallel thought to Confucius: “One should never do that to another which one regards as injurious to one’s own self. This, in brief, is the rule of dharma. Other behavior is due to selfish desires.”
The notion of reciprocity is central but with the added emphasis of reflexivity — is this something that I wouldn’t want to happen to me; if so, I should refrain from doing it to others.
Sometimes a historical narrative is added for justification. In the Jewish Torah, the admonition for reciprocity is tied to a momentous experience: “You are not to oppress the resident alien, because you were aliens in the land of Egypt.” Some readers might pause and think “resident alien”’ is a bad translation and want to substitute “stranger.” But biblical scholars would object and find “stranger” a word that resonates well in some contemporary philosophies, but it is not what was meant in ancient times.
Other readers of the Torah might wonder why the Children of Israel’s experience was looked at with a set of blinders. After all, there was a good Pharaoh, one whom the patriarch Jacob blessed. This Pharaoh gave community prime land to settle in. Shouldn’t there also be a reciprocal maxim of beneficence: “You are to be generous to resident aliens (or strangers) for you were treated well in the land of Egypt.”
Quite clearly, the numerous times the Exodus admonition is stated speaks to a victim narrative. What is missing is the generosity narrative as part of the experience in Egypt.
In order to parse the difference, one can turn to an early rabbinic authority, Hillel the Elder. His advice to a convert was “What is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow: this is the whole Torah; the rest is the explanation; go and learn.” An important addition to the wisdom of the other religious traditions is the study and learning. That is, we can begin with a positive notion of reciprocal action but that must be followed with a further inquiry as to why, whether there are exceptions, what is the context.
This bracketing of reciprocity with inquiry, not only for converts or for those in the Jewish religion, but for all of us, leads us to another frame of reference. We can add ethology to the mix of historical narrative, size, generous versus oppressive contexts, and perception of intent.
Frans de Waal saw these homilies as part of a veneer many thought was imposed over our brutish nature. Civilization is supposed to make us better humans, but when we look around we can only wonder. Perhaps that’s an illusion.
De Waal studied the behavior of chimpanzees. They are our close primate relatives in the evolutionary scheme of seeing ourselves. How does our shu compare with that of chimpanzees?
“Both apes and children responded like humans typically do. If their partner’s cooperation was required, they split the rewards equally. However, with passive partners — a situation akin to the so-called dictator game — they preferred the selfish option. Thus, humans and chimpanzees show similar preferences regarding reward division [in this research], suggesting a long evolutionary history to the human sense of fairness.”
We can avoid a reductionist view — we are not just like chimpanzees — but we can acknowledge our related approach to social behavior. We both have shu and a Golden Rule as part of our biosocial adaptation to our environment. Simply said, we lock our doors at night in the city; we tell our children about stranger danger; we are cautious about walking in dangerous neighborhoods; but we also feed the weak, clothe the poor, and welcome the stranger.
There is no one size fits all answer to how to do shu. We do it naturally, but not unconditionally. We ask questions. We consider the context. We hope for the best and pray that our choices are right. And later, we look in the mirror of life.
And perhaps we are all converts to humanity, seeking out the just path to engage with others.
Joe Nalven is a former associate director of the Institute for Regional Studies of the Californias at San Diego State University.
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