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On the Principle of Reciprocity

This post originally appeared on The Thinker on November 3, 2009.

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Via Keith Burgess-Jackson comes these words from Robert P. George on the subject of reciprocity.

Says George:

In my view, people ought to respect the principle of reciprocity whenever they find themselves in disagreement with reasonable people of goodwill, regardless whether [sic] they find the position (or even the arguments) advanced by such people to be worthy of respect. It is not the worthiness of a position (or argument) that makes this principle applicable. Rather, it is a matter of respecting people’s reasonableness (even when they are defending a view that one can only judge to be fundamentally unreasonable) and their goodwill (even when they are defending practices or policies that one can only judge to be gravely unjust or in some other way immoral). By observing the principle of reciprocity in moral and political debate, one is not necessarily indicating respect for a position (which one perhaps reasonably judges to be so deeply immoral as to be unworthy of respect), but for the reasonableness and goodwill of the person who, however misguidedly, happens to hold that position.

So, to summarize:  In the context of opinions and debate, the principle of reciprocity states that we should respect the reasonableness and the goodwill of those with whom we disagree, and to treat them with civility, even if we judge their opinions to be unreasonable and/or their views to be unjust or immoral.

Why should we do this? Because we might be wrong in our judgment that our opponent’s opinion is unreasonable or unjust or immoral. To assume we are so right about their unreasonableness or immorality that we can treat them disrespectfully is to be guilty of intellectual arrogance, which should be abhorrent to a critical thinker. It also seems axiomatic that adherence to the principle of reciprocity should be a prerequisite for intellectual empathy, one of the characteristic habits of a critical thinker. The person who is engaged in the opposite of reciprocity — demonizing, straw-manning, assuming the worst of one’s opponent, etc. — has outed themselves as a non-critical thinker.

I would caveat the preceding statement as follows. We can commit to the opinion that a person is unreasonable and/or immoral, to the extent that can be justified by evidence. (Same goes for any opinion, in critical thinking.) The point, though, is that you must have evidence other than an opinion with which you happen to disagree. If you assume the worst of someone only because of an opinion different than yours, then you’re being intellectually arrogant and uncivil.

Two quick examples:

(1) A conservative (or libertarian) assumes a liberal is stupid because the liberal can’t see the value of free markets and individual liberty. In this case the conservative is guilty of violating the principle of reciprocity because he assumes bad characteristics (stupidity) on the part of the liberal. In truth, the liberal just has different values (egalitarianism over liberty) which reasonably lead him/her to the opinion that free markets can sometimes lead to undesirable outcomes.

(2) A liberal believes a conservative is lacking in compassion because the conservative is against entitlement programs aimed at social ills such as poverty. The liberal in this case is violating the principle of reciprocity by assuming bad characteristics (a lack of compassion) of the conservative rather than assuming good will and reasonableness. In truth, the conservative believes private charity can take care of poverty far more efficiently, and with far less chance of unintended consequences, than government entitlement programs.

There’s plenty of room in this incredibly complex world for reasonable people to disagree on a myriad of issues. There’s no reason to assume ill of the person who doesn’t share your opinion.

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