What We Owe Others & What We Owe Each Other

There has been much discussion recently about debt, both personal and national, and its impact on our lives now and in the future. Although this issue to staggeringly complex it essentially boils down to what constitutes the rights of individuals versus the obligations and responsibilities of individuals. For example, if I desire the right and privilege of owning a home, I also take on the corresponding responsibility: making mortgage payments.

Both the theoretical and real-life debates get more interesting when we begin to assign responsibility and blame; to assess failures as fully, partially, or completely someone’s fault (or not). How we view this question often determines how we develop the answer. It is the age-old debate of those who believe all individuals are rational calculating machines driven by self-interest, versus the view that as social animals there is an interplay between the expectations and demands of society and the choices we make as individuals.

The rationalist view is that self-interest is hard-wired into human nature, though  some research indicates that cooperation and altruism may have played a more important role in human evolution than originally thought.

Martin Novak’s Supercooperators makes the case that cooperation was and is a fundamental building block in our species’ development.

Similarly, Mark Pagel’s book Wired for Culture posits that what makes humans unique is the cumulative effect of being able to both manipulate objects and to basically ‘steal’ ideas by observing, copying, and improving upon the ideas of others. Human beings build levels of complexity by sharing (or at the very least observing) the actions of others, as is also demonstrated in the field of social networks and technology.

As explained by Yochai Benkler  in The Penguin and the Leviathan, a healthy sustainable model of interaction is found in the open networks of Wikipedia and other online resource sharing communities.

A separate part of the debt debate is the question of whether all segments of society are bearing an equal burden in shouldering the crisis. Joseph Stiglitz’s Price of Inequality, John Lanchester’s IOU, and Timothy Noah’s The Great Divergence  argue that the increasing separation of the haves from the have nots and the deterioration of the middle class are resulting in an unequal social debt burden.  Another interesting component is that the social burden of debt can include the owing of favours and similar obligations, which can be perceived to be as important as financial debts. Margaret Atwood’s Payback and David Graeber’s Debt: The First 5000 years provide fascinating overviews of this dimension.

Although there are no definite conclusions to be found for this multi-level issue, there is a diverse range of perspectives attempting to make sense of it all.


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