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Latin reciprocus returning the same way, alternating

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  • 1 a : inversely related : opposite
b : of, constituting, or resulting from paired crosses in which the kind that supplies the male parent of the first cross supplies the female parent of the second cross and vice versa
  • 2 : shared, felt, or shown by both sides
  • 3 : serving to reciprocate : consisting of or functioning as a return in kind <the reciprocal devastation of nuclear war>
  • 4 a : mutually corresponding <agreed to extend reciprocal privileges to each other's citizens>
b : marked by or based on reciprocity <reciprocal trade agreements>


The social norm of reciprocity is the expectation that people will respond to each other in similar ways—responding to gifts and kindnesses from others with similar benevolence of their own, and responding to harmful, hurtful acts from others with either indifference or some form of retaliation. Such norms can be crude and mechanical, such as a literal reading of the eye-for-an-eye rule lex talionis, or they can be complex and sophisticated, such as a subtle understanding of how anonymous donations to an international organization can be a form of reciprocity for the receipt of very personal benefits, such as the love of a parent.

The norm of reciprocity varies widely in its details from situation to situation, and from society to society. Anthropologists and sociologists have often claimed, however, that having some version of the norm appears to be a social inevitability.[1]

Reciprocity and Justice

Standard usage of the term justice shows its close general connection to the concept of reciprocity. Justice includes the idea of fairness, and that in turn includes treating similar cases similarly, giving people what they deserve, and apportioning all other benefits and burdens in an equitable way. Those things, further, involve acting in a principled, impartial way that forbids playing favorites and may require sacrifices. All of those things are certainly in the neighborhood of the elements of reciprocity (e.g., fittingness, proportionality), but it is challenging to explain the precise connections.

Discussions of merit, desert, blame, and punishment inevitably involve questions about the fittingness and proportionality of our responses to others, and retributive theories of punishment put the norm of reciprocity at their center. The idea is to make the punishment fit the crime. This differs from utilitarian theories of punishment, which may use fittingness and proportionality as constraints, but whose ultimate commitment is to make punishment serve social goals such as general deterrence, public safety, and the rehabilitation of wrongdoers.


What is the relation between reciprocity and love, friendship or family relationships? If such relationships are ideally ones in which the parties are connected by mutual affection and benevolence, shouldn’t justice and reciprocity stay out of their way? Isn’t impartiality inconsistent with love? Doesn’t acting on principle take the affection out of friendship or family relationships? Doesn’t follow the norm of reciprocity eliminate unconditional love or loyalty?

Some contemporary philosophers have criticized major figures in the history of Western philosophy, including John Rawls’ early work, for making familial relationships more or less opaque in theories of justice. The argument is that families can be grossly unjust, and have often been so. Since the family is “the school of justice,” if it is unjust the moral education of children is distorted, and the injustice tends to spread to the society at large, and to be perpetuated in following generations. If that is right, then justice and reciprocity must define the boundaries within which we pursue even the most intimate relationships.

A somewhat different thread on these matters begins with Aristotle’s discussion of friendship, in Nicomachean Ethics 1155-1172a. He proposes that the highest or best form of friendship involves a relationship between equals – one in which a genuinely reciprocal relationship is possible. This thread appears throughout the history of Western ethics in discussions of personal and social relationships of many sorts: between children and parents, spouses, humans and other animals, and humans and god(s). The question is the extent to which the kind of reciprocity possible in various relationships determines the kind of mutual affection and benevolence possible in those relationships.


  1. Gouldner, Alvin. “The Norm of Reciprocity.” American Sociological Review 25 (1960): 161-78.
  2. Blau, Peter M. Exchange and Power in Social Life. New York: John Wiley, 1964. Reprinted, with a new introduction, New Brunswick: Transaction Books, 1986.
  3. Gergen, Kenneth J., Martin Greenberg, and Richard H. Willis, eds. Social Exchange: Advances in Theory and Research. New York: Plenum, 1980.
  4. Axelrod, Robert. The Evolution of Cooperation. Revised edition. New York: Basic Books, 2006.
  5. Becker, Lawrence C. Reciprocity. London and New York: Routledge, 1986. Contains bibliographic essays.