Principles of Reciprocity and Debts to Our Neighbors

Dissertation, University of Virginia (1986)

We often benefit from the cooperative efforts of others, as when our neighbors organize a neighborhood watch program or when there is a community wide effort to control litter and beautify public areas. It is also often the case that such benefits fall on people even though they have neither done anything to produce them nor asked to receive them. In my dissertation I explore what obligations an individual has to groups or institutions which benefit him, even though he has not consented to receive the benefits that nonetheless come his way. I examine two 'principles of reciprocity'--gratitude and fair play--as well as considerations of the collective ownership of property, to see if they can require the beneficiary to join his benefactors in the scheme or project that produces the benefits. ;Gratitude is not adequate to support such an obligation. I argue that institutions and groups are not entities which can be owed gratitude, for they, unlike the people working within them, lack the all-important feature of being motivated by goodwill. Thus I maintain that it is only individual persons who can be owed gratitude, even for benefits provided in their institutional roles, and that this is not enough to obligate beneficiaries to support groups that benefit them. Likewise, I argue that property principles are not fully adequate to obligate someone to make a return to his benefactors. Here much turns on the distinction between the true transference of property, with the accompanying suggestion that some payment is due in return, and the mere coming into possession of property, which in the cases with which I am concerned does not always require a return. Obligations based on fair play are more promising. I argue that the willing and knowing "acceptance" of benefits obligates the beneficiary to his benefactors. So it appears that the fair play principle can generate some obligations to support the cooperative efforts of others from which we benefit, even if we have not consented or contracted to receive those benefits
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