Meta-ethics of reciprocity

Since the discussion about mutualism began to shift from economics to ethics and sociology, there have been lots of questions, and a few accusations, about the specific ethical framework involved. Let me cut to the chase: I’m not particularly concerned about whether anarchists are driven by deontology, consequentialism, virtue ethics, etc. Personally, I’m a ethical pragmatist, and I think Proudhon, with whom I’ve obviously found plenty of common ground, was as well. I think a thoroughly anarchistic account of the good and the right is likely to pretty closely resemble Proudhon’s account of the true. And maybe someday I’ll take the time to really make that argument, but when it is a question of the context for the ethic of reciprocity, as I’ve been discussing it, I’ve been starting from a somewhat different place. Whether it’s a question of the strong reading of the Golden Rule I’ve proposed or the analysis of the “anarchic encounter” that has consistently been attached to it in my own work, I’ve felt right along that there are a number of possible paths to the ethic of reciprocity. Early on, in fact, this was one of the reasons I gave for exploring it more fully. Similarly, I think there are a number of ways of coming to accept anarchism as the best alternative. And while I think some reasons for embracing anarchism lead directly to more robust versions of anarchist theory and practice, I feel fairly secure in the belief that if people really embrace anarchism, no matter their initial reasons, then there is a pretty good chance that improvements in theory and practice can be made going forward.

The mutualist ethic of reciprocity, as I’ve been discussing it, hasn’t been a deontological ethic, or a consequentialist ethic, or even a specifically pragmatic ethic. It has been an anarchist ethic. Perhaps someone not yet committed to the anti-authoritarian path will see something appealing enough in the descriptions of the anarchism of the encounter to make the leap to anarchism and mutualist reciprocity, but I have seen myself primarily involved in an internal debate.

Of course, the fact that clarification is needed suggests that it would be useful to review a few points. I suspect that the attempts to categorize the approach here as consequentialist don’t go much deeper than the fact that I’ve embraced different principles than some of those who identify with deontological approaches. Those critics are correct, I think, in suggesting that nothing in this particular sort of mutualism presents rules, rights or duties of a clear enough sort to count as a deontological system. There is not, after all, much room in a system derived from Proudhon’s thought for anything that could count as an external criterion for judging social relations. The “rule” in our version of the Golden Rule is that there is nothing short of a very profound engagement with the realities of a given encounter that can even approximate justice. I’ve fairly consistently and explicitly avoided the language of rights and duties, even in the course of my long engagement with property theory, and when that language has emerged in the context of Proudhon’s work it should be fairly obvious that both the nature and consequences of those “rights” and “duties” are not the sort of thing likely to satisfy many members of Team Deontology. We have a philosophy of recognition: “RIGHT, in general, is the recognition of human dignity in all its faculties, attributes and prerogatives.” And, ultimately, even the ability to limit our recognition to human dignity escapes us.

To the extent that the elaboration of neo-Proudhonian or “two-gun” mutualism has had a meta-theoretical subtext, it has really been that neither a preoccupation with rights and duties nor an exclusive focus on consequences (guarantism, etc.) is sufficient to establish, let alone sustain, a living, progressing anarchism. If I had to make a specifically philosophical argument about approaches, then it would probably take the form of a pitch for pragmatism. But my sense is that much of the same work is done by really focusing on what is entailed by anarchy and anarchism, and I’ll probably continue to focus my attention there.

About Shawn P. Wilbur 2300 Articles
Independent scholar, translator and archivist.