What Do I Owe You

There is an idea that has gained a lot of traction in recent years that you do not owe anyone sex, attention, or even your time. Before anyone gets the wrong idea, let me say I am very much in support of this idea. Philosophically I have long held the notion that you don’t owe anything to anyone, outside of very limited and specific situations (such as contractual obligations*). This might sound pretentious, but I believe your presence is a gift, which you are free to share or withhold from anyone at any time you please. (Bear in mind that, like any gift, anyone is free to decline it, although one hopes they would do so gently). It is actually quite refreshing to me to see the rest of the world finally catching up to me in that regard, at least somewhat (there does still seem to be a bit of gender bias in this regard, although which way that bias goes seems to depend on who you ask, so for now let’s just say we have some more work to do).

I have noticed a peculiar knock-on effect from this generalized freeing from social obligation that is somewhat troubling, if for no other reason than it seems as if society is regressing even as I personally am advancing. At the risk of being indulgent, I’ll admit to some personal flaws; when I was younger, I didn’t see any value in politeness. It seemed a waste of time and energy, and honestly, I didn’t value others enough to indulge in it (and to be fair, I’m still a misanthrope). As I’ve gotten older, I’ve come to understand that politeness is a social lubricant. Simply put, it makes others more tolerable, and it makes you more tolerable to others.

Kindness and respect are similar in that regard. We don’t give them because they are owed; we give them because they make the world a better place to live in. They make society more functional, easier to manage on a daily basis. And not to put too fine a point on it, but you get what you give. It took me far too long to learn that particular lesson, but I learned it all too well. If you want kindness, respect, or even basic politeness in your life, you need to give it first. There’s no guarantee it will be returned, but this is an investment worth making, because it costs nothing and yields so much. It really is the ultimate low risk, high reward choice.

* One such situation that some might assume would apply would be in the case of the law, such as with Social Contract Theory. Now I’m going to admit upfront that I am at best an armchair philosopher and a schoolyard political scientist, so take my opinion for what it’s worth when I say: poppycock. When it comes to the law, there is no obligation to anyone other than yourself, and the only obligation you have is to know the local laws and customs (as well as how rigorously they are enforced) well enough to make an informed decision about how closely you will follow them.

This should of course always be informed by your own personal sense of morality and ethics. As has often been said, “just because something is legal does not make it moral, and just because something is immoral does not make it illegal”. Also bear in mind that a sense of righteousness is no shield against the long arm of the law. Stand by your convictions if you must but be prepared to pay the price. Note the part about “an informed decision”.