Make Mutuality Mutually Supportive with These 5 Principles

Mutuality is all about treating each other with respect and consideration, even under conditions of asymmetric power (like parent/child). We definitely want mutuality for its own sake, but also because it sets a foundation for mutual support. Note that having a foundations doesn’t mean we have a house to live in. We have to build it. The frame for this house is constructed from moral principles that guide our decisions and behaviors toward truly supportive relationships. Relationships that make life easier, strengthen social bonds, and elevate the common good. Many principles (or ethics or values if you like) would point us in the right direction, but 5 have emerged quite clearly from my research and reflection. I’ll share them here as a jumping off point for your own reflection.

Tip #109: Defend Dignity

Dignity is at the core of human rights. In fact, dignity appears in the first line of the United Nation’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights:  

“Whereas recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world …”

The concept of dignity was brought to the fore by philosopher and ethicist Immanuel Kant. In Kant’s reckoning, things could be valued in one of two ways: price or dignity. If something has a price, its value comes from its usefulness to us—otherwise known as its instrumental or means-to-ends value. Things with dignity have intrinsic value—we value them for their own sake. Kant underscored the point that humans are things with intrinsic value, not something we use to achieve a goal. Thus dignity is what distinguishes humanity from other objects in our world. We might imagine Kant’s view on buying and selling humans as slaves, which are considered to be property and priced as such. It’s a profound violation of a human’s inherent dignity. 

While slavery may not be as common as it once was, human dignity faces monumental threats throughout the world in countless ways. Mutuality does not stand a chance without dignity. So if we choose no other battle in our lives, we must defend the dignity of our fellow humans, not only for their sake, but for our own.

Tip #110: Choose Compassion

The concept of compassion makes frequent appearances in Buddhist writings and practice. For Buddhists, compassion or karunameans that we feel empathy for another’s suffering, and we take action to ease it. The funny thing is, compassion was not always so central to Buddhism.

Buddhism is fundamentally about individualsalvation, but back in the first century BCE, a heated debate among monks in Sri Lanka arose regarding whether a monk should also concern himself with humanitarian service. What decided it was a story about the monk Cullapindatiya Tissa, who did not sympathize with a female devotee when her house burnt down. He simply came the next morning as usual to receive alms. Seems pretty thoughtless, doesn’t it? From this it became clear that everyone’s wellbeing—monks’ and laypeople’s alike—is interconnected. And thus, the ethic of compassionate social engagement became the norm. 

So whether you follow your head or your heart, choose compassion as a guiding principal for mutuality.

Tip #111: Demonstrate Care

Who cares? We all do…about someone or something. But frankly, if everyone demonstrated more care for ourselves, other people, and the planet, our collective wellbeing would be much better indeed. In fact, I would argue that care should be one of our primary operating principles.

The word “care” is so common, however, that most of us likely don’t think too deeply about what it means. I’m going to get a little academic here. The ethic of care is a normative feminist theory arguing that our moral decision-making need not be based only on logic and reason (as Immanuel Kant and Jeremy Bentham would say), but defends some emotions as having a vital role in moral action. 

While some might argue that acting on the ethic of care would mean prioritizing relationships in which an emotional bond already exists, we can invoke care in any situation where there is an imbalance of power or injustice. Caring for the “underdog” in this way also relates to our action toward nature when it is threatened. Care also suggests responsibility to maintain wellbeing, which applies equally to ourselves, others, and the environment.

Why should we care about care? We can’t have mutuality without it.

Tip #112: Respect Fair Share

Anyone with siblings is likely familiar with the concept of “fair share,” especially at dinnertime. In my family, we also have to do our fair share of household chores. In relationships of mutuality, fairness is a welcome guiding principle. 

For a more outwardly oriented take on fair share, consider the permaculture definition. At its most basic, permaculture is an approach to designing and maintaining agriculturally productive and sustainable life systems, ranging from the household level on up. But it also embodies a social element that informs individual lifestyles, social action, and collective organization alike. Briefly, the three permaculture principles are Earth Care, People Care, and – you guessed it – Fair Share.

Fair Share in permaculture means getting clear on what’s enough, setting limits, and redistributing surplus. But this need not be limited to agricultural inputs and outputs. Many permaculture advocates interpret fair share as a call for justice within the local community and the wider world. In fact, some though leaders in the permaculture movement don’t even mention gardening, agriculture, or growing food but instead focus on environmental and social justice. If you care about the Earth and People, they argue, then Fair Share logically follows.

Tip #113: Embody Interdependence

Interdependence is the final principle in promoting mutuality. The reality is that life on Earth is interconnected in a giant web of wellbeing. This interconnectedness means that that our ability to create a life we value is inextricably intertwined with that of others. 

We can better understand this if we change our concept of the self. Westerners understand the self as isolated and individualistic. And according to neoclassical economics, we aim to satisfy our own insular self-interests.       

Buddhists see the self differently. I won’t go into the nuances here, butaccording to Buddhist teachings, no entity exists independently or permanently, not even the self. Following from an interdependent self, one’s choices have far-reaching consequences that may result in a karmic boomerang. This clearly expands the notion of “self-interest.” 

While the Buddhist explanation is rather abstract, ecosystem scientists have helped us to understand how interdependence functions in nature. Take the food web, for instance. Interrelationshipswithin a food web are such that a change in one element can result in extensive disruption. Polar bears rely on seals for food, but the seal population may decline if Arctic cod disappear. Cod eat zooplankton, which rely on ice algae. If climate change causes sea ice to melt, the ice algae population drops, creating a domino effect that reduces the polar bear population. If we factor humans into that equation, the rationale for expanding our self-interests would be irrefutable.

So with interdependence guiding us, mutuality will naturally follow.

Next Week…

We’ll wrap up the month on mutuality with 7 tips to expand support to others in need throughout the world.


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