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Why You Never Owe Me

January 27, 2011

It’s possible that I’ve done a favor for you. Perhaps I’ve helped you somehow by giving advice, taking action, or simply providing entertainment or food for thought through a blog post.

Regardless of what exactly I’ve done, or do, I don’t expect some kind of recompense.

To be sure, I would like to be acknowledged somehow; I want to know what I’ve done for someone, that I’ve been effective. I won’t refuse appreciation for something I’ve done.

What I won’t do is to ask for something in return. What I do has, as the saying goes, no strings attached.

There is an air of commoditization of activity, which is related to the commoditization of time which is prevalent in industrialized nations (for more on the commoditization of time, see the earlier post “Getting a Job: The Death of an Individual”). When a person expends a consequential amount of energy upon something, it can be either a favor or a service performed. The former is more informal, more indicative, of a closer relationship, and possibly less numerically oriented– but still viewed as an expenditure of energy. Friends, family members, some acquaintances, lovers will “owe” each other in a crude, somewhat imprecise, system of exchange of favors.

Those people who are not close enough may perform services for each other, simply because it is often more convenient to employ the skills of someone with whom the “employer” has a personal connection. In this case, the two individuals are more apt to directly recompense each other’s skills, materials, and labor.

Given my own financial affairs, I can in part empathize with this viewpoint. To a certain extent, it is implausible to consider that an individual could take on the financial obligations either favors or services would entail.

But there is an air of commoditization. If you do something for someone, do them a favor, then they “owe” you. They have a debt to be repaid to you at some point in the future.

I disagree. I deny the implied moral obligation that comes with a favor.

If I offer my aid, my knowledge, or my resources, I am not looking to create a debt. Such a practice is repugnant to me.

When I offer my aid, my knowledge, or my resources, I am making a commitment to helping whoever it is on their path through life. Perhaps they wouldn’t have the necessary resources to draw upon if I wasn’t involved. Perhaps I resonate with that person in a way that facilitates our working together. It could be that they need multiple people of the same abilities to collaborate on a project. Maybe it is simply the fact that I am available when others are not that drew this person to ask for my aid.

Whatever it is, it’s my hope that whatever I can do to further this person’s personal growth and experiences in life will be successful and create a positive environment within which they can live.

Taking into account this perspective on personal aid, the societal inclination to create a debt between individuals becomes not only uninteresting but repulsive. Rather than simply enjoying the intrinsic value, society teaches individuals to (other than the sensible recouping of, say, financial resources which were necessarily expended) seek extrinsic rewards– additional payment sometimes, but usually the “owing” of favors from the other individual in the future.

Such extrinsic extortion cheapens the very act of offering aid to our fellow men and women.

So when I tell you that you don’t owe me anything after I buy you a coffee in Common Grounds, this is why. Or when I say you don’t owe me anything when I help you move into your new home, or throw in the change for your groceries because I have it in my pocket.

I like doing things for those who are close to me. That in itself is all I need, and compensation is really just not a factor that plays into my actions.

To note, this is not a post in which I rail against being grateful to our fellow human beings. That in itself is never a bad thing, and I would never condemn either gratitude or expressions of gratitude.

However, there is a big, fat, black line between accepting expressions of gratitude and extorting payment from those we choose to aid.

I hope you enjoyed the post. Please– if you liked it, if you didn’t, if the post incensed you, if it piqued your interest, if it’s the worst piece of writing you’ve ever encountered; leave your comments, questions, and thoughts below. Have a great day.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. chris permalink
    January 27, 2011 6:21 pm

    Great post Miles, I agree with you completely, there is a difference between accepting thanks, and taking “repayment”, or saying you “owe me a favor”, It just seems like everyone feels as if everything they do deserves an award. Again, like you said, I’m not above accepting thanks or graditude, but when people want to be rewarded for helping someone carry groceries out to their car, or helping someone get their car out of a ditch, it sickens me. Me being a boy scout of course, I may be biased, but that is how I was raised to treat acts of good will, feel good that you did it, and ask nothing in return for it.

  2. Kayla permalink
    March 22, 2011 12:35 pm

    Service and help to others should not require a favor or a reward in any way. It is all because like you said Miles, that society expects it from each other. Parents teach it to their kids instead of teaching them that helping your fellow man without a reward or favor is better than always expecting something. Selfless service is better than service for rewards or favors in return. That is why so many college kids who are required to get service hours hate doing it because they see it as a waste of their time and they don’t get a reward from it or for it. Instead of the self gratification of helping someone out because they needed it or just because it is nice people seek those rewards because they desire acknowledgment for what they did.

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