Anansi the Spider
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Anansi the Spider raises philosophical questions about the nature of reciprocity and its relationship to fairness.
Anansi the spider is an African folktale character who is associated with skill and wisdom and often triumphs over foes larger than he. In this story, Anansi goes on a journey only to find himself in great danger. One of his six sons can sense trouble and alerts his brothers to come to their father’s rescue. When Anansi is rescued and arrives back home safely, he has trouble figuring out which son deserves a reward for saving him. He consults Nyame, the “God of All Things,” for help.
Guidelines for Philosophical Discussion
Anansi the Spider raises philosophical questions about the nature of reciprocity and its relationship to fairness: he wants to reward one of his sons with a globe of light for saving his life, but has trouble deciding which son is most deserving. The norm of reciprocity requires that one make fitting and proportional responses to both the benefits and harms one receives — the ultimate goal being to produce stable, productive, fair, and reliable social interactions. Fairness could be described as giving each individual his or her proportional due.
There are many issues embedded in how to determine what fairness requires. For example, what is a fair way to measure what someone is ‘due’, and how can one be sure they have reciprocated in a ‘proportional’ fashion? Should an individual’s contribution, whatever it may be, be measured by their effort or by their output? How does this come into play in group collaborations? Where fairness is a vital part of reciprocity, it can be a difficult aspect to navigate because people’s ideas about what is ‘fair’ are largely subjective. What one person deems to be a fair and ‘proportional response’ may be very different from the next person, and herein lies the problem. Although fairness is an essential part of determining a reciprocal response, it is sometimes difficult to define what is fair in a given situation and find the appropriate proportional response can be hard.
When deciding on how to reciprocate, or show gratitude, one should consider the impact it will have on a social group as a whole — Should Anansi reward one son, or all? Would it be fair to reward a single son? Is Anansi obligated to reward each son because of reciprocity? What is the appropriate reciprocal response to having one’s life saved? Would it have been unfair only to express his gratitude? It depends on who you ask.
Questions for Philosophical Discussion
“O mysterious and beautiful globe! I shall give this to my son, to the son who rescued me.”
- Should you always receive a reward for your work?
- Would it be okay for Anansi just to say thank you for his son’s help? Does he even need to say thank you?
- Do people expect credit for helping others?
- Is accomplishing a task a sufficient reward in and of itself?
- Does receiving a reward for actions make one feel appreciated?
- Do people need to be rewarded to know they are appreciated?
- Is it unfair not to receive a reward for your work?
- If no one received credit for their actions, would rewards or credit still be expected?
“And so they tried to decide which son deserved the prize. They tried, but they could not decide. They argued all night.”
- Why do you think Anansi decided to reward his sons? Why does he want to give them the globe of light?
- Who should decide which son gets rewarded?
- What makes someone capable of deciding who should receive a reward? What are the qualities of someone who is well suited for rewarding others?
- Why does Anansi choose to ask Nyame for help deciding who deserves the globe of light?
- How do those who take charge of rewarding others decide what reward is appropriate?
- Is there a process for deciding what reward is fair or appropriate?
- Should more credit be given for physical or psychological work? Which is more important?
Rewards in a group setting
“But which of the six deserves the prize?”
- Should each son get his own reward? Can they share the globe of light?
- When you work in a team, who should receive credit for the teamwork?
- Does every member of a team contribute equally? Should all team members be rewarded equally?
- If you cannot accomplish something without the help of others, yet you put forth most of the work, how should the credit be distributed?
- Can you share credit? Rewards?
- Is the person who tries the hardest in a team always the one who submits the best work? Who deserves more credit, the person who tries the hardest, or the person who contributes the most? Do they deserve equal credit?
Original questions and guidelines for philosophical discussion by Ysanne Bethel and Olivia Vicioso. Edited June 2020 by The Janet Prindle Institute for Ethics.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.