I usually spend the summers in a small cottage in the Swedish countryside. In the room where I do my writing, there is a tapestry with a saying, as in many houses of this kind. Most people would probably not understand the saying, even if they knew Swedish, for the words used are outdated. But a rough translation would be: “Goodness should be paid back with goodness”. Since I spend much time in this room, and philosophical writing often requires that you take a short break and think about other things, this is a saying I return to now and then.
The key term here – “pay back” – is a term taken from the field of economy. It is an analogy, of course. How far is it to be taken? Where does it break down? There is an obvious problem already in the more common way of talking about payback, referring to revenge. If you and I agree that you were in the wrong, you can try to compensate me for my loss; such an action might appease my anger, but presupposes that we agree, hence takes place only in the wider context of reconciliation. If we, however, do not agree and I, revenging myself, try to obtain some sort of compensation by force, you will perceive what I do as wrongful, and if you react in the same way as I do, you will get revengeful, and if you carry out the revenge this will give rise to revengefulness on my part, and so on. In the economic sphere, the creditor has a hold on me until I have paid back my debt, and when I have, I do not need to deal with him anymore. Payback in the sense of revenge aims at such liberation, but the chain of events it might set off leads to even stronger bonds. The fact that someone has been good to you might sometimes be experienced as a similar bond, as an incurred debt on your part. Only by doing something good in return will you be spared having to do with this good person anymore. Could this really be the message of the saying?
There are other ways of reading the saying, of course. It exhorts us to do good, this is clear. But why to do good in the context of goodness? Would not “Evil should be paid back with goodness” be a more challenging and apposite saying? I could certainly imagine a tapestry with such a saying in an old farmhouse, but this does not mean that rendering good for good is a self-evident thing. Perhaps the desire to pay back the debt I might think that I have incurred when someone does something good to me testifies to this. I am challenged, and I wish to get rid of this challenge as soon as possible. But it is also possible to take up that challenge. This is someone I could have much more to do with than before. And her example shows me a possibility that can inspire me in my relations to anyone. Paying back would then be no less than giving from a horn of plenty.