Social Miracles As Hostage Exchange
Sometimes you want something from someone, but you cannot see how they could possibly give it to you, because there appears to be a conceptual incoherence—something close to a contradiction—in the description you would give of what it is that you want. The word for this phenomenon is: miracle.
Callard gives four examples: gifts, trust, apologies, and forgiveness:
One example of a social miracle is: the perfect gift. Economists routinely point out that buying each other gifts is less efficient than gifting cash, and they have a point. If what’s in box #1 is fixed, whereas you get to select what goes into box #2, and you can choose anything whose cost is no more than what’s in box #1, would it ever make sense to prefer box #1? Yes: when it contains the perfect gift.…
Trust is another example of a social miracle. When I trust you, I hold beliefs about the future (that you will do what you say, that you will not betray me, that you will be there for me, and so on) that are not grounded purely in the evidence. A detached third-party observer will make different predictions from mine, because his are based merely on observations as to how you have behaved in the past, whereas I have a connection to you, … I see my belief in you not as overconfident but rather as the right and reasonable one for me to have. …
In order to apologize, you have to avow the offending action as your own, otherwise you’d have nothing to apologize for; but you also have to disavow it, otherwise you wouldn’t be apologizing. You have to present the action as something you saw fit to do, which is to say, something that didn’t just arise accidentally in conjunction with your behavior but showed up as choice-worthy to your mind’s eye—and then also to insist that you don’t see that action from your mind’s eye, but instead from the victim’s perspective, as an unacceptable object of choice. …
In order to forgive me—as opposed to excusing my behavior, or brushing away the slight aside as insignificant—you have to both hold me responsible and absolve me of responsibility.
Callard doesn’t try to explain why social miracles exist, though she does make these comments:
My victim hears what I say in the light of the Platonic Ideal of Perfect Apology. That is why it is always possible for her, if she is not feeling up to forgiving, to pick out some way in which I have fallen short. … Most gifts don’t do more than keep the hope of the Perfect Gift alive; the same is true for most ordinary apologies.
The explanation that comes to my mind is an analogy to exchanging hostages:
The custom of taking hostages was an integral part of foreign relations in the ancient world. This long history of political and military use indicates that political authorities or generals would legally agree to hand over one or usually several hostages in the custody of the other side, as guarantee of good faith in the observance of obligations. (More)
Hostages in Chinese history may be somewhat arbitrarily classified into … 1. “Exchanged hostages"-to guarantee a friendly relationship between two states or two other groups. 2. "Unilateral hostages"-to guarantee allegiance and lovalty. … hostage was normally a member of the sender's family, in the majority of cases, his son. (More)
When we accept definitions of our social acts that are usually impossible or very hard to satisfy, we give hostages to those allowed to complain about our acts. They may declare our acts insufficient, and we would then have to accept their analysis as saying, yes, our acts were insufficient. They did not represent real gifts, apologies, forgiveness, or trust.
We plausibly do this for the same reason that ancient kings exchanged their sons as hostages: when we can each hurt each other, we are less likely to betray one another. This seems related to political allies who know of “dirt” on each other, or administrators who can see that overly-strict rules force them all to break rules often. This also seems related to why we are vulnerably “intimate” with close associates.
Note that, as with ancient hostages, social miracles come in two flavors: matched pairs and one-way singletons. Either roughly equal parties exchange hostages with each other, or a single party gives hostages to someone more powerful to signal their submission. So apology goes with forgiveness, trust usually comes in matched pairs, and gifts go with their gracious acceptance.
What is an example of a one-way social miracle? How about admiration-, as opposed to flattery-type, praise? Admiration is honest deserved high evaluation, in no way done to gain favor, while flattery tries to ingratiate oneself via high evaluations. While the context of most praise makes it pretty obvious that they are plausibly flattery, we usually choose instead to credit them as admiration.