Anansi the Spider
By Gerald McDermott, Square Fish
By Ysanne Bethel and Olivia Vicioso
Anansi, the spider, is an African folktale character who is synonymous with skill and wisdom, and triumphs over foes larger than he. In the story, Anansi the spider goes on a journey only to find himself in great peril, fortunately, one of his six sons has the ability to sense trouble and alerts his brothers to come to Anansi’s rescue. With the help of each son and their individual talents, Anansi is rescued and arrives back home safely. As a reward for saving him, Anansi wants to present a “globe of light” to the son who assisted him the most. Unable to determine which son is most deserving, he consults Nyame, the “God of All Things” to assist, who is also unable to determine which of the six sons deserves the prize. Nyame decides to give the prize to all, placing the globe of light in the sky.
Guidelines for Philosophical Discussion
Anansi the Spider raises philosophical questions about the nature of reciprocity and its relationship to fairness: Anansi wants to reward one of his sons for saving his life, with a globe of light, 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 about 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 as 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 how to determine a reciprocal response, sometimes it is difficult to define what is fair in a given situation and thus finding 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 to only 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."
"And so they tried to decide which son deserved the prize. They tried, but they could not decide. They argued all night."
Rewards in a group setting
"But which of the six deserves the prize?"