Reciprocity with a Vengeance

The opening scene of the movie The Godfather is an exquisite portrayal of reciprocity in action. It is the wedding day of the daughter of the Godfather, Don Corleone. The Italian immigrant Bonasera, an undertaker, has come to ask for a favor: He wants to avenge an assault upon the honor and body of his own daughter, who was beaten by her boyfriend and another young man. Bonasera describes the assault, the arrest, and the trial of the two boys. The judge gave them a suspended sentence and let them go free that very day. Bonasera is furious and feels humiliated; he has come to Don Corleone to ask that justice be done. Corleone asks what exactly he wants. Bonasera whispers something into his ear, which we can safely assume is “Kill them.” Corleone refuses, and points out that Bonasera has not been much of a friend until now. Bonasera admits he was afraid of getting into “trouble.” The dialogue continues:

CORLEONE: I understand. You found paradise in America, you had a good trade, made a good living. The police protected you and there were courts of law. And you didn’t need a friend like me. But now you come to me and you say, “Don Corleone give me justice.” But you don’t ask with respect. You don’t offer friendship. You don’t even think to call me “Godfather.” Instead, you come into my house on the day my daughter is to be married, and you ask me to do murder, for money.

BONASERA: I ask you for justice.

CORLEONE: That is not justice; your daughter is still alive.

BONASERA: Let them suffer then, as she suffers. [Pause] How much shall I pay you?

CORLEONE: Bonasera . . . Bonasera . . . What have I ever done to make you treat me so disrespectfully? If you’d come to me in friendship, then this scum that ruined your daughter would be suffering this very day. And if by chance an honest man like yourself should make enemies, then they would become my enemies. And then they would fear you.

BONASERA: Be my friend—[He hows to Corleone]—Godfather? [He kisses Corleone’s hand].

CORLEONE: Good. [Pause] Some day and that day may never come, I’ll call upon you to do a service for me. But until that day—accept this justice as a gift on my daughter’s wedding day.

The scene is extraordinary, a kind of overture that introduces the themes of violence, kinship, and morality that drive the rest of the movie. But just as extraordinary to me is how easy it is for us to understand this complex interaction in an alien subculture. We intuitively understand why Bonasera wants the boys killed, and why Corleone refuses to do it. We wince at Bonasera’s clumsy attempt to offer money when what is lacking is the right relationship, and we understand why Bonasera had been wary, before, of cultivating the right relationship. We understand that in accepting a “gift” from a mafia don, a chain, not just a string, is attached. We understand all of this effortlessly because we see the world through the lens of reciprocity. Reciprocity is a deep instinct; it is the basic currency of social life. Bonasera uses it to buy revenge, which is itself a form of reciprocity. Corleone uses it to manipulate Bonasera into joining Corleone’s extended family. In the rest of this chapter I’ll explain how we came to adopt reciprocity as our social currency, and how you can spend it wisely.

Source: Jonathan Haidt, The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom. New York: Basic Books, 2006