What we owe others

Nihal Manjila, Staff Writer

As I was talking with a friend, the topic came up of how we should treat others—and, as an extension of that, what we owe others. I do not mean money or other forms of debt, but rather we were talking about how the way we treat other people is set by societal social norms.

As a preface, social norms around how we should behave and treat others vary greatly from culture to culture, place to place and time to time. However, I’m limiting this article to today’s campus environment, and I am applying this view to strangers and acquaintances, since it is expected that we treat familiar people well. 

Overall, we can and should treat each other better, particularly when it comes to manners and looking out for the well-being of others. It is given that we should not actively wish or cause social or material harm to others. But should we see that as the end goal? Simply to be neutral? I don’t believe so. Our end goal should be to be positive forces for each other, even if we are not close friends. Not only does this raise expectations of how we should treat each other, but it also has the potential to benefit us if others treat us in this way. This view must be consciously held and acted upon in order to begin a culture change so we can protect people from emotional or social harm.

We can also apply this concept in our courses. Rather than seeing classes as a competition against other students, it may actually be helpful to work together and help each other. For instance, I found myself doing much better on exams when studying with others. Helping each other identify and fix weaknesses can be much more helpful than simply grinding alone on the third floor of the library. This sort of collaboration is not only allowed, but encouraged by most professors. To that end, we should be actively working to meet and study with other unfamiliar students.

Further, this notion is reflected in the educational ideal of the university as a place of learning. Historically, universities were not just a place to check off some academic requirements, earn a degree and move on—they were places where people could learn technical skills, develop critical thinking and, most importantly, be a part of a learning community. The strength of this community is that we can learn from each other, not just from lectures and notes—and not just from faculty and graduate students. Undergraduates can also establish these connections and perform better in their courses or other endeavors.

Lastly, we should apply this concept to volunteering and community service. It’s easy to engage in service because it looks good for graduate school applications or fulfills the service requirements of a fraternity and other extracurriculars. However, these motivations make performing community service somewhat superficial and not as meaningful as it potentially could be. The most basic idea behind community service is serving people we do not know but who could benefit from our time and energy. It is difficult to perform meaningful service and make real connections with the people you serve if you are not open to the possibility of doing good for others for its own sake. Additionally, we owe our communities, particularly because they live alongside us and work in the stores we shop in, restaurants we eat at or hospitals we go to for medical care. Lifting up and serving our community, particularly those in the lowest socioeconomic strata, is based on the idea of owing others around us. 

I challenge you to think about what you believe we owe others. Should we focus on looking out for ourselves or should we try to do good for others?