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3.4.03

(I seem to blog in waves -- several posts one day, then a couple days with nothing. Anyway, here's part 3 of the current wave.)
On Rewarding Friends

Latvia was one of the Soviet "captive nations," ultimately freed by the U.S. victory in the cold war. Recently, as some of us had long urged, Latvia gained greater security when the U.S. lobbied for the Baltic nations to be brought under NATO's umbrella, despite Russian disapproval.

Under President Vaira Vike-Freiberga, Latvia has been an outspoken U.S. ally in the campaign to liberate Iraq. But polls show a possible switch: Latvians, swept up in a wave of European pacifism, may send Americans a message by turning her out of office in June. Democracy gives Latvians the freedom to ride that anti-U.S. wave — but should the Russian bear growl, Americans would be free to remember that message.


I think it's important to remember that there are limits to gratitude. If you do a favor for someone without any prior agreement about recompense, you have no moral claim to your choice of payback. In particular, one cannot demand that someone else perform an immoral act (or, I would argue somewhat less definitively, an act that offends their morality even if you don't share it) as a return favor. Thus, even if I save your life, I can't expect you to kill an innocent person for me (and for my parenthetical addition, if I save an Orthodox Jew's life I can't ask him to repay me by eating pork). If supporting the US war were simply an unwanted burden -- Latvia just chafes at spending the money to send a few troops, or expending the political capital to stand by our side at the UN -- Safire's gratitude case would carry weight. But if the action requested is considered immoral (as I imagine most of the antiwar public thinks), then Latvia is within its rights to refuse that particular show of gratitude.

Such are the perils of doing a favor (or, in the Latvia case, a self-interested action with incidental consequences that are beneficial to another) without agreeing in advance on a repayment.

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