In everyday speech, debt describes an economic relationship, and typically applies to the money or assets owed to creditors by individuals, households, governments and nation states. But it has long been used metaphorically to refer to non-economic moral obligations as well. A good deed done on someone’s behalf is often said to be owed a similar response, in repayment of a debt. Incarceration and other forms of punishment for wrongful acts are similarly cast as the method by which the accused pay their “debt to society.”

In most cultures, the moral injunction behind this expectation of reciprocity is so strong that its violation is akin to a taboo; in German, the word for debt is “schuld,” the same as that used for “guilt.” For bankers and other lenders, payback morality is a primary deterrent against default, more powerful than the prospect of a ruined credit score. At the same time, …

This essay may be found on page 85 of the printed volume.

Works Cited
Permanent Link to this Essay

Leave a Comment