"Do unto others as you would have them do unto you." -paraphrasing the Bible, Matthew 7:12
"That's not very Smoochy-like behavior!" -Danny Devito, Death to Smoochy
Warning, January 2016: this is a long blog, but I still like it if you have the time. There is more to say about the finite distribution of empathy within the reality of the attention economy, so there's a lot I didn't get to.
In some form or another, the much-adored Golden Rule exists in most major religions and ideologies, including Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism, Hinduism, etcetera, etcetera. In philosophy, it has driven the creation of Kant's Categorical Imperative and the libertarian's Non-Aggression Principle, which are merely modifications to the same basic ethical position. It's everywhere.
Seems like a pretty good idea, doesn't it? And it would be, if everything went according to plan, which doesn't happen. In the real world, there's a different story. So, given that it's a Tuesday and I'm trying to procrastinate on real work, maybe it's a good time to throw a rock at one of the foundational ideas of all ethics. Why not? I'm feeling trollish.
There are two clear problems with the Golden Rule.
Values IncompatibilityIt seems like a clear violation of the Golden Rule to tie someone up, beat them with whips, and publicly shame them, and for most people, there would be little argument. Then you find out that your girlfriend is into S&M and enjoys this sort of thing, and suddenly your relationship is over because you followed the Golden Rule. Go figure!
This is rather obvious, even to those who would otherwise buy into the GR. But in practical terms, it's a killer in a diverse society. How can you know what people value? What if some guy enjoys a good practical joke, including jokes played on himself, and pulls a whopper on someone who hates having jokes played on him? He followed the Golden Rule, right? What if some people like excitement more than those they interact with? What if they have totally different priorities when it comes to money? What if they hold opinions that others don't? Do you value wealth or affection more? War or peace? If you value wealth and war, are you then a problem for a society that assumes people want peace and affection? The more different people are, the harder it is to make something like this work. You have to assume that people are generally the same, which they clearly are not. Some of us like a challenge and loathe boredom more than discomfort. Some of us want to be left alone. Can all preferences be compatible? And those are just preferences, minor tastes: what about when we throw beliefs into the mix?
Western society has been fighting about what the "correct" values are for centuries, and that problem isn't going anywhere. In fact, given multiculturalism, it's getting worse every day. Ethicists know about the values incompatibility problem, and have suggested a variety of changes, including the "platinum rule", but from a practical standpoint, it is extremely unworkable. You DON'T know other people all that well. You can say that people should care enough about each other to know what they like and what they don't, but this can't work for everyone; the scarcity of attention screws it up. You can only know so many people so deeply that you can understand or predict what they would like. With the random person on the street, for lack of binding norms, your best bet is to mind your business if you want to be considerate, and there goes your social capital.
The problem of diverse values becomes much more acute if you have children, and you want those children to share your values. This isn't simply selfishness. We aren't talking about kids being denied the prerogative to become "who they are" here; when you're raising children, you are molding who they are to a great degree. Of course parents want their children to share their values; they need their children to understand them and relate to them to have a decent chance of a relationship built on trust. And of course, the parents are going to think their values are correct; they wouldn't be valued otherwise, so should we deny them the prerogative to raise their kids their way? This goes beyond the parent-child relationship and into the way that the child handles life in a the community.
Norms and cultural values need to exist, and among the most popular ways of creating a community with shared values is organized religion. And the Golden Rule desperately needs a God to work, which brings up the second point.
IncentivesIt doesn't get any more obvious that this: What happens when someone breaks the rule?
Living among people who take the Golden Rule seriously means living around people who do not practice any sort of revenge, who do not inflict harm, and who do not return pain for pain with the same veracity of their returning pleasure for pleasure. In this moral environment, the bigger your failures become, the more society is bound to try to "kill you with kindness" or blame themselves. They expect reciprocity, but have no recourse when it fails to come about unless they violate their own morality. So, what incentive does one who feels no intrinsic desire to conform have to keep from taking advantage of every possible liberty?
None. If everyone else is following the Golden Rule, then the last asshole in the village becomes a god.
At the very least, if there is no possibility of negative consequences, then what the hell makes you think that some people wouldn't cheat? Even just a little, subtly, keeping it low-key enough not to ruin the easy meal ticket? You know what a free-rider looks like, and free-riding is perfectly rational behavior. The one guy not playing the game by the rule ends up being the one guy not constrained into effective slavery.
I've become convinced that there are certain dissonant elements in our psychology that refuse to admit the degree to which economic reality and Golden Rule-style morality are incompatible. Because you cannot follow the Golden Rule and operate on economic motivations simultaneously unless you seriously water down both. They are not quite opposites, but damn, they're close.
The issue can be further whargarbled by pointing out that values, subjective and unique to the individual, are by definition self-interested. They are your values. Economics, the description of behavior in accordance with values, is therefore destined to be self-interested. Think your values should be brought into the world because they are good? That's just, like, your opinion, man. Economic behavior works to order the world. The Golden Rule does not; the Golden Rule would turn everyone in the world into a non-confrontational serf, ripe for domination by those who remember empowerment. Vulnerability invites exploitation. Should the vulnerable blame the empowered soul who merely gives in to the temptation created by those who make unthinking vulnerability a lifestyle?
Why, sure! Blame was always the point: you can blame the strong for your troubles, for their incompetence in the game of power, taking a self-righteous stance because you never pretended to be competent, which gives you the moral upper hand.
We already live in this kind of world, one where the buyer expects protection and need not beware. People are tremendously vulnerable, and believe that they have the right to live in a world where vulnerability is never taken advantage of. They cry when anything from a computer virus to a stock market plunge fucks up their day. And they don't just want someone to protect them; they NEED someone to protect them.
Thus, the perpetual requirement that societies have authority. The authority protects, and to do so requires empowerment. Authority finds ways - like a mandate from God - to justify setting themselves apart from the crowd, and that's by necessity, because the authority cannot order society without becoming a hypocrite. The Golden Rule is egalitarian; authority must break its code in order to create incentives for those tempted to exploit not to do so. The authority takes the blood on their hands to protect the rest from bloodying their own. In Christian theology, God punishing the wicked after death was supposedly enough, but for this particular metaphysical realm, kings still claimed divine right as the enforcer of God's will on earth, and they needed this legitimacy.
Some have claimed that the problem with the death of God will be a lack of compassion. Bullshit. Feeling compassion towards those you relate to is a natural, community-building reaction, as is the absolute demand that said compassion NOT be distributed equally. In trying to distribute it equally, we've turned compassion into a business. It's everywhere today; we spend billions on charity and government policy to soothe the savage ego using compassion. It doesn't help, because it becomes valueless when it's an entitlement that people can take for granted; if anything, we need less. No, the real problem with the death of God is the lack of legitimacy for any given authority. And this shows up in the constant hatred this society has towards those in charge.
Today, democracy - dumb as a post when it comes to creating systematic incentives - is the only legitimacy authority can draw from. The authority now represents the people, painful when you realize the pain authority must inflict on rule-breakers, and therefore, the stain on a society's self-image whenever coercion is exercised. According to the Golden Rule, punishers are always hypocrites, and therefore are loathsome creatures trying to control good people when it's unnecessary to do so. The preferred vision of leadership offered is one of the powerful also being the good, of setting examples to follow.
Believe it or not, most cops, judges, businessmen, and fathers have known throughout history that most of the people they discipline are not truly evil, including those that buy into the concept of evil generally. They understand that people end up in bad positions and do stupid things, and they didn't necessarily mean any harm. But still, they must enforce. The people who talk about punishment not working are the people who have been so well-protected by authorities that they can convince themselves that Golden Rule goodness is natural, intrinsic, and that humanity has been domesticated so fully that freedom and order have no conflict anymore. They want more liberties for everyone, from children to criminals, on the assumption that a sign of faith from society will bring the rebels right back into the fold. Please. If it worked that way, the most lenient societies would certainly have become the most successful by now, and they clearly have not. On a long enough timeline, permissiveness undermines social order.
People really want a Superman, endlessly good and self-sacrificing, with perfect integrity and judgment, to wield power for their sake. The movies can't get enough of them. But we don't have any of those. People with power don't generally get there by accident, they do generally deserve respect, but they will never be perfect, especially in a society with no coherent vision of perfection. It's certainly a quality idea that the powerful should be held to a standard higher than normal people, but we will likely never be able to enjoy faith in them in our lifetime, as media has every incentive to show them in the worst possible light. People just enjoy watching the powerful fall too much.
Well, enough of this; the Golden Rule isn't going anywhere, although applying it equally and universally is an idea that needs to be dumped with all the other garbage from the deontological Good Idea Fairy. Let's talk, instead, about what the Golden Rule gets right that is not cited enough even by its advocates.
In the Context of a Healthy Society
The strictures of religions like Christianity constitute a social model. Imagine yourself surrounded by true Christians all the time, and it has serious advantages; you share a code of values, you are willing to sacrifice for one another, trust one another, take a chance on one another, bow to others. Taking care of one another seems to work out wonderfully. If they are doing this while you're doing this, things work out, frankly, better than they would if we were just minding our own self-interest.
Think about it: how well do you know yourself? You probably have a decent understanding of your own personality, but not a great one. You are blind to your own faults, or at least avoid thinking about them sometimes, and you repeat your mistakes cyclically. You don't work on your weaknesses and continue to get blindsided when they come up. Admit it: you're a dumbass. Totally normal. Now think about how well your closest friends and family know you. If you were to bow to what they thought was best for you, if you took their advice and recognized that they see you more clearly than you see yourself, communicated clearly, and could absolutely trust that they wanted what was best for you, wouldn't this be a plus from a utility standpoint?
Yeah, even if you don't realize it, even if you fetishize maximum autonomy, you don't want to be alone and it would be good. You can do better in an intimate group than by yourself, meaning that if you really trust people and they really know you, living in a group increases welfare in many ways. It makes perfect economic sense, so long as the trust is there.
I know, I know, I've been hammering away on the trust thing for a while. The repetition could piss you off like Top 40 radio any time now, but it matters, so deal with it.
To some degree, this is how good relationships always work, and you can do this if you live in a truly Christian community. The vision relies on people having a very similar worldview, maybe not in every detail and priority, but in generally having the same moral template and broad sense of right and wrong action. When this condition is met, then you have a moral ecosystem that works, sustainably, creating expectations and meeting them, granting an assumed trust to those who live within the strictures. Confucian societies take this to the extreme: in Japan, if you're the nail that sticks up above the rest, you will get hammered down. But you have to admit, Confucian culture runs like well-designed clockwork almost all the time, and has granted East Asian societies a level of cultural stability unimaginable in the West. China, in particular, is ethically nearly the same society as was envisioned by Confucius during the Axial Age and put into practice by the Ch'in in 221 BC. Christianity has known touches of this peace here and there, particularly before the Protestant Reformation; now, shit is so culturally unstable that we'll damn each other over miniscule cultural questions like marriage and drugs that were simply not on the table for discussion in earlier generations.
The trust and strength of bonds, arranged in waves spreading from every individual as they confront society and find those worthy, make a society formidable. When practiced with open eyes and a respect for structure and specialization, the Golden Rule needs no metaphysics to give it value. But it does need a willingness to say "no": do unto trustworthy others... Economics isn't quite incompatible with it, because exchanges are predicated on trust and there is nothing more beneficial and nothing that expresses understanding better than honorable arrangements between those that respect one another. This is not always the case with trade, particularly in a big economy where people don't know each other and rely on enforcement to give them peace of mind, but the idea of mutually beneficial specialization should not come under fire merely because of its modern incarnation. In some form, the Golden Rule holds value, albeit not in its egalitarian configuration.