Ambigamy

Insights for the deeply romantic and deeply skeptical

How The Golden Rule Makes Us Dumb

Always compromise so no one has to compromise

The Golden Rule is so thoroughly embraced as sacred that even folks who don’t believe in sacredness embrace it. The religious say the Golden Rule is the foundation on which their sacred religions are built. Atheists say that anything sacred you build on top of that foundation is superfluous and a distraction, because the Golden Rule is all you really need.

Still, I’ll argue here that the Golden Rule is empty nonsense on stilts. It’s a fair-weather friend pretending to solve the problems that arise in bad weather. It only works in win-win situations. In conflict, the Golden Rule is mute, so we abandon it, and then give ourselves or our opponents a hard time for not living up to its supposedly gold standard.

At best the Golden Rule is a paradox: “We should all compromise so no one has to compromise.” As such it’s perhaps a useful way to frame a moral dilemma but it’s neither golden nor a rule.  Dilemmas masquerading as principles are a big part of the problem with how humans handle conflict. The supposed rules deceive us into thinking there’s a problem-solving formula when there isn’t. They distract us from wondering about exactly the dilemmas that need our careful attention. 

These are fighting words, I know. But I’m no belligerent. I’m a gentle guy as happy to accommodate others as the rest of us. Indeed, it’s out of kindness that I aim to expose the Golden Rule’s emptiness, since it’s often used  as a cudgel for bullying people. If I want you to accommodate me, I can pressure you by saying “Hey remember the Golden Rule! You’d want to be accommodated, so accommodate me.”

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I can explain the Golden Rule’s unruliness best through a more useful saying, the serenity prayer, which admits to and captures the pressing dilemma ignored by the Golden Rule, the dilemma at the root of what we could call Expectation Management.

Oh, and to expose the Golden Rule’s emptiness I’ll also need a glass of water. Actually two glasses. And a short little cup too. OK here goes:

You’ve got expectations. If you didn’t you’d be dead or, if entirely on life support, you’d at least be thoroughly insane. Your habits of response however firmly or loosely held are all expectations, evolved or learned, tweaked and adjusted as you experience changed circumstances.

Your expectations are inescapably emotional. This is one of the key differences between you and, let’s say, a car. Turn the car off and it and it stops after a couple of turns of the engine. It doesn’t cling disappointedly to the past and strive to keep driving. Your expectations are like momentum—your drive to achieve things, but when our expectations are dashed, you don’t stop on a dime.  Emotions surge in, as you half-cling to and half-abandon your expectations.

Should you accept that your expectations won’t be met? Should you keep trying to get them met? You manage expectations through some combination of hope and acceptance, courage and serenity. For example, if you lose a friend, should you hope to win your friend back or accept that it’s over? 

Picture it this way. Met expectations are like a full glass of water. When your expectations are dashed, your glass goes from full to half-full. You can hope to get a refill or you can pour your remaining half-glass of water into that shorter, smaller cup so it feels full again. To seek a refill is to maintain your expectations; to pour the remains into a smaller cup is to lower or change your expectations.

The serenity prayer captures this, in effect saying :

Grant me the serenity to get a smaller cup to hold what water I’ve got when I can’t get more, the courage to get more water when I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.

Now for that second glass. Imagine that you’ve got one glass; I’ve got the other. They used to be two full glasses but now, between us we’ve got only 1.5 glasses of water. You can have a full glass; leaving me with a half-glass, or visa versa, but we can’t both have a full glass.

Yes of course sometimes you can go get more water. But the key word here is sometimes. Not every win-lose situation can be turned into a win-win. So here let’s talk only about those win-lose  competitive situations that appear any time there are limited resources and therefore real, inescapable trade-offs, situations in which my loss is your gain and visa-versa. One of us has to lower expectations so the other of us can maintain expectations.

To illustrate, let’s say I’m the leader of the Capitalist Industrial Society and my expectation is that I can deplete the earth’s resources as though there’s no tomorrow. And no, I don’t want to change my expectation.

Let’s say you represent the Green Sustainable Society. You have different designs on this world. You expect resource conservation and don’t want to change your expectation either.

One world, to negotiators, in a win-lose situation. Either you change your expectations so I can keep mine the same or I change my expectations so you can keep yours the same. Let’s apply our trusty or at least trusted Golden Rule to resolve our conflict;

Me: You want me to stop depleting resources right?

You: Yup.

Me: Because it’s dashing your expectations of a sustainable earth.

You: That’s right.

Me.  You don’t want your expectations dashed right?

You: You got it.

Me: You’d rather my expectations were dashed than yours?

You: True.

Me:  Well, you’ve just admitted that what you’d have others do unto you is support your expectations by lowering theirs.

You: Well, of course.

Me. But by the Golden Rule you should do that unto me. That means you should lower your expectations of sustainability so that I can maintain my expectations.

You: You’d like that wouldn’t you?

Me. You bet I would.

You: Then by the same Golden Rule, you should lower your expectations in order to support mine.

Me: And you’d like that wouldn’t you?

You: You bet.

Me: Then by the same Golden Rule, you should lower your expectations in order to support mine.

Round and round it goes in an infinite loop: I should do unto you as you’d do unto me as I’d do unto you as you’d do unto me—which wouldn’t be a problem if we were in a win-win situation and we wanted the same thing, but is unresolvable when we want opposite things.

Such infinite loops are like logical paradoxes, the classic being the statement “I’m lying” which if true becomes false and false becomes true, etc, etc. 

From what I can tell there are six ways to claim the Golden Rule is not a paradox. Here they are, with reasons they don’t work:

1. There’s always a both/and solution. Always just accept expectations and try to change them. There’s no reason you can’t do both.

Response: If you can always do both then why would we need “the wisdom to know the difference” between the situations that call for us to change or accept expectations?

2. They’re like apples and oranges:  Compromising and changing expectations are totally unrelated.

Response: A little-appreciated truth about serenity prayers is that they come in mirror image pairs.  When you have the courage to try to change something so it meets your expectations, it’s because you have the serenity to accept your expectations as unchangeable. Conversely when you have the serenity to accept someone else’s expectations, it’s because you have the courage to change your own expectations. Compromising and changing expectations are like reflexive muscles, like biceps and triceps. Tensing one flexes the other. They are not apples and oranges.

3. Just meet in the middle: There’s a clear fine line between where, as they say, “my fist ends and your nose begins.” We just all need to change our expectations the same amount, or to the mid-point. Tough love is the answer. Be tough and stick to your guns just right, and lovingly compromise so that others don’t have to compromise too much either.

Response: Tough love is not the answer but the question, and there is no pre-existing mid-point between where you should stop being tough and start being loving. If there were, it certainly wouldn’t be the mid-point. It’s not like the Jews should have gone to Hitler and said “Look, we know you expect to kill six million of us, but we expect you to kill none of us. So how about three million? Is three million workable? It’s only fair.”

4. Forget about what other people do. The Golden Rule is for you to follow. What do you care what other people do? If they don’t follow it they won’t thrive. Only the generous thrive, the people who follow the Golden Rule.

Response: Alas were it so.  It isn’t. In many situations the generous are easily used and abused. The meek may inherit the kingdom of heaven, but they sure won’t inherit the earth. Conscience-free psychopaths will eat them alive long before they do.

5. Don’t fight with pigs, you’ll just get dirty and the pig likes it.  The Golden Rule works with everyone but jerks. So stay away from jerks, those who would take advantage of you.

Response: Again, alas were it so simple. Some jerks are inescapable and hurting other people. It’s are duty to take down the Assad’s and Gadhafi’s, even if we wouldn’t like being treated the way we have to treat them.

6. The Golden Rule works fine if we apply other moral principles to decide who should compromise more. For example, Capitalist Industrial Society should apply the Golden Rule more, so that the right thing happens for our planet.

Response: If so, it’s those other moral principles that are deciding it. Not the Golden Rule which by itself decides nothing. 

Jeremy Sherman is an evolutionary epistemologist studying the natural history and practical realities of decision making.

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