The unraveling of the Golden Rule

Of late, everyone is apologizing about everything. I have been reading a lot of media articles recently (both news and commentary) about the shifting boundaries of what is offensive, and the boundaries shift only in one way: the list of things you can’t say in jest is becoming ever longer. As an extreme recent example, a “relatively prominent” (LOL) comedian got kicked off stage because some of his jokes mentioned certain groups. Unlike many others, this nobody comedian got the opportunity to write his own New York Times op-ed explaining himself. According to him, the jokes were not disparaging, but simply mentioned taboo topics. I believe it, because I’ve seen this mildly popular comedian myself. His clips are all over Youtube. His style is rough, and sometimes mildly insulting and unfunny, but I remember that joke that seems to have caused all the problems; I had found it very funny. But even if the ouster had been the result of a string of mildly insulting and unfunny jokes, hey, next time just watch the guy on Youtube before you hire him? Sure beats kicking him off stage mid-performance.

A recent article on Marginal Revolution tries to argue that, as the world becomes better in all dimensions, offensive acts grow increasingly rare, allowing for a more fine-tuned sensitivity to offense. Their argument is based on empirical psychological evidence but the mechanism is obviously real. All it takes to understand the problem is a conversation with a San Franciscan complaining about phantom “micro-climates” within the city. All it takes to cure the problem is a few days in Texas or Minnesota.

However, I don’t believe this positive approach is a particularly useful way of looking at the problem. Things may be what they are, but they ought to be different. Here I briefly propose a normative approach.

A lot of what’s happening is framed in the context of an unstoppable historical progression from the Bad World to the Good World. Ethics is treated as a science or technology. Back then we didn’t know better, but now we have all these new cool rules that prevent us from harming one another. Back then it was fine to beat women and enslave people of other ethnicities, and now it is no longer considered acceptable. It follows that it is fine to continue pushing the threshold of what’s acceptable in the same direction; if you oppose any further expansion of the list of offensive behaviors you are on the wrong side of history. Our grandparents sounded like bigots to us, and we will sound like bigots to our grandchildren, and so on forever, and that is Good.

This “dynamic relativism,” in my humble opinion, has a terrible flaw. When I was a kid, grown-ups taught me that I should treat others the way I wished they treated me. This is the Golden Rule, it was taught by Jesus and a long list of other really smart people, and according to Leonard Cohen it is the duty of lovers to tarnish it.

The flaw is that many of the civil rights conquests of the past century or so are straight applications of the Golden Rule, but what is happening now is not. Back then, women couldn’t vote, and men could. Obviously men wouldn’t like to be deprived of the vote, and so they should not deprive women of the vote. That’s the Golden Rule. Back then, there was slavery. No one likes to be a slave, and so no one should enslave anyone. That’s the Golden Rule again. It’s pretty simple! (Am I missing something?) But now, proponents of the New World Order maintain that it should be punishable to do things unto others that we find completely acceptable when done unto ourselves. If you like rough banter, or you don’t mind being on the receiving end of crass humor, pranks, and the occasional public humiliation, you are out of luck. The ability to take sh** is now called “privilege” (whatever the actual source of this ability) and it is attacked as a flaw in and of itself.

Part of the problem is that the Golden Rule is often erroneously understood to be a minimum standard, not a balanced compromise. The Internets are brimming with clever fools thinking they have found a better rule, such as “Treat others the way they want to be treated” or variations thereupon. The cleverest of the fool even have a name for it: the Platinum Rule (get it? because platinum is more expensive than gold). I have to admit, it sounded so clever at first (the rule, not the name). Why didn’t I think about it? But then I thought “Why didn’t Jesus think about it?”

In our brave new world, we are expected to treat others the way they want to be treated.  It is an unforgiving rule, eventually bound to make each and everyone of us guilty of something. I hate to resort to Ayn Rand’s arguments, but it is unfair to make ethical rules that humans are not equipped to follow.

Beware what you wish for. La révolution dévore ses enfants.



About Author: Mattia

Assistant Professor of Finance at the Cox School of Business at Southern Methodist University. Coder. Policy wonk. View all posts by Mattia

December 21, 2018
By Mattia
Category: Ethics