Golden Rule jokes and porpoise costumes

James McGrath and Hemant Mehta both point us to this cartoon, from Zach Weiner’s wonderful Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal.

I’ll bite.

I’m a big fan of SMBC comics, but I think this one gets a bit muddled. I don’t think fellow in this cartoon poses any real problem for the Golden Rule. Yeah, OK, if you insist on a lawyerly reading of one particular formulation of it, then there’s a potential problem here. But that problem comes from a (funny) misreading and misapplication of the rule, not the rule itself.

Jesus in the cartoon — just like the non-cartoon Jesus — says, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”

The fellow responds by saying, “I have a fetish for being surprised at night by men dressed as anatomically correct porpoises.”

The potential problem is that this guy seems to be misunderstanding the law in a clumsily literal, and extremely case-specific way. The joke being that what this guy would like to have others do to him would be to surprise him at night dressed as anatomically correct porpoises, and that he departs thinking that Jesus has just advised or commanded him to go forth and do precisely that to others.

I’m not sure it really tells us anything more about the Golden Rule itself than Woody Allen tells us about Kant’s categorical imperative in his version of much the same joke. Kant’s precept states, “Act only according to that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law.” Woody comically misses the point by applying the rule with the same extreme specificity as in the cartoon: “If everybody went to the same restaurant one evening to eat blintzes, there’d be chaos.”

Neither joke is funny because of any inherent flaw in the ethical principle they’re spoofing. The humor comes, instead, from the intentional, playful obtuseness of their critics. Woody’s joke isn’t funny because it shows that the categorical imperative forbids eating blintzes in restaurants — it’s funny because he thinks that it does.

But as with Woody, we have reason to doubt that Porpoise Guy is really as obtuse as he’s pretending to be. He suggests that he’s misreading Jesus’ statement of the Golden Rule with a distorting specificity, but the cartoon also suggests he knows better.

Look again at the first thing he says, “I have a fetish …” So Porpoise Guy is aware that his thing is not everybody’s thing — that it’s a preference or predilection that sets him apart from others. So he gets it. He understands that some people prefer some things and others prefer other things. And thus he understands that what he enjoys having others do to him is often not the same as what others would enjoy having someone do to them.

So if PG understands that he has “a fetish,” and that he wants others to respect that, then he likely understands Jesus’ words here as an admonition to give others a reciprocal respect for their fetishes (or lack thereof).

Let’s consider the same basic confusion of misplaced specificity, but let’s do so by applying the Golden Rule to a similar, but less distractingly porpoise-sex-laden example.

I drink coffee black. That’s my preference — that’s how I, personally, prefer to drink coffee. Yet when I make coffee for guests, I always ask if they would like cream or sugar (or tea, perhaps, or something cold, or … let’s just keep this simple and stick to coffee).

Is this conventional hospitable courtesy an expression of the Golden Rule? Or is it a violation of that rule?

The only way to argue that it is a violation of the Golden Rule would be to interpret that rule with the same misplaced specificity we see in Woody’s and Weiner’s jokes. From an overly specific, overly literal perspective, you could argue that serving someone coffee with cream and sugar would be doing unto others other than I would have them do unto me.

That’s obviously silly — which is why it works as the basis for jokes, but not as the basis for a critique of the actual idea of the Golden Rule.

Take away that misplaced specificity and it’s equally obvious that, yes, the courtesy of offering my guests cream and sugar can be seen as a mild expression of the Golden Rule. I would prefer that others allow me to enjoy coffee the way I like it. And thus it’s right for me to allow others to enjoy coffee the way they like it.

The Golden Rule is a broad principle that asks to be interpreted and applied broadly. Applying it with a narrow, extremely specific legalism misses the point and winds up violating the rule itself. Deliberately missing the point for comic effect is funny, but only insofar as the point-missing is the butt of the joke and we don’t imagine we’ve thereby proven anything substantial about the point itself — other than that we humans have an amusing knack for missing it.

That’s why I’m not sure what to make of Weiner’s caption for his cartoon: “There is no such thing as a perfect ethical law.” If the point there is that imperfect people will always botch even the most perfect-seeming principles, then I fully agree. But if the point is that the exchange in the cartoon above exposes some imperfection in the Golden Rule, then I’m afraid he’s lost me there.

(That’s not to say that I think the Golden Rule is a “perfect ethical law” — one easily and neatly applicable to any and all situations. It’s pretty terrific for one-on-one situations, but it becomes less immediately helpful when we introduce third or fourth parties into the mix.)

I’m also puzzled by Jesus’ response to PG’s first statement. “Well, there are limits to –” Jesus says, and I’m not sure what the rest of that sentence was going to be had he not been interrupted. PG’s problem isn’t that he’s crossed some “limit” or boundary. His problem is that he’s hinted at an overly specific interpretation of Jesus’ rule that might cause him to miss the point.

Jesus’ mention of “limits” in that third line muddles the joke, suggesting that the intrinsic morality or immorality of PG’s particular fantasy is somehow relevant to his confusion about of the Golden Rule. It’s not. The comic factor here is not that what PG would have others do unto him is somehow intrinsically wrong, but rather that what he specifically would have others do unto him is most likely not something that others would want to have done unto them.

But while it clouds the joke and blurs the punchline, this tangential invitation to consider the morality of PG’s fetish also adds another touch of comic discomfort. So let’s go with that. Is PG’s unusual preference somehow inherently wrong? Or is it — like my own preference for no sugar, no cream, thank you — simply a matter of personal taste that’s not otherwise morally meaningful?

Once we get past the initial extravagance of PG’s preference, I think it’s more the latter. His particular taste is elaborately detailed, it introduces some logistical hurdles and potentially entails a large costume expense (which, like all large expenses, might be morally consequential), but unless I’m missing something, it doesn’t seem harmful, malicious, cruel, exploitative or otherwise inherently wicked.

The ethics in play in this cartoon are those of the Golden Rule, and it doesn’t seem that PG’s fantasy violates that principle. Where’s the harm in it? We haven’t seen that it’s some kind of oppressive compulsion interfering with his own happiness. Nor does it seem to be something he’s compelling others to participate in against their will. I’m sure that somewhere, some group of righteous folk has a behavior code that regards aquatic mammal costumes as an abomination, but that’s not a rule Jesus ever discussed.

(Suddenly I realize what I’ve just done. It’s only been a couple of days since this post about Bryan Fischer prompted an odd, but robust discussion in comments, and I’ve just potentially reintroduced the same subject here. I apologize.)

Anyway, apart from the porpoise costumes, the point is this: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. And that means asking them how they like their coffee.

  • Tom

    a) I think you might be overthinking it – or at least thinking about it far more than the person who actually wrote the joke
    b) But I’ll bite.  Your coffee example allows for the revision ‘I would like the CHOICE of how to have my coffee so I’ll give that choice to others.  Anti-gayers at least claim that if they were straying into the path of ‘evil’ then they’d want someone to try and ‘save’ them (even against their will).  This has always been my problem with the golden rule.

    A less morally absolute example would be the US Army General who honestly believes that if he were living under an opressive regime he would want a foreign power to step in – even if it meant loss of life – vs the citizen who knows his country is pretty messed up, but doesn’t want himself and his family killed in a war.

  • Münchner Kindl

    That’s why I’m not sure what to make of Weiner’s caption for his cartoon: “There is no such thing as a perfect ethical law.” If the point there is that imperfect people will always botch even the most perfect-seeming principles, then I fully agree. But if the point is that the exchange in the cartoon above exposes some imperfection in the Golden Rule, then I’m afraid he’s lost me there.

    I thought the meaning of the caption is that because the Golden Rule is a moral* rule, it is always broad and therefore, needs always thoughtful consideration when being applied to specific circumstances.

    In contrast to those ethical/moral rules which are specific black/white – abortion is always wrong / coffee must be drunk black – which are touted as being perfect by their proponents because they apply always no matter the specific circumstances, but often end in practice contradicting common sense or larger principles.

    If I remember my definitions correctly, moral is a set of general convictions and beliefs on how people should act, while ethics are those principles applied to specific instances. So the Golden Rule would be a moral, not an ethical rule.

    I’m also puzzled by Jesus’ response to PG’s first statement. “Well, there are limits to –” Jesus says, and I’m not sure what the rest of that sentence was going to be had he not been interrupted.

    I take it that because the guy not only wants others to do unto him according to his fetish, but rather, that because he wants that, he will now go out and do onto others – surprising them dressed up in porpoise-costume.

    Since most people don’t like that, and being surprised can be rather unpleasant for jumpy people, I think Jesus meant to say “stop that, idiot” or similar.

  • Chunky Style

    And we can even tie this cartoon to broader site themes, such as Peter’s vision about how there is nothing unclean.  If you want to be obtusely literal, you can interpret the vision as about food and nothing else.  If you would rather understand the premise behind the vision, it applies to people too.

    Or, the Biblical proscriptions against usury: the principle behind it is not exploiting the poor.  If you can offer loans that allow them to get ahead, you’re not violating the principles behind the original proscriptions.

  • GDwarf

    Just on a tangent, and perhaps TMI, but an anatomically-correct porpoise looks very much like a cartoon porpoise, as external genetalia cause drag. So they keep their multi-foot-long, prehensile, genetalia (males only) hidden behind a cover.

    Though I suppose, depending on what you know about porpoises, having one of those appear from nowhere would probably count as a surprise.

  • arcseconds

    Your criticism of these legalistic responses is similar to something someone once told me about Woody Allen-type responses to the Categorical Imperative.   The problem is thinking that the Imperative is somehow linguistic in nature, and it operates on sentences – in other words, saying something is forbidden by the categorical imperative is a bit like saying it’s in past tense or the subjunctive mood.

    This is an easy mistake to make for many of us, I think, because there’s lots of things that push us into thinking this way — the law (the kind passed by Parliament and argued in the Courts), logic, computer programming, even mathematics, and of course anglophone philosophy for about the last century or so (*)  ( It’s easy to dismiss philosophy in our culture, but it really has had its fair share of cultural impact on us nevertheless: look at the recent invocations of fasifiability if you need an example of this.)

    but the categorical imperative is really a principle of the will (the principle of the will, in fact), which Kant is attempting to express in language.   It’s no more linguistic in nature than, say, libido is.  It’s notable that he gives three (or four, depending on how you count them) different linguistic formulations of the categorical imperative, and they don’t really sound all that alike, even, so a little consideration of this suggests that it’s wrong to think of it as a linguistic principle.

    So, really, as it’s your will that’s in question here, attention must be paid to what you’re willing.  if you’re attempting to weasel-word your way out of doing your duty, then you can hardly be said to be operating with a good will (such an important concept for Kant).

    i actually saw McGrath’s post before this one, so i was vaguely tempted to respond there with a run-down on how the categorical imperative is superior to the Golden Rule, but it’s lucky i saw this post because I never had considered that a similar defense against clever-dick legalism could be mounted for the Golden Rule.

    So, thanks for getting me to rethink, I guess!


    (*) after the ‘lingustic turn’, which according to tradition occurred on page x of Frege’s Die Grundlagen der Arithmetik, published 1884.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Gus-Hinrich/100000151807749 Gus Hinrich

    Wow! Some serious overthinking here…
    The Golden Rule is often touted as a stronger version of the Silver Rule: “Don’t do to others as you would not have them do to you.” (Or a less clumsy version.)
    This does have the virtue  of being easier to apply.

  • John Small Berries

    I think Richard Bach did a less clumsy job of it in Illusions: The Adventures of a Reluctant Messiah, where his titular character’s counterexample was the masochist who goes around hurting people because that’s the way he wants to be treated; his proposed rewording of the Rule was, “Do unto others as they wish to be done unto”.

  • Betz

    Don’t forget the hidden ending panel present for every SMBC cartoon, visible by mousing over the red circle at the bottom of the comic.
    This one elevates the ludicrousness by showing Jesus sitting awake through the night with a glazed worried expression, no doubt terrified he might be visited by Mr. Golden Rule…

  • http://twitter.com/anatman jerry anning

    this reminds me of sf fan discussions of metalaw, principles general enough to deal with interactions between wildly different cultures and/or species. metalaw proponents take as their central rule a semiinversion of the golden rule: “do unto others as they would have you do unto them”. there are, of course, elaborations such as an exemption for self defense. harry stine (writing as lee correy) wrote a novel called ‘a matter of metalaw’, in which a troubleshooting team had to deal with a long isolated (human) group that had developed a mutation that made them obsessed with (a cartoony distorted version of) bd/sm. trying to be ‘kind’ to their neighbors as their interpretation of metalaw decreed, they set out on a crusade of conquest and oppression. the heroes captured one of them and were appalled when she demanded that they follow metalaw correctly and treat her kindly, i.e. torture her.

  • Tonio

    I had some of the same concerns about the cartoon that Fred did, and thanks to Fred for elaborating on them. The cartoon may be implying that there’s something inherently unethical or immoral about PG’s fetish. As long as he’s not forcing people to dress up and surprise him that way, I don’t see the big deal.

    moral is a set of general convictions and beliefs on how people should act

    I would amend that to say “…toward others.” How one treats one’s self is not a moral concept in and of itself, although in practice many types of self-treatment can affect others. It’s misleading to label things that help or harm one’s self as right or wrong because there’s no frame of reference.

    Fred’s coffee analogy reminded me of this Dilbert entry and how it turns the Golden Rule upside down:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QlZU16u7mPg

  • http://twitter.com/bearinboulder Chris Wolfe

    Speaking of literal misreading of the law – this causes problems in multicultural societies when people in one culture misread it as permission to impose their cultural norms on others. Even a trivial example like getting bacon with your eggs can show how this is so much more than the question of how you take your coffee – to some people it’s a trivial problem since the person can simply refuse to eat the bacon and they don’t understand that other people may see the entire kitchen as unclean because it contains pork. But hey, they wouldn’t get bent out of shape if somebody gave they something they didn’t want to eat so the other person can’t get “bent out of shape” either.

    That’s why I’ve seen some people rephrase the law as “Do unto others as they would have you do unto them”.  I don’t know if that’s a better translation or if there’s more going on.

  • GDwarf

    Speaking of literal misreading of the law – this causes problems in
    multicultural societies when people in one culture misread it as
    permission to impose their cultural norms on others.

    Indeed, and leads to the, disingenuous at best, claim that gay people already have marriage equality in every US state: They can marry someone of the opposite sex, same as anyone else!

  • hidden_urchin

    That’s why I like the negative version of the Golden Rule better.

    Exasperated Jesus: “If you don’t like it happening to you then don’t do it to others for the love of God.” 

  • The_L1985

    I can’t  help thinking that PG’s twisting of the Golden Rule here is actually how anti-marriage-equality folks view the Golden Rule.  It’s the only explanation I can think of for the “threat to marriage” idea.  To wit:

    - Clearly, what gay couples want us to do to them is to marry them to their same-sex partner.
    - Therefore, to apply the Golden Rule in a way that pleases same-sex couples, we must all marry a same-sex partner.
    - If everyone were married to a member of the same sex, there wouldn’t be nearly as much baby-making going on, and the human race would die out.
    - Therefore, legalizing same-sex marriage is a threat to traditional marriage of opposite-sex partners, to families, and to human survival itself.

    Both misunderstandings are based on the idea that for the Golden Rule to make sense, everything is either compulsory for everyone, or forbidden to everyone.  (Like that old joke about Soviet Russia.)  It completely ignores the fact that what Person A wants is completely different from what B and C want, and that each person should be allowed to live as they choose, as long as their choices do not harm other people.

  • MH

    It’s worth noting that the Woody Allen joke isn’t really a misunderstanding of (that formulation of) the categorical imperative.  It’s actually a serious problem for what Kant calls the first formulation of the categorical imperative (the “sneaky universalizer” problem).  The fact that there’s this problem with the first formulation is Kant’s stated reason for giving the second (humanity) formulation of the categorical imperative as well.   

    The general problem that gives rise to these sorts of weird counterexamples is that the first formulation doesn’t actually tell you much of anything about actions – it only tells you about maxims (the specific reasons according to which you’re acting).  And overly specific or overly general reasons, or reasons containing irrelevant information that affects their universalizability *are* bad reasons (though not bad in the same way that reasons to lie or kill are bad reasons).  So they should fail the test that the first formulation gives.   Since the only thing the first formulation of the categorical imperative gives you is a simple “good maxim”/”bad maxim” test, though, you need something else to give you *positive* moral guidance.  And that’s why you need more than one formulation of the categorical imperative.

    Also I’m not sure that Weiner has it wrong here at all.  Defending things like the Golden Rule on the grounds that serious moral wisdom is required to know how to apply them and in what ways, and suggesting that the rule can’t be used straightforwardly to divide between good and back actions, as if it were a decision procedure, *is* pointing out that it isn’t a perfect ethical rule.  It gets things wrong when directly applied to cases!  Someone who wants to use it would have to know when it’s getting things wrong and not use it in those cases.   As a result, it’s not a rule that when applied divides accurately between right and wrong actions – it’s at best a general guideline, or a bit of general advice.  (And it’s probably a good bit of general advice.)  The defense of it only underscores how it isn’t actually anything better than that.  (And Weiner is, in the general claim, taking a side in a serious debate in moral philosophy about whether any codification in terms of rules could fully account for morality.  Kantians and Utilitarians tend towards the “yes” side of things, Aristotelians and Humeans the “no” side.)  

  • Mary Kaye

    I have never been comfortable with “do unto others as they would have you do unto them” (which I first encountered in an article about human/alien relations in _Analog_).  The original formulation of the Rule has a certain element of justice to it:  you owe other people the good treatment you would want for yourself.  The amended version doesn’t have that.  It puts no practical limit on how well other people ought to be treated.

    This means that the original Golden Rule is something that another person can reasonably ask you to follow.  The amended version is not, at least not in the same way; it offers no guidance for choosing between the (in my view real) obligation not to bully others because one wouldn’t want to be bullied oneself, and the (in my view completely false) obligation to submit to bullying because *that is what the bully wants you to do.*

    Or in a shorter form, I don’t think there is or ever can be a moral imperative to do unto others as they want you to do unto them.

  • Jasinderbrand

    Its a good point Fred, but sometimes you just have to let funny be funny

  • flat

    Sorry Fred but you are seriously overthinking it, so I think I am gonna sit this one out.

  • GDwarf

    I don’t know that it’s actually possible to “overthink” something. Fred points out that it’s a good joke, but he then also stops to take a further look at what’s being said beneath the joke, just like he looks at what’s being said beneath the text in the LB books. It doesn’t make the joke not funny, but it is interesting to think about.

  • Fake_Chinese_Robert_Plant

    Huh-huh, you said “Woody’s and Weiner’s.”

    (I’m terribly sorry.)

  • http://danel4d.livejournal.com/ Danel

    Ah, yes – I could see that that idea was flawed but I couldn’t see why until you elaborated. It’s odd how it’s something that becomes so obvious once you realise. 

  • http://www.poisonyourmind.com/ nickgb

    There’s an addendum I’d like to add to the Golden Rule which, to me, was always there implicitly anyway. “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you, if your situations were reversed.” I wouldn’t necessarily want someone to expose me to their (awesome) sexual fetish, and thus I don’t do it to them either.

    When you get down to it, the rich have no problem with the GR because they wouldn’t want anyone to tax them, so why tax anyone? You have to add in the veil of ignorance before the Golden Rule encompasses any real compassion.

  • http://danel4d.livejournal.com/ Danel

    Human capacity to invent a bizarre situation or strange misreading can always surpass human capacity to invent a universal moral law. 

    Similarly, even Kant himself ran into difficulties when pondering whether it was ever permissible to lie by the terms of the Categorical Imperative. 

    I think part of the problem seems to be that by “universal moral law” people seem to desire a simple formulation that can take all thought, effort and shades of grey out of difficult situations. 

  • Giles

    The way I’d formulate this… You can view an action at different levels of abstraction:
    - Subject executes a particular sequence of muscle movements
    - Subject gives Fred black coffee
    - Subject respects Fred’s coffee-drinking preferences
    - Subject follows social norms regarding hospitality
    - Subject learns and executes behaviour patterns

    Both the Golden Rule and the Categorical Imperative only make sense at certain levels of abstraction – e.g. 3 or maybe 4 on my list above.

    Saying “I want everyone to have the same rights that I do – to marry someone of the opposite sex” is an error in one direction. Saying “but then you have to allow us to marry dogs and chickens” is an error in the other direction.

    The thing is, I can’t think of a way of deciding the “right” level of abstraction that would work in all cases.

  • Jurgan

    I’ve seen this at play with students at the school I worked at.  “I don’t mind being called a n*****, so why can’t I say it to other people?”  “I like it when girls tell me I’m sexy, so what’s wrong with me yelling that they’re sexy?”  I don’t think that necessarily disproves the Golden Rule, but it requires a lot of creative empathy to apply it.  What you would have others do to you is affected by your cultural upbringing, and so imagining what you would want done *if you were that person* is a more complicated task.

  • Münchner Kindl

    Because the Golden Rule starts with the abstraction and general principle: “be as kind and respectful of others as you want others to be with you” – and that principle is then applied to questions of drinking coffee.

    Thus saying “I like my coffee black, so you should drink your coffe black, too” fails because it goes in the wrong direction, directly literally. If you start with respect, then you say “I like my coffe black, and I want others to respect that, so I ask them how they like their coffee so they can drink it with cream, sugar, marshmallows, sirup, chocolate, rum and a kitchen sink in one (very big) cup.”

    This is also why the rich people not wanting to pay tax or the fundies claiming that they want to be screamed at are also mis-applying the Rule.

  • Rowen

     There’s nothing like a good joke. . .

    And that was nothing like a good joke. . .

  • Anonymous

    My version of the Golden Rule is a little more complicated, but I generally think of it as something like, ‘in a question between cost vs. benefit – cost of your action vs. their received benefit, or vice-versa – give them the tie.’

    Or, alternately, ‘do not effect others without their permission.’

  • Katie Stickney

     I take it that because the guy not only wants others to do unto him
    according to his fetish, but rather, that because he wants that, he will
    now go out and do onto others – surprising them dressed up in
    porpoise-costume.

    Since most people don’t like that, and being surprised can be rather
    unpleasant for jumpy people, I think Jesus meant to say “stop that,
    idiot” or similar.

    I agree and I’d even take it a step further. The comic specifies an “anatomically correct” porpoise, and since he uses the word “fetish” it’s pretty clear this at least implies a sexual activity. “Surprise” in the context of sex implies a troubling lack of consent. For this man to “surprise” another man, in a somehow sexually suggestive manner while wearing an “anatomically correct” porpoise costume, depending on how that is executed, it could certainly be in the realm of sexual assault.

    So, for me, that’s even more reason why Jesus would be talking about “limits” here.

  • http://www.patheos.com/community/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

    Thanks for posting on this! I appreciate your thoughts (and link to them in another blog post) – indeed, I appreciate them so much that I would like to buy you a black coffee, should we ever meet face to face…

  • http://www.helsinki.fi/~huuskone/ Taneli Huuskonen

    Don’t you remember the vampire that the Messiah conjured up to illustrate precisely the point that sometimes it’s OK not to do unto others as they wish to be done unto, and even to do things that hurt others?  The vampire was hurt by Richard’s refusal to let him drink his blood.

  • Albanaeon

    Well, I think part of the problem is that most forget one important thing that nearly everyone would like to have done before just about anything.  Asking if they would like that.

    It’s built into Fred’s Coffee situation, and would go a long way towards PG’s situation (“Would you like to be surprised at night by MIACPC’s?”  “Sure!” “K.  See ya later!”)  and off hand I can’t think of a situation that it wouldn’t be appreciated.

  • Ian needs a nickname

    Context: the golden rule in Matthew 7 is the conclusion to an argument.  Matthew 7:7-12 says “ask and it shall be given to you…if your child asks you for bread will you give him a stone?…if you know how to give good gifts to your children how much more will the Father give good gifts to you.  THEREFORE do onto others as they would do onto you.”  The golden rule means imitate God in giving people what they want and need.  Consent is built into Jesus’ original formulation.

  • http://dpolicar.livejournal.com/ Dave

     

    I can’t think of a way of deciding the “right” level of abstraction that would work in all cases.

    Yeah, this is a complex problem. I find it helps to recognize it as usually a problem of coordination… that is, often all it means for an answer to be “right” is that it matches someone else’s expectation… and that many of our expectations are in fact shared, just because we live in the same kinds of bodies.

    I don’t have links handy, but Doug Hofstadter has some lovely articles, from his time with the Fluid Analogies Research Group, talking about writing code to play the “do the same thing” game that explores some of these questions. E.g., if I pick up the red cube to my right and put it on top of the blue cylinder to my left, and I tell you to do the same thing, and you’re sitting at a different table with a blue cube to your right and a green cylinder to your left, what do I expect you to do? What does it depend on? How could I build a tool that behaved as expected in that situation, and how could I build a tool that could decide what was expected? Etc.

  • http://dpolicar.livejournal.com/ Dave

     

    I don’t think there is or ever can be a moral imperative to do unto others as they want you to do unto them. 

    Agreed that “Do unto others as they would have me do unto them” is not a positive obligation, and can’t be.  It has to at least sometimes be OK for me to refrain from doing some particular thing unto some particular other that they would have me do.

    Of course, I would also say that “Do unto others as I would have others do unto me” is not a universal positive obligation. It has to at least sometimes be OK for me to refrain from doing some
    particular thing unto some particular other that I would have some others do unto me.

    They both make more sense to me as an endorsement of valuing other people getting what they want.

  • http://profiles.google.com/cappadocius Ian Cunningham

    I’ve always operated under the theory that the Golden Rule was simply a polite formulation of “Don’t be a dick.” It’s carried me far in my moral life.

  • TheFaithfulStone

    I think that “There’s no such thing as a perfect ethical law” is a pretty funny joke, if only because it’s basically a paradox.

    It would be like saying “There’s no such thing as a perfectly round square.” –  The law is not ethics.  The law is structured by language, and ethical principles are NOT by their nature structured linguistically.   The reasons why the ACA is several thousand pages long is because it includes a LOT of definitions, and the reason why we have a Supreme Court is to argue over the exact meaning of the words “necessary” and “proper.”

    It is impossible to formulate a (perfectly good) ethical principle as an ethical law without opening up yourself up to “clever-dick” legalism, which you could probably argue is nearly always against the “spirit” of the principle in the first place.

    It’s actually pretty funny, that I had to go back and make sure I used “law” and “principle” in the correct places, because we use them interchangeably, even though they describe completely different concepts.

    In terms of ethical “laws” – I think “Don’t be a dick” is a pretty good one – even if it’s the same principle as the golden rule.

  • TheFaithfulStone

     Wouldn’t work in this case though.

  • AnonymousSam

    The problem with the Golden Rule is that there really are countless people out there who believe this is a dog-eat-dog world, and the only way to get ahead is by expecting shmucks to screw you over at every turn and screwing them over just a little bit faster and a little bit harder.

    As a sociopath, I have trouble following the thoughts of others at times, so I always have to do my best to anticipate what it is they’re thinking, feeling, or about to do. I probably come across as rather timid to new people since I tend to be reticent as I wait for a cue as to whether this person intends good, harm, or nothing. All in all, though, my eventual goal is to improve the conditions of life around me as best I can, since I understand that the only way through it is with everyone else. It only makes sense — if everyone were out for number one, society would collapse but if everyone supports everyone else (directly or indirectly), then for every weak link in the chain, there are millions of strong links to hold the weight.

    Funny how a sociopath understands this, but so many others seem to fail at the logic. It’s almost enough to make me think there’s something below sociopathy. “On the one hand, we have heartless monsters with no soul and no empathy, who could impulsively kill someone and steal their wallet to buy liquor — and on the other hand, you have conservatives. And let me tell you, those people are scary.

  • Ross Thompson

     

    It would be like saying “There’s no such thing as a perfectly round square.” –  The law is not ethics.

    Well, yes. But they’re orthogonal to each other, not antithetical. A better analogy might be “There’s no such thing as a perfectly green square”.

  • http://www.facebook.com/jon.maki Jon Maki

    One of the more common problems I see with regards to the Golden Rule is that there are a significant number of people who not only don’t understand what it means, they don’t even know what it says.

    I know a lot of people who view the Golden Rule as basically another way of stating “an eye for an eye,” as they think it says, “Do unto others as they’ve done to you.”

    (These are the same people who think that the Bible says “Heaven helps those who help themselves,” and that “Vengeance is mine, saith the Lord,” is just a badass action hero one-liner, the kind of thing you say when you get revenge on someone.)

  • SI

    @Jurgan:disqus: this is a dishonest asshole argument and there is always some dishonest asshole who makes it. I was once involved in an conversation about why it was wrong to mock the victims of human tragedies for sensationalism and profit. I asked “how would you like it if someone you loved died and the next day everyone was making fun of her?” and up pops some asshole who goes “That happened to me and I didn’t mind at all!” Either the person is just lying, or they’re trying to sidestep the criticism by ignoring the fact that what they are doing might not hurt them, but is hurting someone.

    (Closely related is the equally dishonest reverse-discrimination argument: “If we have a Women’s Studies department, why can’t we have a Men’s Studies department?” Because those two things are not identical, asshole.)

    This problem – confusing equal treatment with identical treatment – is one that crops up a lot in our plurality. You see it a lot with the argument “gay people have just as much a right to get married as straight people! they just have to marry someone of the other gender.”

    At this point I always think of the fable of the Fox and the Stork: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Fox_and_the_Stork
    which is an elegant illustration of why *identical* treatment is not always *equal* treatment and why sometimes exceptional treatment is necessary in the interests of justice.

  • http://blog.trenchcoatsoft.com Ross

    Because I am strange, when I hear the phrase “Vengeance is mine”, the first thing I think of is the episode of War of the Worlds where this creepy loner is trying to kill Colonel Ironhorse with remote controlled helicopter bombs because his sister got killed in the crossfire during an alien attack. 

  • John Small Berries

     Nope, Taneli, forgot all about the vampire; it’s been at least two decades since I read the book.

  • http://stealingcommas.blogspot.com/ chris the cynic

    The problems always seem to be one of operating on the wrong level.

    The answer to, “how do you want others to treat you?” isn’t just, “I want them to do X,” but, “I want them to do X because I desire that X be done.” 

    The second part is vitally important because it’s what the first part hangs on.  You want them to treat you in a certain way because that is the way you want to be treated.

    It’s really, “I want them to respect my wishes.”  And thus it turns around to mean that you should respect their wishes.  Specific examples are pointless because they cut out the point.  The point is not the specific X, it’s the fact that you want to be done onto that specific way because that is the way you want it.

    In the end it boils down to, Do onto others according to their preference, because you would have them do unto you according to your own.

  • MaryKaye

    chris the cynic writes:

    In the end it boils down to, Do onto others according to their
    preference, because you would have them do unto you according to your
    own.

    The problem with this (and a lot of other formulations) is that it seems permissive of a “you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours” arrangement that is, while better than dog-eat-dog, not as good as could be hoped for.

    An employee at a local medical center discovered massive Medicaid fraud.  He knew quite while what the center’s leadership would prefer him to do (nothing) but he blew the whistle and caused a Federal investigation.  You can argue that this is moral, and I do so argue, but why is doing unto the medical school leadership as they would prefer immoral?  Because there are more victims, or more innocent victims, than there are leaders?  Because it’s unjust and you wouldn’t want to be protected in your injustice?  But now the user of the Golden Rule has to have a really well developed moral system–with justice as well as benevolence–or he can just settle for “I’d want them to hide my crimes, too!” 

    When you say “I will do unto them according to what their preferences *should* be” you are getting pretty far afield, but anything else seems to lead to at least a suggestion that you should treat the immoral immorally, or at least that a pack of corrupt folks are perfectly morally justified in setting up a scratch-your-back compact in which all the parties are being treated equally well.

    Whistleblowers are, in my experience, a good test case for moral systems.

  • http://profiles.google.com/marc.k.mielke Marc Mielke

    That sounds like an incredible coffee!

  • arcseconds

    There are no perfect ethical rules.  Certainly not if we understand a rule as a decision procedure.

    I’m saying this to reinforce something that a lot of people have been saying in one form or another – TheFaithfulStone, Dave, Danel, etc. 

    MH puts it best for my purposes (hence I’m replying to them):

     

    Defending things like the Golden Rule on the grounds that serious moral
    wisdom is required to know how to apply them and in what ways, and
    suggesting that the rule can’t be used straightforwardly to divide
    between good and back actions, as if it were a decision procedure, *is*
    pointing out that it isn’t a perfect ethical rule.  It gets things wrong
    when directly applied to cases!

    Quite.  The picture appears to be looking for a procedure we can give a moral imbecile (who will, on the other hand, faithfully follow the procedure manual to the letter)  to follow so they never do wrong.

    That’s never going to be possible.  I’m with Aristotle here: moral philosophy is something that should be engaged in by people who’ve already got the morality thing down, at least to some extent.   Analysing morality is a different problem from training morality.

    (philosophy of science is the same, imho.  you can’t give a creationist Conjectures and Refutations and expect anything good to come of it. )

    (Also, MH,  Kant doesn’t treat the categorical imperative as a decision procedure on linguistic statements: see my earlier post.  also, note the anachronism.   the only place where he has agents using the categorical imperative to make a direct assessment on their maxims is for expository purposes fairly early in the Groundwork.  The overall picture really doesn’t seem to be DO  M:= FETCH-MAXIM (My-Action);  IF CI-OK(M) THEN PERFORM-ACTION(My-Action) ELSE PASS; LOOP; at all. The rest of the time, including in the two other main books he wrote on the subject, it’s treated as a high-level principle, seldom invoked directly, and there’s a lot more he builds around it. )

  • James Schumacher

    Nitpick: I think the humour of the comic comes less from the misinterpretation of the golden law and more from the idea of a man dressed as an anatomically-correct porpoise startling Jesus in the middle of the night.

    On the serious side, I think the point to make is that it’s impossible to express a perfect ethical law in words. There will always be caveats and loopholes in any expression of the law. So Jesus paraphrased it. The biblical formulation of “do unto others” is memorable and gets the point across for those not looking to subvert it. It’s more personal than “do unto others as they wish to be done unto” (because it invites you to imagine how it would feel were it “done unto you”), and it’s more complete than “do not do unto others”, which fails to condemn inaction in the face of suffering. is that it’s impossible to express a perfect ethical law in words. There will always be caveats and loopholes in any expression of the law. So Jesus paraphrased it. The biblical formulation of “do unto others” is memorable and gets the point across for those not looking to subvert it. It’s more personal than “do unto others as they wish to be done unto” (because it invites you to imagine how it would feel were it “done unto you”), and it’s more complete than “do not do unto others”, which fails to condemn inaction in the face of suffering.

  • http://lliira.dreamwidth.org/ Lliira

    “I don’t mind being called a n*****, so why can’t I say it to other people?” “I like it when girls tell me I’m sexy, so what’s wrong with me yelling that they’re sexy?”

    Those two examples are of people blatantly trying to twist the rule of civility into something self-centered and obnoxious. People like that can tie you up in huge debates, then they run off smirking into their sleeves about pulling a fast one and getting away with treating others like crap.

    The answer is, “because they don’t like it.” When someone says, “stop doing that to me, it hurts me,” the correct reaction almost every time is to stop doing it, unless there is an absolute moral imperative to do it anyway (like imprisoning violent criminals). You don’t hold down someone with a peanut allergy and force them to eat peanut butter; you don’t force yourself on people sexually just because you desire them; you don’t make someone wear clothing they don’t want to wear just because you like it; and you don’t call someone words they find disrespectful when shouted at them by strangers.

    It’s really very, very simple. Treating someone the way you want to be treated means respecting their boundaries. 


CLOSE | X

HIDE | X