Thursday, September 15, 2011

The Impossibility of the Golden Rule

Almost every religion, every belief system, every moral code has some version of the Golden Rule.  The most well-known phrasing of it, at least in the English language is in the form of the phrase, "do unto others as you would have them do unto you."  I don't think you can find anybody, short of an outright sociopath, who would consider this a bad lesson.  Any decent human being would be all too glad to say that believe in such a moral precept; and as moral principles go, it's actually a pretty simple and elementary rule that seems as if it should apply anywhere, any time.  Also, most any honest person would accept that they probably don't apply it as well as they should, even though they also simultaneously believe that they apply it more effectively than they actually do.

The strange, and also sad, aspect of this is that people should not really be considered all that unusual for failing to apply the Golden Rule.  Surely, the majority of people wish they could apply it, but they really don't apply it all too universally.  It is not simply that it is difficult, but it is actually absolutely impossible...  at least for human beings.

If it sounds as if I'm impugning humanity here, I'm not really.  What I mean is not that it is beyond our capacity, as we're all more than capable of applying it in piecemeal fashion or over trifling matters.  The difficulty lies in universalizing it.  The Golden Rule is sort of the maximizing point of the concept of fairness.  How could you get more fair than applying the same standards of behavior to yourself as you do for others?  Moreover, while there are moral values which, in principle, cannot be universalized (e.g. loyalty), fairness is one that can be universal.  However, society as a whole valuing something is not the same thing as society actually achieving it.

The sad truth is that it is actually very difficult for people to even comprehend what it means to apply the same standards to themselves as to others.  Take, for instance, the so-called war on terror.  You don't just have to look at conservatives on this one, but liberals, as well as the intellectuals of this country...  when an invasion of Afghanistan was first proposed, just about everybody was in favor of it.  Sure, the tune changed after expensive failures piled on and more people recognized underlying lies, but at the time, people were entirely in favor of bombing the hell out of Afghanistan.  But if we were to apply the same standards to the U.S., and say that the U.S. should be bombed on account of the Banana Wars or intervening rather pointlessly in the conflicts of Vietnam and Korea.  The very idea of it sounds absurd.  People would think you're crazy for even suggesting it.

You might hear a variety of rationalizations as to why one place should be bombed and not the other.  Ultimately, though, what they're really trying to come up with is just creative ways to say "we're the good guys, they're the bad guys."...  Leaving out the fact that that's how the rest of the world sees the U.S. in numerous instances.  While it seems like they are trying to find some sort of nuanced application within the confines of their ethical standards that absolves the U.S., what is really happening is they're more befuddled by the question itself.  People really cannot comprehend the very idea of applying the same standard to themselves as they do to others.  In this context, of course, it is that they can't possibly comprehend how it is possible to view the U.S. in a positive light.  How could we possibly do anything wrong?  The very idea of applying the same standard to ourselves as we do to others is actually something that is in effect, unthinkable.

This goes both ways, of course.  Many intellectual types, myself included, actually apply a more stringent standard on ourselves than on others, and typically have additional layers in which they apply a more stringent standard on those close to them than to those to whom their association is less deep.  In an odd sort of way, this also reflects in my politics as well;  I typically express much greater vitriol with regards to my country of origin (India) and my country of residence (U.S.A.) than any other nations.  I guess one could consider it a sort of highly twisted mode of patriotism.

We don't apply the same standards to ourselves as to others,
1) Because it is hard to really make that evaluation about ourselves because we tend to see others more thoroughly (if not clearly) than we see ourselves.
2) Because we have in-built defense mechanisms in our brain to shield our egos...  and most of all...
3) Because moral codes are fundamentally self-centered at their core.

That last one is the big one because it really exposes the sort of inherent contradiction of the Golden Rule when in the form of a moral principle.  Take for instance, a simple moral rule like the prohibition of murder.  The basic reality of this is not about not wanting to kill others, but really about not wanting others to kill us.  It takes the fact that we generally don't want to die and projects that outwards on others in the realization that we must ultimately live in a society.  The Golden Rule is simply a reflection of the fact not that we desire to be nice, but that we want others to be nice to us.  We do not seek to understand anyone, but seek to ensure that others understand us (or more accurately, agree with us).

Among the most basic ways in which the Golden Rule becomes impossible is this idea that what we believe of ourselves is not guaranteed to be an accurate assessment.  If I am, for instance, to poll people as to who thinks they have a good sense of humor, almost everybody will claim that they do have one...  and it is statistically unlikely that everybody in the world is particularly funny.  It's actually relatively rare among people who are lousy singers to actually recognize the poorness of their vocalizations.  Well, long story short, it is much more likely that we're all somewhat narcissistic.  Even those of us who apply a more difficult standards to ourselves can get caught in a feedback loop whereby they presume that their higher standards push them onto a higher pedestal.  As such, we are all too ready to assess the kindness and general attitudes of others, but it is all but incomprehensible that we don't fit that ideal that we've created.  We try to create simple rules of life, never realizing what it means to apply that to ourselves.  Or in the off-chance that we do realize what that means, we write new rules such that they benefit us personally, and define that end result as fairness.

Another aspect is that people are less bothered by what they are than by what they appear to be, so we often take advantage of the fact that there can exist some overlap between portions of a moral so that there can be loopholes in the rules that will allow us to save face.  In a recent tirade by GOP candidate Rick Santorum, he whined that people might see his adherence to Christian doctrine (specifically, the anti-gay component) as bigoted.  Well, that is actually perfectly fair.  The definition of bigotry is intolerance to certain creeds, attitudes or ideas with an obstinate adherence to one's own.  It doesn't really make any distinction as to why you are a bigot.  Instead, he would like to have the generic rules about respect for people's religious beliefs supercede any recognition of his intolerance.  Basically, he can be a bigot in reality, so long as the rules of social conduct prevent his bigotry from being denoted as bigotry.  In my case, this can be turned around, because I'm undeniably intolerant of religions of all stripes...  and being intolerant of ideas with the obstinance I exhibit can be characterized as bigotry.  Granted, I do say that given sufficient evidence, I can recant my position, but I do not for an instant believe that there will ever be a day when such evidence is likely to be presented.  However, I take a different stance when being called a bigot against religion.  I don't care if you call me bigoted, as that is more or less correct.  I care about the rationale behind that disrespect I carry for religion.  In both cases, though, what has happened?  Fundamentalists want their religious orientation to outstrip the designation that they are bigots, while I want my secular reasoning to be the more important question irrespective of the designation as a bigot.  In both cases, we've written our own rules of discourse that brighten our own images while painting the opposition in a darker light.

I suppose I'm mixing up my Nietzsche and Chomsky here as I say all this, but we don't ultimately have moral codes because we want to be whatever it says.  We have them because we want others to exhibit that sort of behavior to us.  They exist because we recognize the necessity of a cooperative society, and realize that if we are to get any benefit out of it, some ground rules have to be laid down so that we don't all kill each other.  We want society to benefit us, which, by itself is not unreasonable.  The impossibility and incomprehensible nature of the Golden Rule is that it exists for purposes which are entirely self-centered, and yet demands the abolition of that same self-absorption in order to get there.  We don't have the ability, nor the inherent makeup necessary to universalize something like this, even though it is entirely possible on a theoretical level.  We can conceive of it so long as we do not put any personal aspect into it, but the moment the picture actually includes "Me", we can't even begin to comprehend what it means to apply the same sort of fairness.  We naturally picture something like the Golden Rule as something that helps everybody (partly because of how it is worded)...  so it seems logical that the measure of how well it is carried out is a question of how much benefit "I" get out of it.  But that's not at all within the realm of the fairness that the Golden Rule is supposed to embody.  That is not about helping everybody but about leveling the field, which means that sometimes it will benefit you, and sometimes the opposite will be the case.

Try to put this apparent paradox before anyone, and people just fail to comprehend it.  It's a sad reality, and yet perfectly normal.