Monday, July 28, 2008

Not Really The Only Ethics Rule You'll Ever Need

After responding to my esteemed correspondent Michael Faris last week, I have heard from him again. This time he reminds me that I failed to respond to what he considers his most important argument: that opposing same-sex marriage violates the Golden Rule ("Do to others as you would have them do to you."). Even though I wrote last week that we were done with the issue, I think it's worthwhile to go with one more round, because the question of the Golden Rule's applicability has wider application than the specific matter that brought it up.

Now it is true that I wrote a short piece last year entitled "The Only Ethics Rule You'll Ever Need," meaning the Golden Rule. My point then was that if you're going to limit yourself to one rule of ethics to memorize, the Golden Rule wasn't a bad one to pick. But it's hard to treat all of moral philosophy in a 600-word column, and what I didn't say was that although the Golden Rule (or something like it) is needed in order for anyone to engage in meaningful ethical analysis, it is not sufficient. Let me give a simple example to show how the Golden Rule by itself can land you in a contradiction. And to make it more interesting, it'll be a personal experience.

My late father started smoking when he was a teenager, and kept it up to the day he was diagnosed with lung cancer at the age of 56, in 1983. He died of it a year later. Back in the 1970s, when the news came out that smoking probably caused lung cancer, I went on a little campaign of my own to convince him not to smoke. He liked smoking, he'd tried quitting and couldn't, and he finally told me to mind my own business because I was making a pest of myself. So I piped down.

Now how does the Golden Rule apply in that case? How was I going to do to him as I would have him do to me? I saw him doing something that was bad for him, so I encouraged him to stop. If I were doing something that could hurt me, I'd want him to tell me so (and in fact he did—numerous times—while I was growing up). Philosopher Karl Popper has proposed what some have since called the "Platinum Rule": namely, do unto others as they want to be done by. In other words, don't just do to others what would make you happy, given your tastes, preferences, and standards; take into consideration what the other person's tastes and standards are, and do to them what they would like, not what you would like.

Clearly, this latter version is what Mr. Faris has in mind when he says that keeping same-sex marriages illegal violates the Golden Rule. According to him, we should take the desires of those who want same-sex marriage into consideration, and allow it. But what if I applied the Platinum Rule to the case of my father's smoking? Clearly, he didn't want to hear my nagging about it. So if I did to him as he wanted to be done by, I should never have told him to stop smoking. But if I did to him as I would have wanted to be done by, I should have insisted he stop. It's easy to come up with other examples where the Golden Rule gives contradictory answers, depending on whether you use your own preferences or those of the person you're dealing with.

Leaving aside the specific issues—same-sex marriage, smoking, jaywalking, or what have you—the point here is that neither the Golden Rule nor the Platinum Rule gives unequivocal answers. To the extent that you must use your imagination to put yourself in the other person's place, the rules help you to do this. But if the other person wants something that is bad for them, or just bad in general, applying either rule mechanically can lead to answers that go against other moral principles. What about the guy who walks into a bar looking for a fight? Making him happy means somebody else will get beat up.

That is what I meant when I said the Golden Rule is necessary, but not sufficient. Jesus and many other moral teachers have endorsed the Golden Rule. As a Christian, I am committed not so much to this rule or that rule, but to a Person. In my view of what that Person said and did, I do not believe same-sex marriage is as important an issue as certain others, such as euthanasia and abortion, but I don't think it is without moral implications, either. I do not expect anyone who does not share my religious convictions to give them any weight, which is why I did not bring religion into the argument. I mention religion here only because the Golden Rule took us into the realm of moral philosophy, and I try to base my moral philosophy on Christian principles.

If I knew what Mr. Faris's moral philosophy was, I could say more about his argument with regard to the Golden Rule, but I don't. I thank him for this opportunity to clarify my thoughts on the issue, and sincerely hope that next week we'll get back to engineering ethics.

Sources: The Wikipedia article "Ethics of Reciprocity" cites numerous versions of the Golden Rule from a wide variety of religious traditions, and also contains the quotation from Karl Popper that I used for the Platinum Rule and the example of the guy picking a fight in a bar. My article "The Only Ethics Rule You'll Ever Need" appeared in the Fall 2007 issue of IEEE Technology and Society Magazine.

1 comment:

  1. The Platinum Rule® is a registered trademark of Dr. Tony Alessandra -