Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Platinum Rule

Loren Rosson has a series of posts (Part I, Part II, Part III) on 'the Platinum Rule'.

The Golden Rule, you will recall, is:

Do unto others as you would want done unto you.

What is often called the Silver Rule is more common, however:

Do not do unto others as you would not want done unto you.

Despite apparent differences, I think it can be shown that the two are highly convertible -- that is, you can turn GR into SR and back again with just a few very plausible suppositions -- so I will for convenience simply heap them together. This shouldn't affect anything that follows, however.

The so-called 'Platinum Rule' is:

Do unto others as they would want done to them.

Rosson suggests that this is a better adage than GR. I have seen this claim elsewhere, but I am not at all convinced; in particular, I think it can be easily shown that it is simply inferior to GR/SR.

A bit of terminology before the argument. A 'maxim' is a subjective principle of volition. For instance, if I act in order to be honest, the maxim of my action is 'Be honest'. There are, however, different roles maxims can take. Some maxims, for instance, are themselves maxim-sorters -- dominant imperatives that are used deliberately in such a way that they act as sorting rules, giving us guidance as to what maxims our actions should exemplify. To be a successful sorting rule, a maxim must exemplify the following properties:

(1) It must admit of genuinely practical application (it must be flexible, relatively easy to apply, and relevant);
(2) It must be capable of being used in a stable way through a wide variety of circumstantial differences;
(3) It must be capable of a maximal application.

(1) is necessary if it is to sort anything at all; (2) is necessary for it to be useful as a general rule; and (3) is necessary for it to be applied systematically and thoroughly.

It is clear that GR/SR-type rules are put forward by people like Jesus and Confucius not as particular maxims but as sorting maxims. It is at once very easy to see why GR/SR would be good in this role. (1) They piggy-back on our actual mechanisms of moral cognition: sympathy, positing of impartial observers. This means that they are able to give more than the (2) They do this in an epistemically open way -- that is, they refer moral behavior to something (one's own total interests) that everyone is in a position to know, if they try. (3) They are self-consistent at maximal application. (4) They are capable of operating both at very concrete levels and at very abstract levels, so they are able to remain stable and self-consistent through a wide variety of different situations. Most of the arguments against GR/SR on close examination turn out to suppose that they are not maximally applied -- that is, the presupposition is that they are not systematically and thoroughly applied, so that it is possible to engage in reciprocity at one level of generality (e.g., exposing someone to the classical music you yourself like, because you would like to be so exposed) that violates reciprocity at a more general level (e.g., not exposing someone to music they find temperamentally unpleasant, because you would not like to be exposed to music you find temperamentally unpleasant). When we suppose maximal application, however, problems like these disappear.

Now, the first thing to note about PR is that, unlike GR/SR it is not epistemically open. While we do have some ability to discern the wants of others, we generally have only a limited and superficial access to their total interests. In restricted circumstances this would not be a problem at all. For instance, if we are offering a service, our superficial and limited acquaintance with our customers may well be all we need to know, because all we will need to know under the circumstances are those wants and interests that are relevant to the service we are offering. Even in such a case, of course, determining the relevant wants can be very difficult unless we already have in place reliable mechanisms to determine what other people want. If we do not, we have no way of putting PR into genuine practice at all -- we could easily think we are acting in accordance with PR when, in fact, we are merely making false suppositions about what people want, based on stereotype, confusion, misinformation, or faulty inference. In other words, we can only apply PR if we are in a position to know -- genuinely know -- all the relevant wants and interests of the people around us. It's noteworthy that GR/SR, in contrast, is not only epistemically open (it posits a reference-point for each of us that each of us is in a position to know), it allows us to use whatever limited information we have about other people's wants and interests in any case where we would regard such information about our own wants and interests as relevant to how we are treated. In so doing, it gives us at least a limited guidance as to what we should be doing to gain information about other people, and what level of information is sufficient for action. PR, despite depending crucially on these matters, does not.

The second thing to note is that PR is clearly not capable of maximal application. GR/SR, by positing one reference-point, make it relatively easy to sort out any conflicts simply through more careful and deliberate thought about one's total interests. PR, by positing an irreducibly plural reference-point, makes unresolvable conflict inevitable. It is one of the most salient and important facts about human life that people have very different wants and interests. This is one of the reasons why we need to have general rules and maxims in the first place, rather than naively following our own self-interest without consideration of other people. But if we act according to PR we will inevitably find ourselves forced to balance one group's wants (or one person's wants) against another group's wants (or another person's wants). PR, unlike GR/SR, gives us no way to do so.

So, my conclusion is that PR is actually inferior to GR/SR, and by quite a bit. This does not, of course, forestall the possibility that some other sorting rule (e.g., Kant's categorical imperative) is superior to them all, nor does it mean that PR might not be exactly what one would need in certain circumstances. This argument also doesn't get into another important issue. GR/SR were not given in a void, nor were they given as fundamental principles of morality. Instead, they were given as ways to facilitate the following of a morality that was already known (the law and the prophets in the case of Jesus' recommendation of GR, the humane life of the noble in the case of Confucius' recommendation of SR, etc.). GR/SR is a summarizing principle, not a grounding one. How seriously should we take this presupposed context in considering the rule? On the one hand, GR/SR is put forward as a general principle. On the other, GR/SR is put forward to people who are already presumed to know, more or less, what they ought to do, and just need help seeing the primary point of it in order to keep track of it all. Can GR/SR be used in a contextual void as Kant (probably wrongly) thinks the categorical imperative can? I'm inclined to think not: GR/SR is only of use if you've already been brought up in a moral system. Moral systems can be very complex, and GR/SR can be useful in summarizing its primary point and preventing you from falling into rote legalism. But I think it really does presuppose that you already know, more or less, what to do. (Another possible question: Can someone get around some of the problems with PR by bringing a similar type of context into play?) This is a complicated issue, however, and I'll leave it out there as food for thought.

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