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As a moderately humorous aside, there is of course also the twisted version of "Do unto others as they would do unto you... but do it first."

A quick question on assumptions...

"if our ethical systems are infused with the intention to act in a compassionate manner towards others, we shall make fewer mistakes in our attempts to live together than if our ethical systems are instead motivated by a desire to be right or correct or, worse, by the desire to promote the greater good at any cost."

Does this statement implicitly assume that The Good is "to live together" or (possibly) "to live together amicably"?

Peter: Well, I wouldn't ever say "*The* Good" (there will always be many 'goods'), but in regards of it being "good" in general terms, I don't believe it is necessarily entailed, but it is clearly a plausible implication.

Stripped down:

if (compassionate outlook)
then (fewer mistakes living together)

I don't necessarily state that trying to live together peacefully is good, although one can reasonably infer that I suppose.

Clearly if one does not believe that living together peacefully is good, one has limited reasons to accept the Golden Rule on a derived basis. ;)

I'm not an educated person on the field of ethics and philosophy, but while reading your entry I've had an interesting revelation.
I think that there are two really different groups of philosophers: Introverted and extroverted. Introverted philosophers write about their own philosophy, like Kant or Nietzsche. Extroverted philosopher talk about it - like Socrates or Jesus. And I think that all of what they say or write is somewhat distorted by their own personality. Where is the Truth then? Is there one, which we can learn through reading and understanding its different aspects? Or will our own truth be also distorted by our own personality?
As of now I can only ask, and can not answer.

VagabondX: The noted historian and political theorist Hannah Arendt refused the title 'philosopher' because she saw that as a private (introverted) activity, and her work was definitely intended to be dealt with in public.

Like you, I think a philosopher can act in public. It's certainly what I'm attempting to do with my investigations - although it must be said, the internet is a tremendously introverted form of extroversion. ;)

Best wishes!

Note to self: Kierkegaard probably explores the Golden Rule from a Christian existentialist perspective in 'Works of Love' (1847).


I like your word "Golden Virtue" instead of "Golden Rule"!

For me "Reciprocity" is the most important but at the same time most difficult idea not only in ethics but "intellectual thought" in general, e.g. think of "the language game" where some level of *mutual* undestanding is desired if communication between individuals is to take place.

And in the way you emphasize the "passionate" interest in the other's value system / system of reference as a prerequisite for ethical action I again find the theme of "reciprocal interest".

And assume you followed to some degree the speculations on "mirror neurons" as a more materialistic approach (some would say "explanation") to the "Golden Virtue"?

translucy: again, I apologise for brevity but I'm short on time.

One of the interesting things about my ethical investigations has been noting how most disputes come down to whether one focuses on agents, rights or outcomes. The Kantians (rights) and Consequentialists (outcomes) seem to disagree vociferously, but their positions are transformable in some areas and utterly disjoint in others.

These issues of reciprocity and communication are crucial, I believe, to making global ethical progress. I felt rather foolish turning to the Golden Rule so soon, but it could not be avoided. My key point here, though, is we will make fewer mistakes if we see this issue in agent terms (virtue of compassion) than in rights terms (rule of loving action).

I'm very interested in the mirror neuron issue, and will comment directly on it at some point - but I'm wary of jumping to conclusions too rapidly on scientific issues. Surely it's too soon... If you have a good point of reference (a book, perhaps) on the issue, please let me know!

Best wishes!

Unfortunately, I don't have any more on that than the obvious sources.

The interesting bit about the agents-based approach to ethics (which I tend to support) to me is what it in turn does to the rest of one's world view.


From all of what follows I conclude that we cannot afford the golden rule. So I propose that we adopt the second-best thing, The Silver Principle: `Try to dwell on Win-Win as much as possible. Give, when you're sure you can afford it. Resort to zero-sum taking as seldom as possible.' I know it's not as high and mighty as the golden one, but at least it has real-world applicability and value.


Unfortunately, these golden rules and similar are, at the end of the day very much less than satisfactory. The reason for this is our unfortunate position in the bigger scheme of things. While we're inclined to act in a reasonable manner towards our fellow humans, this is - in many cases - against our own interest.

I always feel great when I can find win-win situations where I can give something to others. I even like to just give, w/no foreseeable payback whenever possible as long as it's not too costly to me. However, there are major areas in life when we're short of such luxury.

In many cases, for example, in workplaces the chances for advancement are zero-sum games. It's not a win-win situation, or a situation where it costs to you just a little to let others win. It's a situation where one can only win by taking away from others.

There are many other such areas in life, where the needs of one are opposed w/the needs of the other. To get what you want, you cannot help but take form others. And this is what I see as the reason for great misery.

Also, following the golden rule or similar in tight situations where we end up struggling for resources we will just end of w/the dirty end of the stick. So, as I see it, ethics is something of a privilege. When we can give unto others we need to be in some kind of a position of privilege to not to be hurt too much by our giving. Otherwise, the dogs of the dog eat dog world will end up eating us.

My position could be seen to be cynical, but I cannot help seeing the things being as they are. I know that I'm happiest when I have the privilege to go more or less along the lines of the so-called golden rule, but there are too many situations where it's too costly a principle to have.

And yes, things being what they are breaks my heart, too. Ignorance can certainly be bliss, but equally certainly it will end up costing you.

That all said, I can see another cause of misery that I'd like to bring up here. That is the realization that you won't be on top of your game for all of your life. From this follows that one should exploit her skills and position to maximum to ascertain well-being in the future. This gives more reason to treat situations as zero-sum games. Even if you afford being ethical right now, you might regret it later when you've fallen off the wave you're riding. So, foresight might make things even worse, and drive one to be even more ruthless in the short run to maximize long term wellbeing.

One could argue that you could play the game differently, by betting on people. By this I mean that one should act in a manner to be able to collect favors later. To a point, I agree w/this position. It is true that having a good network is a great asset. However, when you're playing the game w/people out to maximize their own profits you can be sure that they'll turn your back on you when you've outlived your usefulness. Because of this, betting on people can simply be too risky.

All in all, I see most ethical systems as wishful thinking. The golden rule won't take care of you, so I don't think it's a proper rule to live by. Ethics can be costly and we need to weigh the pros and cons individually in every situation.

The underlying principle, worth acknowledging is that in every co-operation there's inherent competition. While in many situations we have a lot of common ground, there's always the part of territory where the interests of the parties are in conflict. This is true on the level of cells, and this is true on the level of individuals and societies. So even in situations where the golden rules are the most beneficial to follow there are corner cases where it's against one's self-interest.

The Silver Principle: thanks for sharing your views here. You don't provide your metaphysical background here, but I think I can safely assume you don't come from a religious tradition.

The Golden Rule is easiest to apply from within a religious tradition, because each tradition specifies a form of life, and in so doing makes it easier to apply a principle such as this that occasionally requires one to accept temporary loss of self interest. So I reject your overall complaint as being applicable solely outside of religious traditions.

Accepting this caveat, your Silver Rule is a reasonable consequentialist alternative, but it isn't something I would necessarily advocate.

"My position could be seen to be cynical, but I cannot help seeing the things being as they are."

LOL! It always amuses me when people try to excuse instrumental reasoning/cynicism by saying any variation of the statement "I'm not a pessimist, I'm a realist". This kind of view rests on the assumption (a) that there is one "real" way of seeing things (which is a flawed epistemic argument) and (b) that the person speaking has that one "real" way (which is a flawed existential argument).

Here's my take on the old optimist versus pessimist argument: neither optimism nor pessimism is realistic. Any position which takes in only one side of this axis has no claim to realism. That all the many expressions of the pessimist side of the axis *feel* more realistic to people who express the Rational temperament is far from proof that this position is realistic. In fact, we all skew our observations to match our prior convictions.

The whole optimist-versus-pessimist frame (noting that pessimists always claim "realism") is deeply flawed, and any attempt to advance an argument from within it will achieve very little. We need to get away from the appeal to realism entirely - it's an old Platonic fallacy that still haunts our society to this day.

"All in all, I see most ethical systems as wishful thinking. The golden rule won't take care of you, so I don't think it's a proper rule to live by."

Viewed from an individual perspective, and ignoring the lesson of the Prisoner's Dilemma, I can see why a claim of this kind might seem to go through. But in fact, if you belong to a community which honours the golden rule, then the golden rule *will* take care of you perfectly well.

Ethics can be seen as "wishful thinking" when one doesn't appreciate that a major root of human behaviour lies in our cultural habits. After one makes this step, ethics still seems like "wishful thinking", it just makes more sense that one should want to influence our behaviour on such a basis! :)

"While in many situations we have a lot of common ground, there's always the part of territory where the interests of the parties are in conflict. This is true on the level of cells, and this is true on the level of individuals and societies."

I'm fascinated to what extent you would have to contrive your argument to support your implication here that my liver and my heart are in conflict! :D

I believe I completely understand the position you are advocating here, and I can understand why for you a game theoretical contraction of the Golden Rule (your "silver rule") is a better choice. But like all ethical arguments which rely solely on consequentialism, it falls slightly hollow as it depends upon the force of your prior convictions for its justification.

Whatever you argue here, tit for tat remains the dominant strategy in the Prisoner's Dilemma. Co-operate first, defect only when necessary. It seems you wish to advance a position which says defect first, co-operate only when beneficial. Well, an individual can get by with such a strategy - in Western society, an individual may even occasionally do "better" with it, if you count only material goals (but even this claim is unproven). But for a community, this kind of ethic is utterly counter-productive.

Thanks for sharing your views! It makes for interesting reading.

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