social justice

TEP #024: Why the Golden Rule is a recipe for disaster

Today I’m going to talk about the Golden Rule and why it’s not as great as we all thought it was in kindergarten. 

Don’t get me wrong, treating others how we want to be treated is definitely a noble goal, but there are some hidden dangers to this approach.

In this newsletter, I explore two risks of the Golden Rule with real-world examples.

And then I propose an alternative approach.

The Dangers of the Universalizing

On the surface, the Golden Rule may seem like a good way to promote fairness and equality. 

However, when it is applied at a system-wide policy level, it can create unintended consequences. 

One of the biggest dangers of the Golden Rule is that it reduces individual choice and autonomy to make informed decisions based on unique contexts and desires. 

This is particularly problematic when one person’s or group’s preferences are universalized for everyone through law and policy.

An historical example is Prohibition. 

A small but vocal group of temperance advocates were able to push for the prohibition of alcohol, despite the fact that many Americans enjoyed drinking and it was a significant part of the economy. 

However, it didn’t turn out as planned.

As historian Bill Bryson later observed, 

“There’d never been a more advantageous time to be a criminal in America than during the 13 years of Prohibition. At a stroke, the American government closed down the fifth largest industry in the United States – alcohol production – and just handed it to criminals – a pretty remarkable thing to do.”

Surrogate Decision-Making

Another danger of the Golden Rule is that it can lead to misguided surrogate decision-making.

Surrogate decision-making occurs when one person or group makes decisions on behalf of another person or group. 

This can happen in a variety of contexts, from philanthropy to political policies. 

When surrogate decision-makers use the Golden Rule as their guiding principle, they may assume that everyone wants the same thing they do. 

This can lead to policies that are well-intentioned but ultimately harmful, particularly for marginalized communities.

Countless examples of this occurred In the mid-20th century when urban renewal projects were implemented in many American cities. 

These projects were intended to revitalize blighted neighborhoods by tearing down old buildings and replacing them with new ones. 

However, many of these neighborhoods were home to low-income and minority communities, and the new developments often displaced these residents without providing adequate replacement housing or compensation. 

Most importantly, residents themselves never got to weigh in on the goals of the renewal projects, much less how they were implemented.

The result was the destruction of tight-knit communities and the displacement of vulnerable populations.

Another present-day example of surrogate decision-making is embedded in welfare policies, where guidelines restrict what types of goods can be purchased with welfare funds. 

These are intended to encourage responsible spending, but can ultimately limit the autonomy of low-income individuals and families.

As Thomas Sowell has written,

“The notion that a third party can make better decisions for us than we can make for ourselves is the quintessence of arrogance.”

The Negative Golden Rule

So, what’s the alternative to the Golden Rule? 

Nassim Taleb, a philosopher and author of “Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder,” suggests a negative reframing of the Golden Rule: 

“Don’t do unto others what you don’t want them to do unto you.” 

It’s very similar to ancient Jewish teaching:

“That which is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow! That is the whole Torah; the rest is interpretation.”

-Hillel the Elder in Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 31a

These approaches, which emphasize avoiding harm rather than promoting a specific action, can help decision-makers avoid the pitfalls of misguided surrogate decision-making.

It acknowledges that people have different needs and desires, and that what is good for one person may not be good for another. 

It also encourages empathy and respect for others, without assuming that everyone wants the same things.

To illustrate how the Negative Golden Rule can be applied to a social problem, let’s consider the issue of homelessness. 

Rather than assuming that we know what every homeless individual needs (e.g. “Housing is always the first and best solution to homelessness”), we can start by asking each individual what they want and need. 

This may include affordable housing, but as numerous surveys of homeless individuals have revealed, many would choose to prioritize access to healthcare, education and job training, and community support. 

By really listening to the voices and experiences of those most affected by the issue, we can create policies that are more responsive to their needs and aspirations.

How to recognize the complexity of human needs and desires and the limitations of our knowledge

The Negative Golden Rule offers a superior approach by focusing on what not to do, rather than what to do. 

To apply it, we should start by listening to those most affected by social problems and prioritizing their voices and experiences. 

At the same time, we should be open to the possibility that we don’t have all the answers and be willing to experiment with multiple approaches. 

To start applying the Negative Golden Rule today, you can follow these steps:

  1. Identify the harm: What are the things that people don’t want done to them? This requires empathy and listening to diverse voices, rather than assuming that everyone wants the same things.
  2. Avoid harmful actions: Based on our understanding of what people don’t want done to them, we can create policies and practices that avoid harm and respect individual choice and autonomy.
  3. Monitor and adjust: We need to continuously monitor the impact of our policies and practices, and adjust them as needed to ensure that they are effective and respectful of individual autonomy.

And whatever you do, stay fallible and humble!

Sounds hard, but in the long run it’s actually easier.

You don’t have to work so hard at always being right.


See you next week.

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