Wednesday, January 2, 2008

If I Don’t Do It

"And as ye would that men should do to you, do ye also to them likewise." - Luke 6:31


"If I am not for myself, who will be? If I am only for myself, what am I? If not now, when?" – Hillel the Elder

The Golden Rule is a good first cut at ethics and morality, a sound bite in favor of compassion and reciprocity. We have a lot of words for the emotional underpinning of the admonition: compassion, empathy, sympathy, commiseration, fellow feeling, condolence, concord, consideration. Many of them have the Latin cum as a root, “with,” as in having one’s own feelings match with those of someone else.

Some people lack the ability to model other people in their own minds, certain kinds of autistics, for example, or sociopath personalities. Sometimes those with this sort of defect can nevertheless learn to behave according to a code of ethics by adhering to fixed rules of conduct. They don’t know why it’s a good idea, but they can recognize that it is a good idea, because it keeps them out of trouble.

On the flip side, there are any number of people who have functioning empathic abilities, who nevertheless expend enormous amounts of energy trying to behave as if they do not possess them, or at least that such emotions should not be acted on, they’re just a sign of weakness.

But your mental model of someone else is still a model, and as such, it lead you astray. I remember reading a letter-to-the-editor from someone on the eve of Ted Bundy’s execution, asking that people consider how it must make Bundy feel to hear all those people outside of the prison chanting for his death. My reaction was to try to imagine how Bundy must have felt when he was murdering a sorority house full of co-eds in Florida. I didn’t succeed.

John Douglas, the FBI profiler, argues that this lack of understanding of the minds of serial killers is why we should keep them alive for study. I alternate between agreeing with him and thinking that there are still guys I’d pull the switch on myself. I’d even charge up the capacitors for the electric chair by hooking up a generator to a bicycle if I had to. (This is not the same as advocating a legal death penalty, of course).

Bundy is an extreme case, but it illustrates the biggest loophole in the Golden Rule. What happens when the other people don’t want the same things that you want? There are plenty of people in this world who would be appalled to be treated the way I like to be treated, and vice versa. Sure, you can almost always reach some agreement at a high enough level of abstraction, but often the higher levels of abstraction interfere with the lower ones. It may have given Bundy a sense of accomplishment to kill those coeds, and who doesn’t like a sense of accomplishment?

Still and all, I’m not arguing for the abandonment of the Golden Rule. Far from it. I think that trying to understand how other people think and feel is critical to safely navigating the world, to say nothing of living a humane life. It’s only that even the Golden Rule has its limits.

Well, everything has its limits, and ethics and morality are certainly no exceptions to that rule. So it goes without saying that what I’m about to write should be taken with a grain of salt.

A while back I noticed and interesting pairing of statements, common statements, that have big moral and ethical implications. Here they are

If I don’t do it, someone else will.

If I don’t do it, nobody else will.

The truth or falsity to each of these is variable, of course. Actually, the first one may well be more factually correct in most situations. But I’m more interested in the moral implications of these statements, and their past tense equivalents:

If I hadn’t done it, someone else would have.

If I hadn’t done it, it wouldn’t have gotten done.

The first one is so often used as an alibi, isn’t it? I’ve always liked the story of the condemned man who said it to the judge, who replied, “And if they had, it would be them swinging on the gallows tomorrow and not you.”

It’s the “everybody else does it,” defense. I was just following orders. You can’t fight City Hall. What else was I supposed to do?

But if I don’t do it, nobody will. If I don’t take out the trash, no one will. If I don’t throw my litter into the street, no one will. Not necessarily true, but it’s the better way to behave isn’t it?

So maybe we should just the second test our standard, even when it’s probably not true. People exhibit all sorts of behavior that is based on things that aren’t true. This one looks like it might do some good. Maybe just try it out. Give it a shot. See how it works.

I don’t see much of a downside really. It looks a lot like personal responsibility to me.

2 comments:

black dog barking said...


If I don’t do it, someone else will.

If I don’t do it, nobody else will.


Good catch on this. These two sentences are nearly identical but so very different. Uttering either sets a lot of context, tells me a lot about your state of mind in just eight little words.

BTW, the Golden Rule makes as much or more sense if read as description instead of the normal prescription. Rather than a standard to which one aspires, how you Do Unto Others tells me how you feel about yourself. Explains Mr Bundy's trip to Florida, an active capital punishment venue.

(Of course Ted Bundy is an extreme test case for any proposition.)

JP Stormcrow said...

Popped in here to point out that I think most people do in fact act out The Golden Rule and then saw that bdb had basically laid out the same theory. Warped minds etc.