[extropy-chat] Is the Golden Rule rational?

Jef Allbright jef at jefallbright.net
Mon Dec 11 18:36:58 UTC 2006

Thomas wrote:

> Perhaps you could comment on a personal
> problem:  I was once told by a Rational
> Emotive therapist that I held an irrational
> belief that was causing me problems.  It
> was the golden rule.  Do "effective
> interaction" and "cultivating a cooperative
> environment" imply a need for empathy
> and/or a ban on aggression?  

What a powerful question! I assume you are referring to "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you."

The short answer is that following the Golden Rule is not rational, in the same narrow sense that altruism is not rational.

You can easily see this if you consider in terms of game theory, where for each play you must cooperate, but the other player may sometimes cooperate and sometimes defect, tending to your net detriment. Note that as traditionally stated, the Golden Rule is not a positive-sum game. The best you can do is to receive as good as you gave.

But, decisions, actions and consequences in real life are never actually contained within an isolated context, and this makes all the difference in the world.

Real life is, for all practical purposes, a positive-sum game where the subjective context of decision-making and the objective scope of interaction both tend to increase. So the name of the game is Growth, and any longer-term winning strategy involves effectively discovering and exploiting synergies.  

Regarding "empathy":
As this game of Growth is all about effective interaction over increasing scope between Self and Other (the adjacent possible), "empathy" is important in the broad sense of deeply understanding Other, but not necessarily in the narrower popular sense of feeling the other's emotions. In the environment of evolutionary adaptation, empathy as mirrored feelings was a useful adaptation, just as instinctive feelings of fear of outsiders was a useful adaptation, but in the expanded context of contemporary decision-making we require awareness broader than our instinctive feelings.

Regarding "ban on aggression":
As morality is all about promoting one's increasingly shared values over increasing scope, there is a moral imperative to defend one's interests. Further, since all decision-making is necessarily within a subjective context, disputes between agents will arise, and resolution will involve one party "winning" and other party "losing" in the near term. However, when conducted rationally, such conflict actually strengthens the broader system within which all the parties interact. When conducted irrationally, conflict can unreasonable damage and destroy Other resulting in detriment to the larger system. So "aggression" is to some extent an inherent part of the process, and moral to the extent that it promotes *increasingly shared* values over *increasing scope*.  Careful reading of the above should reassure those who on first glance might take it as justifying wanton destruction of one's opponent or justifying "might makes right".  It most certainly does not.  As an aside, I very much appreciate the Japanese word for opponent, 相手 , "aite" in roman characters, which has all the following connotations: partner, companion, competitor, opponent, rival.

> Is the golden rule consistent with
> a rational society or a free market?

>From the foregoing, I think you can see that the Golden Rule, when understood in the broader sense of ethical reciprocity within a positive sum game of increasingly shared values that work over increasing scope, is consistent with a rational society and a free market. 

- Jef

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