Proof from Morality (4)

The Golden Rule

Maat, the system of justice and morality used by the ancient Egyptians, was centred around this now-famous rule:

Do undo others as you would have them do unto you.

The Golden Rule is present in a wide variety of religions, like Daoism, Christianity, Buddhism, Islam, and Jainism, and was declared a common principal by 143 spiritual leaders in the “Parliament of the World’s Religions.” And yet Game Theory suggests it’s a bad way to live. On first blush it translates to “Always Silent”, which is easily suckered by an “Always Rat.” Indeed, “Always Silent” is usually the first strategy to die off in Axelrod’s competitions. So why does it keep popping up?

I think the likeliest reason is a hidden meaning. Consider this koan:

If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him.

(Linji, the founder of the Rinzaisect)

Linji isn’t really asking you to commit murder, he’s saying that you are likely starting out on your spiritual journey with a biased view of enlightenment. In order to move further down this spiritual “road,” you must “kill” this false “Buddha” or vision before you can reach true knowledge.

I might be missing some hidden content within the Golden Rule. Perhaps it would be better translated as:

Do undo others as they do unto you.

Which turns it into “Tit-For-Tat.” I think this is not so much a re-interpretation as a full-on re-write, but many philosophers agree to this change. To quote M.G. Singer (who himself is quoting Hans Reiner):

The Golden Rule implies that ‘I should order my conduct consistently with my judgements of the conducts of others.’ In doing so it ‘presupposes a moral standard’ and also ‘gives us a standard to judge our own conduct by in referring us to our judgements of similar conduct on the parts of others.’ It thus refers us ‘to a norm that it does not… explicitly contain, but that each of us takes for granted.’ […] ‘we must have long ago acknowledged some norms to be valid… What we have in consequence is a moral a priori to order our conduct by; an a priori that is admittedly neither formulated or proven in the abstract, but that we still previously acknowledged to be valid in certain applications. Our acknowledging this,’ Reiner adds, ‘is of greater importance than any philosophic proof’.

(“The ideal of a rational morality,” pages 18-19)

Ah, so the Golden Rule itself is not a moral, but a reminder to treat everyone the same according to different morals that are already agreed upon by everyone. This last bit is a big flaw; once we stop agreeing on a common set of morals, his interpretation of the Golden Rule collapses. This can be fixed by creating a deity which in turn creates universal morals. Alternatively, we can use the combination of Game Theory and evolution that I outlined above, in which case this interpretation morphs into “Tit-For-Tat” without needing a deity.

Jeffery Wattles takes another approach:

  1. Treat others as you want others to treat you.
  2. You want others to treat you with appropriate sympathy, respect, and so on.
  3. Therefore, treat others with appropriate sympathy, respect, and so on.

Notice that our sense of what is appropriate  represents an estimate of value, an estimate that is adjusted in the process of thinking over the parity of self and other that is the primal assumption of the of the rule. The golden rule cannot be the supreme principle of morality in the sense of functioning as the sole normative axiom in a deductive system of ethics, because it cannot operate in a value vacuum.
(“The Golden Rule”, page 166)

Oh boy. Now the Golden Rule depends on the definitions of “appropriate” and “value,” as well as an underlying shared moral framework. Simply by shuffling around definitions and assumptions, Wattles could easily turn it into “Tit-For-Tat,” and indeed proceeds to do so.

Personally, I think this interpretation of the Golden Rule is most accurate, even though it’s rejected by many:

Do unto your neighbour as you would have them do unto you.

Here, “neighbour” does not have its modern meaning of “the person in the house next to you” or “everyone within a certain area.” Instead I’m using its original meaning, “the people you grew up with.” We’ve been spoiled in recent centuries by cheap mass transit and ample leisure time. Hunter-gatherers could move impressive distances, but they always travelled together as a tribe. Farmers and serfs were rooted to one spot, either due to the endless toil needed to grow crops, or the need to watch over food stores, so your children were usually nearby. The merchant class and nobility were the only exceptions, but they were a small minority and never referred to each other as “neighbour.”

In short, your “neighbour” was likely related to you, and definitely shared your religion and tribe. This situation led to the Jewish Ten Commandments, as an example, which only told you how to treat your fellow Jew.[120]

This interpretation creates a hole in the Golden Rule. How should we treat non-neighbours? We’ve only got two choices: fall back on other morals, or use our instincts. As I’ve shown, the latter is probably one of the “Simple Three.”

Hmm, so we have “Always Silent” to one group, and “Generous” or “Pavlov” to everyone else. Could the Golden Rule really be one of the “Secret Handshake”s from Southampton? It’s plausible; those algorithms were the only complex ones to beat the Simple Three, so they would offer an advantage if they every spontaneously popped up.

They might use a different “everyone else” rule, though. The SU group knew their strategies would be facing a diverse ecosystem, so they chose an “everyone else” that could cope with anything. In real life, interactions with an “everyone else” would be rare, maybe even one-time events, so it makes more sense to go with “Greedy Tit-For-Tat”[121] or even the best strategy for one-time play: “Always Rat.”[122]

If the Golden Rule really is a “Secret Handshake,” then any one or thing that implements it must have a way to identify itself. On the human scale, this could mean clothing, jewellery, body modifications like tattoos or piercings, or even behaviour. To cut down on the number of wolves in sheep’s clothing, it would help to make these displays outrageous, maybe even painful, so that only a true believer would have the stomach to perform or show them.

“Secret Handshake” assumed everyone was honest about their ID. That won’t fly in real life, so we should also expect some sort of enforcement system to ensure everyone acts like they promised they would. A group judicial process or a way to anonymously report cheats could be present, with the harshest punishment in either case being exile. People can be corrupted, though; it would be great if there was a way to observe everyone 24/7, or better yet look into their thoughts, that was paired with an incorruptible system of punishment.

Are there examples of “Secret Handshake” in human society? I’ll leave that for my chapter on the Popularity proof.


Back to the last objection: isn’t this duo of Game Theory and evolution somewhat cold and indifferent? Perhaps, but I don’t consider that a bad thing. I rely on instinct to keep me breathing and help me walk. In fact, most of my behaviour is mere instinct; is it so bad that some of my morality is also on autopilot too?

“Aha!,” you say, “he just admitted that some of his morality is not instinctual!”

It’s true, some moral decisions haven’t been “solved” via evolution. Should I buy a record from my favourite band, or copy it off a friend? Should the equality of women be actively encouraged by government programs, or passively encouraged via laws? Should state-run hospitals provide care to people who haven’t paid taxes or live in this country illegally? Should I drive to work and contribute to global climate change, or bicycle to work and put myself at greater risk of injury? We’ve never had to deal with those problems before, so the evolutionary process hasn’t “considered” the options and bred a solution into us. Perhaps a god is helping us with these trickier moral questions?

[120]  Need proof? Consider Exodus 32:15-28 in the Old Testament. Moses comes down from Mount Sinai with the newly-minted Commandments, only to find most of his family and tribe worshipping a golden calf. He proceeds to slaughter all 3,000 turncoats, despite just being given the commandment “Thou shalt not kill.” Under the modern definition of “neighbour,” that was madness. Those rogues had broken with tribal beliefs, however, so they were no longer neighbours in the traditional sense. The “no murder” commandment didn’t apply and thus Moses still had squeaky-clean morals when he was covered in his family’s blood.

[121]  I’m defining that as an initial Rat, followed by stock “Tit-For-Tat” with a random Rat tossed in occasionally.

[122]  With dense populations and cheap travel, these interactions become more common and so the rule for “everyone else” would be more like the Simple Three. Ever wonder why we push “tolerance for others” so much in modern times? I used to, until I wrote this chapter.