A better Golden Rule – Don’t be a jerk


People are usually taught some version of the Golden Rule, originating in religion or philosophy or just common sense. It is stated in various forms but usually boils down to the precept that one should behave towards others the way that you would like them to behave towards you or, even more extreme, that one should love everybody.

The trouble with this is that while it is no doubt very positive and uplifting, it is too vague and hard to operationalize. How I would like others to behave towards me depends on the specifics of that other person and how I would behave towards them. There are some people whom I would like to not be part of my life at all. Does that mean that I should go out of my way to avoid them? In practice, that is what I do but Golden Rule purists will frown and say that I am subverting the intended positive message that calls for improving my relationships with everybody. But the problem is that there are some people whom I just don’t like at all and can’t be bothered cultivating better relationships with them. Sorry, but that’s the way I feel.

The problem is that the old Golden Rule is too vague and subject to idiosyncratic interpretations. I think that a better rule is: Don’t be a jerk.

This rule is very simple and easy to understand. Pretty much everyone can agree on what constitutes jerk behavior. People may do it anyway and justify it in some ways but deep down, I think we all know when we have acted like a jerk. Cutting off people in traffic, jumping the line, using racist, sexist, and other slurs, bring gratuitously rude, putting down others, treating animals badly, etc., are all jerk moves.

For example, there would be universal agreement that the man who fat-shamed a woman on a flight was being a jerk. In Russia, a group of body builders are going around ‘persuading’ people not to behave like jerks when it comes to flouting parking or driving rules. There is even apparently a TV show of their exploits and here are a couple of clips.

The high standards that constitute the old forms of the Golden Rule are too difficult to meet and so vague that most people don’t even try, leaving us all none the better. The best part of the ‘don’t be a jerk’ rule is that one can apply it even to people whom one does not like at all. Avoiding them without being rude would meet the standards of this new Golden Rule while freeing oneself from having to deal with them at all.

A lot of unhappiness and tension is caused by people acting like jerks. I think that obeying the rule to not be a jerk is much more easily attained because it is so obvious what a jerk move is and usually it costs us nothing to avoid it. If we could eliminate much of the jerk behavior, the world would be a much better place even if we don’t have universal love.

Comments

  1. johnson catman says

    So, what is special about the guy’s tags? He says (at 3:34), “I don’t care a fuck where I’m driving, have you seen my fucking tags?” You can see the tags at 4:13.

  2. Siobhan says

    Pretty much everyone can agree on what constitutes jerk behavior. People may do it anyway and justify it in some ways but deep down, I think we all know when we have acted like a jerk. Cutting off people in traffic, jumping the line, using racist, sexist, and other slurs, bring gratuitously rude, putting down others, treating animals badly, etc., are all jerk moves.

    I’d dispute that. In my experience, jerks engaging in jerk behaviour have a set of rationalizations to justify it. Said rationalization usually invests in some variety of special pleading. But no habitual jerk I’ve ever had the displeasure of dealing with considers themselves a jerk.

  3. Chiroptera says

    Mano Singham: I think that a better rule is: Don’t be a jerk.

    Huh. That’s always been my interpretation of the Golden Rule ever since I was a little kid. In fact, I’d be surprised if someone hadn’t used those exact words before.

    Not a bad thing to be reminded of it, though. I think I’ll be remembering to use this exact phrase in the future.

  4. brucegee1962 says

    Doesn’t Wil Wheaton already have the copyright on this dictum, more or less?

  5. says

    I have always thought that moral systems need to take into account retaliation – even of the form of “would you like that if someone did it to you?” Well, sometimes someone does. It’s a simple way of demonstrating Kant’s principles – if you don’t like being bullied, don’t be a bully.

  6. Mano Singham says

    I certainly don’t think that I am the first to think of this. It is rather an obvious rule.

  7. Mano Singham says

    johnson catman @#2,

    Given the fact that he is wearing camouflage pants and has a crew cut, his ‘tags’ may refer to his military tags and he is claiming that he is thus privileged. His belligerent attitude and willingness to physically take on the people confronting him supports that. But it looks like his fighting skills are not that sharp since the other guy throws him quite easily.

  8. Owlmirror says

    I think that a better rule is: Don’t be a jerk.
     
    This rule is very simple and easy to understand. Pretty much everyone can agree on what constitutes jerk behavior.

    I am not even sure that everyone can agree on what “jerk” means. Does it mean “malicious”, or “stupid”, or “clumsy”, or “selfish”, or “oblivious”, or some combination of those traits?

    Case in point: Steve Martin’s character in “The Jerk” wasn’t malicious — he was oblivious, naive, prone to confabulation, possibly stupid about some things, but well-intentioned and generous.

  9. janicot says

    I’ve always thought the Golden Rule was naive and selfish. I guess it’s better than to ‘be a jerk’.
    For as long as I can remember I’ve tried to live by the Platinum Rule — ‘Treat others the way they want to be treated’.
    As an elderly male caucasian American, I am confident that my preferences and values are going to be different from the vast majority of people in the world. I see no reason to try to treat anyone according to my standards. The Platinum Rule or just the Wiccan Rede: ‘An it harm none, do what you will’ are much more appropriate.

  10. Holms says

    Strangely, Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure said it pretty well: be excellent to each other [guitar solo].

  11. says

    Siobhan (#3)

    No kidding. It happened last weekend, people calling me the “jerk” for asking them obey the law (i.e. not smoke in a place where it’s illegal) because the smokers were in the majority and “nobody complained”. So I’m “nobody” in their eyes.

    As for the special pleading, their retort (read: avoidance of the issue) was “Can you say you’ve never done anything wrong?”

  12. janicot says

    Siobhan (#3) and Intransitive (#14)

    Please allow me to agree with you as well. Everyone perceives each situation for themselves and no one sees themselves as a ‘bad guy’ (if you’ll excuse the gender specific phrase).
    I have heard there are three levels on which people each other.
    1. When you see someone acting badly, the typical reaction is to say they just don’t know they are hurting other people — they are Ignorant.
    2. The second level is when people don’t understand that what they are doing hurts others — they are Stupid.
    3. The third level is when people don’t care for whatever reason that they are hurting others — They are Evil.
    It’s amazing how many interactions — and everyone has to keep track of their own behavior too — fall into one or more of these three categories — Ignorance, Stupidity and/or Evil.

  13. deepak shetty says

    Don’t be a jerk

    I generally don’t like the rules that are of the form “Don’t negative thing” since it doesn’t really tell you what to do . Do positive thing is my preferred form but the Golden rule indeed doesn’t cut it. For e.g. my spouse and I are very different people when it comes to dealing with issues and were I to do onto her as I would have done onto me it would be problems all around (and @12’s platinum rule is closer to what we do).
    I prefer the vague Do Good.(for reasonably acceptable definitions of good)

  14. timberwoof says

    I help run an on-line virtual community. Our basic rule is “Don’t be an ass,” which pretty much amounts to the same thing. There are a bunch of other “rules” and officers often try to make up new rules that new members must learn and adhere to. I try to discourage accumulating too many rules.
    Some people tell me that they don’t understand what “don’t be an ass” means. I tell them that adults can figure this out and that children are not allowed in the community.

  15. mnb0 says

    “deep down, I think we all know when we have acted like a jerk.”
    Translation: behave like MS wants you to behave, because deep down you know anything that deviates is jerk behaviour.

    “I tell them that adults can figure this out”
    Sure I can – the problem is that by no means it’s guaranteed that I figure the same thing out as you, especially not if we have a different cultural background.

  16. lanir says

    Two things.

    1. I propose a change in wording. People find it easier to weasel out of “being a jerk” than they do analyzing their actions in the moment and deciding they’re “acting like a jerk”. It doesn’t take much thought to go from one to the other but it does take some and as other commenters have noted, there are people who will weasel out of the original wording. This isn’t perfect either but it allows less wiggle room and it’s really their actions you want to address anyway, not their overall character.

    2. Sort of a side thing, but the Golden Rule doesn’t work because of boundary issues. It gives you the false sense that maybe you’re doing something wrong when you avoid people who you don’t like, for example. If you don’t have and enforce these boundaries you end up with psychological problems. Dealing with people you really don’t like stresses you out, and even the people you do care for can run roughshod over you without intending to do so. You can end up trying to solve problems that are not yours, which is futile. Meanwhile the person who actually has the problem might not even notice it as much around you because you don’t give them the feedback that tells them it’s their issue and they need to address it.

  17. Rob Grigjanis says

    Any pithy rule suffers from the same problem; it’s pithy. I’d just add a bit to the Golden Rule; Do unto others as you would have them do unto you if you were them. Of course that could be parsed to uselessness as well, but if that’s the problem, stay away from pithy rules.

  18. Chiroptera says

    Rob Grigjanis, #22: Of course that could be parsed to uselessness as well, but if that’s the problem, stay away from pithy rules.

    I dunno. I think we could have a fruitful discussion about whether rolling stones is really an effective method of avoiding moss accumulation.

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