The Golden Paradox: If we always sacrificed for each other, no one would ever have to make sacrifices

The Golden Paradox: If we always sacrificed for each other, no one would ever have to make sacrifices

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You know me. I’ve got hardly any moral principles; I’m all about moral dilemmas. I made the case a while ago (see Liar’s Paradox Moral Litmus Test) that if you can come up with a Liar’s Paradox-like statement regarding some moral principle, then it really isn’t a moral principle. Instead, it’s a moral dilemma.

In other words, you cannot live by it as though it’s the final arbiter on your decisions, the ultimate decisive guide that always indicates the right thing to do. You can pretend to, you can summon it selectively whenever you want to tip the scales toward it, but in practice you will nonetheless be using a mixed strategy, a blend of applying and not applying it; you’ll be using it as a moral dilemma. A moral dilemma requires decisions about when to apply the rule and when not to. In that sense what it tells you to do is not a rule, really. Calling its instruction a rule is just a rhetorical move to make it seem more universal and absolute than it can be.

You’ll remember that what makes a statement a liar’s paradox is a combination of two features. It is self-referential and self-negating. “I am lying,” is the original liar’s paradox. It refers to its own veracity and it negates it. I’ve written about many popular moral statements that translate into liar’s paradoxes. Here are some:


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Do not be negative.

You should not be judgmental.

Commit yourself to flexibility.

Be intolerant of intolerance.

So let’s take a look at the Golden Rule and see whether it passes the liar’s paradox moral litmus test. At first it seems it might. There’s nothing self-referentially self-negating about telling a subordinate to “do unto others as he would have others do unto him.”

Suppose I owned a slave-a person I did not have to compensate in any way but could boss around any way that pleased me. I could tell him that his job description was to follow the Golden Rule and there would be nothing paradoxical about it. He would imagine all the most wonderful things he would like done to himself and do those things for me. He would be able to follow the Golden Rule without confusion, contradiction, or dilemma-no problems at all, other than that of being my slave.

Of course, that’s not how the Golden Rule is meant. It’s addressed to everyone, not just subordinates. It’s a rule to be applied universally. Indeed, the more modern version of it makes that clear. The philosopher Emanuel Kant formulated his “categorical imperative” to close loopholes in the less explicit Golden Rule. His most famous “first formulation” states that you as a rational human would “act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law.” In other words whatever you do, you should want everyone to be doing it. Applying the Golden Rule to itself, this slave of mine should be able to say to me, “And same to you, bub.”

And there’s the rub. Applied universally, the Golden Rule does not pass the Liar’s Paradox litmus test. If everyone is following the Golden Rule, then everyone is accommodating everyone else. If I am to accommodate you fully, I’d certainly want to keep you from having to make sacrifices for me, which means of course I’m going to discourage you from making any sacrifices in the name of the Golden Rule. Applied universally the Golden Rule amounts to this Liar’s Paradox-like statement:

Make all sacrifices for all others so that no one ever has to make any sacrifices.

One could (and many do) argue that this isn’t paradoxical really, because if we all would just choose love everybody wins. After all, aren’t we all going to be happier by showing love than by being greedy or competitive? Isn’t being loving always a win-win? Why not be generous to everyone?

In theory this is great. If choosing love over hate were as simple as choosing paper over plastic or vice versa-a choice of negligible consequence-then yes, we should all choose love always. But then it wouldn’t be love, would it? The reality is that much of the time we deal with some degree of win-lose, where love entails some sacrifice, and the dilemma is always how much is appropriate.

I’m not a Christian or a Buddhist. I’ve studied both religions a little but generally my impression of the heroes of both religions is the conventional wisdom, the conventional understanding of them. In both cases I’ve got two parallel versions of their relationship to the Golden Rule. One version is that they were infinitely generous, loving the least among us, always completely selfless, like when Jesus was willing to die for us all or the Buddha was willing to die rather than offend the poor man who had offered him pork to eat. The other version is that they were discerningly generous-they knew when to defer and when to defy, which people to treat the way they would like to be treated and which ones didn’t deserve it.

I suspect the leaders of these religions prefer not to put too fine a point on this nontrivial aspect of their faiths. That way, Jesus and the Buddha can be idolized as paragons of generosity but also of right judgment, just as the Golden Rule can be held as the ultimate argument for generosity, and also, if wielded selectively, used as a source of judgment. If this is no place to be selfless, I simply ignore the Golden Rule. If this is a place to be selfless, I can summon it. I can even summon it as though I never ignore it (See Cocky).

In the hands of the truly selfish, the Golden Rule, like any moral dilemma dressed up as a moral absolute, causes more harm than good. Imagine a very selfish, self-righteous and self-certain person who is not self-aware-one who doesn’t himself live by the Golden Rule but believes he does, and can’t or refuses to see the inconsistency in his behavior. He cites the Golden Rule to others in order to get them to give him what he wants. And since other people buy into the myth that they should always be generous, they bend to his will, feeling guilty as charged when accused of not complying with this fake absolute.

Sound far-fetched? OK, then imagine a president who after $1.6 trillion of investment in the Iraq war is still able to subdue protest by accusing protestors of not being generous to the troops. . . .