Publish and be damned

International newspapers Rome 2005

© Stefano Corso 2005

Last time we suggested that someone following the Golden Rule would be faced with the impossible task of trying to please everyone. If so that would seem like a fatal objection to the Rule, whatever Confucius or Jesus might say.

This follows The miller, his son and the donkey as number 15 in a series of posts on the Golden Rule. The first was Any fool can make a rule. Next is More equal than others?

But perhaps again we are interpreting the Rule in a narrower way than the Rule itself would require.

Would you want others to interpret the Rule in such a way that it invalidates itself by forcing people to do the impossible? No? So don’t interpret the Rule in the same way yourself.

But that might sound a bit too easy, and unlikely to convince a determined critic. We need to look at the Rule not just as a rule of thumb for an individual to use, but also as an aspiration for an entire community.

Imagine a spectrum of people across a community. At one end are people who want to follow the Rule as generously as they can. At the other end are very selfish people. In between are people who are not as selfish as those at the selfish end and not as Golden as those at the Golden end. Now consider an investigative journalist at the Golden end who wants to apply the Rule when performing an act which will impact a number of individuals across the spectrum in different ways. She has discovered evidence of sophisticated and almost undetectable theft from bank accounts by the manipulation of currency exchange rates. Some of the individuals in the community are victims and some are perpetrators. Others are neither, but may well have an attitude towards theft in general.

The journalist is deciding whether to publish. This will clearly have a negative impact on the perpetrators. If she were following the Rule and considering the perpetrators alone then it is likely that she would not want them to expose a secret about herself which she was trying to hide. On the other hand it is probably safe to assume that if she herself were a victim of a different theft she would want others (including victims of the exchange-rate theft) to do what they can to expose it.

So following the Rule in this case seems, in theory, to lead to a conflict. How does she decide what to do? Arithmetically? If there are more victims than perpetrators then publish, but not if there are more perpetrators than victims? But what if there are fewer victims than perpetrators but the victims have suffered more than the perpetrators have gained, or stand to lose by exposure? A simple-minded utilitarian approach like this seems doomed to failure.

A more promising route might be to consider the exchange-rate theft itself. Again it seems safe to assume the perpetrators were not following the Rule themselves. They would not want others to steal from them. In the case of something like theft it is unlikely there would be any conflict, with some ‘others’ quite happy to be stolen from.

So, for this journalist, if there is a conflict it seems to be between the interests of people who she knows have deliberately and exploitatively flouted the Rule and the interests of people she can assume have either obeyed the Rule or at least not disobeyed it. (Would you like others to assume the best of you in the absence of conflicting information? Yes? Then do the same with others.)

So we seem to have stumbled across another facet of ‘applying the Golden Rule in the spirit of the Golden Rule’ (see Transmutation). That is that, other things being equal, when applying the Golden Rule we should act so as to preserve, protect and promote the Golden Rule itself. That would often mean discounting to a greater or lesser extent the immediate interests of individuals known to have disobeyed the Rule to benefit themselves. Which, in Kant’s example (see Crime and punishment), is another reason why the judge is right to sentence the criminal.

Read on.

© Chris Lawrence 2018.

2 thoughts on “Publish and be damned

  1. Pingback: The miller, his son and the donkey | some strong language

  2. Pingback: More equal than others? | some strong language

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