Monday, October 19, 2020

Quote of the Day

Christopher Columbus was one of those Genoese navigators who, when Genoa's Asiatic lines of trade were broken by the irruption of the Turks (see p. 467), conceived the idea of reaching India by an ocean route. While others were endeavoring to reach that country by sailing around the southern point of Africa, he proposed the bolder plan of reaching this eastern land by sailing directly westward. The sphericity of the earth was a doctrine held by many at that day; but the theory was not in harmony with the religious ideas of the time, and so it was not prudent for one to publish too openly one's belief in this notion.

P.V.N Myers
A General History for Colleges and High Schools (1889)

Jim's comments: This is a clear and widely-read statement of the flat earth myth -- the idea that, prior to Columbus, people (or at least Europeans) thought the earth was flat on religious grounds. It's false: the sphericity of the earth had been the almost universal view in Europe for two millennia by the time we get to Columbus. Perhaps we can give Myers some grace since the flat earth myth was very common at the time. I wrote about it before here. The best book on it is Jeffery Burton Russell's Inventing the Flat Earth: Columbus and Modern Historians. Another interesting book is Christine Garwood's Flat Earth: The History of an Infamous Idea, although only the first chapter is on the flat earth myth, with the rest on the flat earth movement in the 19th and 20th centuries.

Tuesday, October 13, 2020

Metallic rules

(Metallica rules too, but that's a post for another time.)

There are five basic rules that are the font of all possible moral positions, and they are often associated with particular metals. They are:

The Golden Rule: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you -- treat people the way you want to be treated.

The Silver Rule: Don't do unto others as you would not have them do unto you -- don't treat people the way you don't want to be treated.

The Platinum Rule: Do unto others as they would be done by -- treat people the way they want to be treated, not the way you want to be treated.

The Brass Rule: Do unto others as they have done unto you -- treat people the way they treat you.

The Iron Rule: Do unto others before they do unto you -- might makes right.

So the Golden Rule is primarily associated with Christianity, although you can see it in other contexts. The Silver Rule is much more common. It's basically the negative form of the Golden Rule. The difference is that the Golden Rule requires you to actively do something positive while the Silver Rule requires you to refrain from doing something negative. The latter is saying "Don't do something bad" while the former is saying "Do something good." That's a significant difference. Personally, I'd be happier with just the Silver Rule: I don't want to actively involve myself in the good of others and I usually don't want them to involve themselves in mine. Just leave me alone. But that only works until I need help, and then I come crawling back to the Golden Rule. Regardless I see them as two sides of the same coin, although there would be qualifications to that.

When I was in high school I read Illusions: The Adventures of a Reluctant Messiah by Richard Bach the same guy who wrote Jonathan Livingston Seagull, and this introduced me to the Platinum Rule, although I didn't know it by that name yet. It seemed to me a huge step further than the Golden Rule: Of course you shouldn't treat other people the way you want to be treated, you should treat them how they want to be treated. At the time it really blew me away. It wasn't until I studied ethics many years later that I realized its fatal flaw.

The genius of the Golden and Silver Rules is their universality. Treat others the way you want to be treated, because they are another you. Whatever your differences are, the similarities are enough so that you can put yourself in their place and act accordingly. The other person isn't you, but whatever it is about you that makes you want to be treated well and not badly is also true of them. Use the value you apply to yourself by treating yourself the way you want to be treated and apply it to everyone else.

So now you see the problem: the Platinum Rule erases that universality. All three rules say to treat people well but the Golden and Silver Rules give you a reason to do so. The Platinum Rule takes away that reason, and thus the rationality and justification for itself. Treat other people the way they want to be treated? Why? What's my reason or motive for doing so? What if I don't want to treat them the way they want to be treated? What if I want to treat them badly?

When I teach ethics, I use Nina Rosenstand's The Moral of the Story which is just about the best textbook I've ever read. She comments on this as follows:

Recognizing the wisdom of the Golden Rule is perhaps the most important early stage in civilization because it implies that we see others as similar to ourselves and that we see ourselves as deserving no treatment that is better than what others get (although we would generally prefer it -- we're not saints). However, the Golden Rule may not be the ultimate rule to live by because (as we discuss further in Chapter 11) others may not want to be treated as you'd like to be treated. Then, according to some thinkers, the "Platinum Rule" ought to kick in: Treat others as they want to be treated! Proponents of the Golden Rule say that this takes the universal appeal out of the rule. The spark of moral genius in the rule is precisely that we are similar in our human nature -- not that we would all like to have things our way.

This raises another issue: a lot of people don't view these rules as rules for themselves but as rules for others. When they say "do unto others as you would have them do unto you" what they mean is "do unto me as you would have me do unto you." The Golden and Silver Rules, however, give us a reason to apply them to ourselves, although we can ignore it: why should people treat me well (or at least not treat me badly)? Because they would want me to treat them well (or would not want me to treat them badly). But then this immediately brings up the self-application of these rules, that we should treat other people well, not just expect others to treat us well. They trigger us to apply the rules to ourselves. The Platinum Rule does not. If we apply it to others, by telling people to treat us how we want to be treated, it just means we want to have things our way. There's no motive to apply it to ourselves. And even if we do, we do it blindly, without any reason or justification for it.

Another issue is that the Platinum Rule is already contained in the Golden and Silver Rules. Treating other people the way you want to be treated would include the idea that you don't want others to indiscriminately assume you want the same things they do. Treating others as you want to be treated is a general statement about what we share as human beings -- that's the universality again. And one thing we share as human beings is the desire to be treated as individuals. This means that we should take into consideration the specific things individual people want that we may not want ourselves, because we would want them to consider the specific things that we want regardless of whether they want the same things.

The Brass Rule is probably the human norm: treat people the way they treat you. Return good for good and evil for evil, although we'd always be looking for ways to avoid having to return good. This is often how people treat the Golden and Silver Rules: I'll treat other people well, but if they don't treat me well the system breaks down. But that's a bad approach. Your job is to treat people well. If others don't treat you well, that's on them. You just keep treating them well. "I'm sacrificing all this time and effort for them and they don't appreciate it. They don't even notice it." Yes, they're failing to follow the Golden and Silver Rules. That doesn't provide a reason for you not to follow it. If your adherence to the rule is contingent on their adherence to it, you're following the Brass Rule, not the Golden or Silver Rule.

The Brass Rule is tangentially related to the Prisoner's Dilemma. The idea here (roughly) is you have two people and they can vote one of two ways, say A or B. If they both vote A, then they share a reward (or avoid a punishment). If they both vote B, they don't get the reward. But if they split the vote, the one who votes B gets the reward all to himself. So it's a good idea to vote A as long as you know the other person's voting A too -- but you don't. So how do you proceed? The optimal response is to vote A initially, to split the reward, and to continue doing so until the other person takes advantage of the situation and votes B to win the whole thing. Then you respond by voting B until the other person becomes willing to sacrifice a few wins to get you back on the sharing track.

Well, actually, this is the optimal response:

You see how this is similar to the Brass Rule. Do unto others as they have done unto you. But it's not exactly the same since the Prisoner's Dilemma is about decision theory while the Brass Rule is about ethics. Granted, there's a lot of overlap between the two -- ethics involves deciding how to behave -- but they aren't coterminous.

And then we come to the Iron Rule. Use any advantage you have over others to put yourself in a position where they have no power over you. If someone treats you well but your interests are best served by ill-treating them, then you should return evil for good. But why wait? Start by visiting evil on people before they even know you're there. In the aftermath of Game of Thrones this makes me think of the iron throne, since many of the people vying for it are clearly following the Iron Rule.

Sunday, October 4, 2020

Reaction videos

I don't know why they're appealing, but I sometimes enjoy watching reaction videos -- people listening to music outside their usual interests for the first time, that sort of thing. It's not something I could ever do because I never appreciate music the first time I experience it. In the last few days I've discovered Shan Watches Movies where he watches an entire film, but obviously only showing 15 or 20 minutes worth of clips while giving his commentary. But this is different: Shan knows how film works, and his comments are about the directing, the acting, the cinematography, the music and sound, the lighting, etc. These aren't reaction videos, they're analysis videos. Watching them I found myself wishing my dad was still alive so I could tell him about it, since he loved movies on that level too. I actually have a folder filled with his movie reviews, although they weren't always generous. E.g., his review of Pretty Woman was just two words: "Whore movie." But I imagine if he could watch Shan, he would have immediately become a fan -- a Shan fan. Here's his review of John Carpenter's The Thing which I think is the greatest horror film ever made. Shan has his criticisms.