The Golden Rule

The Golden Rule is a maxim in almost every religious and social theory, which makes it both the easiest and hardest maxim to break down and unpack.  At its core, the concept appears to be both positive and negative, an encouragement and an admonishment. It has been found in some form in almost every culture, language (except perhaps Klingon), and moral system.  It is easy to follow, if one simply checks their own behaviour before any interaction with other people, and in most social interactions, it is followed. You too should recognize this rule:

Treat others the way you would want to be treated.

It’s a simple rule in concept, and most people take this for granted, as it isn’t a simple rule in practice.  That jarring realization may be why there is such a disparity between the ways we as humans treat each other across cultural and social lines.  Keep in mind, many people, if not the majority, don’t like themselves very well. To make matters worse, there are those that are more than willing to punish themselves for their perceived inadequacies and in doing so believe that we should all be punished in the same way.  This is the road to nihilism, and although there are many, especially in my generation, that embracing such an attitude is either cute or funny, it is really a quick road to tyranny.

So if you don’t treat others the way you want to be treated, would there be an alternative?  Perhaps one that would work best for both parties as they try and cooperate with mutual understanding and respect; something that it is likely both parties would want.  I have seen this example as an alternative to the Golden Rule set forth above, along with its own set of issues:

Treat others how they want to be treated.

This seems to correct for the issue of people not liking themselves, but comes with a set of great issues regarding mutual respect, such as the possibility that the person you’re interacting with is a narcissist.  They may expect you to treat them like they are the proverbial center of the universe. Conversely, they may hold themselves in such contempt that they treat you poorly for treating them too well. Both speak to deeply rooted psychological issues that I frankly lack the qualification to unpack properly; despite learning psychology, and abnormal psychology, at the collegiate level, the complexities of such situations are far beyond my experience.  In any case, these issues, far more common than we may be willing to admit, speak to the deep rooted issue with expecting everyone to treat a person in the manner that person expects; after all, in all likelihood, they may not have earned it. This is even more important when the person hasn’t earned the contempt they expect from other people.

Thus, having exposed the problems with both of the classical ideas of the Golden Rule, there is a third, “prohibitive” example that we can look at unpacking, which may be a better way to frame the rule, even if it is imperfect itself:

You shouldn’t treat others in any manner you don’t want to be treated.

This version solves the problems inherent in the first two versions of the Golden Rule, as it doesn’t place any permissive assumptions on how you treat others; instead it admonishes you to not do something to someone you wouldn’t want done to you. In most cases, this is wise council; as we are all human, those things that harm us would also harm anyone else, whether physically or emotionally.  It is also a good method of checking our own behaviours; after all, if we stop and ask ourselves how we’d feel if we were treated in such a manner, it may stop us from acting.

The problem comes when you factor in the human penchant to enjoy different things, and act in different ways.  For example, when dealing with household employees, butlers and maids by their very profession must be treated in a way that we might not be comfortable with.  Yes, we remain professional and courteous, but they are employed as servants, and are well paid to be so. Therefore, there are protocols involved. Now, having never met a butler (though I do know a few housekeepers, despite never having employed one myself), I don’t know the exact dynamic that butlers have with their employers, although I researched becoming one at one time.  Servant, but not subservient, I believe was the adage in the article for the school of butlery that I was investigating.  Yes, they have schools. Thus, if I ever were to employ a butler, unlikely but possible should I earn my way to that ability, I would suppress my urge to offer them a chair, as that is inappropriate by their own standards; I would be put out if not offered a chair when addressed by someone sitting.

Therefore, while the prohibitive form of the Golden Rule may be the best starting point, we must always temper our interactions with the ability to make good judgement calls based on the situation.  While this should always be the case in every situation, it is frequently ignored, and a form of social absolutism appears frequently in folks, especially those of my generation, the Millennials; while this is a criticism of the most criticized generation currently living, it is not as sharp as it appears.  It reminds us that while we are all products of our experiences, and we should do our best to take into account the perspectives of those we may not entirely understand, or even agree with; you never know, you may learn something from it.

There is one last version of the Golden Rule we must address, and it is dynamically different from the other versions; far from being a method of behaviour, it is a reminder of how the world works.  While I’m sure many of you are nodding your head, some in irritation, it goes thusly:

The one who has the gold makes the rules.

I have seen this used by people both to push their own point (usually by a boss that is dealing with an employee, often poorly), or those having a rough time at work complaining about their position.  Fact is, this will always largely be the case, as those that make the rules got a raise when they got there. It’s also science; the Pareto Distribution. Discovered long before science even existed as a subject, and at the time known as the Matthew Principle, the Pareto Distribution is a graphical representation of how feedback loops make both good and bad things more likely to happen after one has.

In this way, once you start having success, it is far easier to have continuing success as long as you continue to put forth the effort.  Same goes with failure. Now, I could spend an entire essay talking about the finer points of the Pareto Distribution, but I’ll leave you with this: if the one that has the gold, makes the rules, and you don’t like the rules of the game you’re playing now, then you need to figure out how to become the one with the gold.

This may sound tacky, but it has worked for centuries.  Napoleon Hill, Jeffrey Gitomer, Dan Pena, Grant Cardone, all make direct reference to it in their published works; and it was all started by the wily Scotsman named Dale Carnegie.  So follow both golden rules; and become the best person you can be by doing so.

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