So last month I laid out guidelines for what should be considered good advice. There’s too many pithy one-liners floating around, especially on the internet, where it’s easy to fire and forget a single sentence or two. I also tackled the oldest piece of advice when it comes to ethics, the golden rule. It’s lost much of its shine I think, and seems pretty hard to make good on. Today I want to go over the three pieces of advice I’ve looked at since, and ask you to consider one of those when tempted to advise someone to do unto others.
My problem with the golden rule is that “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” doesn’t take into account other people’s interests or needs, and could even give a person leave to harm other people, depending on their tastes. If what you’re interested in doing is trying to tell them what the right thing to do is, it isn’t very good advice, because it leaves open all of these issues. They wind up having to apply the golden rule to how they apply the golden rule, which seems like a roundabout way of getting what you want. So I looked at some alternatives.
The first was the Greatest Happiness principle, which essentially says “Do what creates the greatest happiness in the greatest number, while producing the least pain.” It’s better than the golden rule because it actually cares about other people’s well-being, and requires you to put it in the forefront of your mind. Since you’re usually looking for advice when other people are involved, this is really helpful. It has some pitfalls though, if people’s happiness rapidly outpaces the foreseeable harm to others. These cases are few and far between, though.
The second was actually two pieces of advice. Act in a way that you could reasonably will into a universal law, and treat people as ends, rather than merely as a means. These two are tied together because following the former means following the latter. Even someone who wants to be treated merely as a means wants people to respect that goal, and could will being treated as an end into universal law. This advice is better than the golden rule because not only does it take into account the interests of others, it pushes our desires out of the equation, which means it can’t get tangled up by deviant values.
The third piece of advice was about paragons of virtue. Find someone who’s admirable in the relevant way, and do what they would do. This can work in a lot of cases, but there’s a strong argument that in order to pick the right person and do what they’d do, you already have to know what you should do. So as advice, it doesn’t seem useful. the theory is much more involved, as it is with all of these, but I’m just looking at the one line advice they give.
I’d like to add a fourth piece of advice to the pile, one from a movie that came out in the eighties. It’s this:
“Be excellent to one and other.”
The movie was Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure, and if you haven’t seen it, check it out. It’s a delightful tale about young men bombing around in a time-travelling phone booth. Look, I didn’t say it was a good movie, just that I like it. I’ve been kicking around this advice for a few days, which is partly why this post has taken so long to get up. We can call into question our ideas of excellence, but in essence, I think this gets us everything we want out of the golden rule in a neat package, and without the technical explanations of Kant or the huge calculations of Mill.
When you’re excellent, you act in a way that goes above and beyond the call. You excel. It’s pretty hard to come up with a way of being excellent to someone that doesn’t involve taking into account their needs and trying to make their life better. Damaging other people isn’t excellent. It’s just a thought I’ve been playing around with. One of the problems with it is that we’re not excellent all the time, but when we’re not, I think we might be forgiven for it. Forgiveness is most excellent.
So that’s four pieces of advice that are better than the golden rule, because they give us everything the golden rule does and more, often with less complications. So when you think about guiding ethical principles, maybe we can leave the golden rule where we left “An eye for an eye”. In the past.