ethics, humor, oversimplify, philosophy, politics

Green Grass and Golden Rules

Like overeating, oversimplifying is something we should always try to avoid. Oops, that’s an oversimplification.

Is grass green? Not if it’s Japanese blood grass in autumn.  Does a bear shit in the woods? Not if it’s a polar bear.  Is the sky blue?  Not at 1:00 AM.  Something important is hiding in plain sight here.  Everybody and their uncle have always known counterexamples to the claim that the sky is blue, and some of them have been celebrated with striking photos.  On the other hand, when cartoonist Garry Trudeau wanted to poke fun at reflexive Republican opposition to anything proposed by President Obama, he used this same claim in the Doonesbury strip that appeared 2015-05-24 in my local paper.  Clinging to his tattered hope for bipartisanship, Obama responds to an aide’s disillusionment by announcing something he thinks will be utterly uncontroversial: that the sky is blue.  The last panel shows a subsequent press conference held by the Senate’s Republican majority leader.

Reporter:
Leader McConnell, is the sky blue?
McConnell:
I am not a meteorologist.

Whether or not U agree with Trudeau’s take on the attitudes of those who pass for Republicans nowadays (and whether or not U found the strip funny), I trust that U did recognize the question about the sky’s color as a more polite version of the question about ursine defecation.  Even tho U know about sunsets.  Even tho U know that everybody else knows about them too. What is going on here?

1. Everything Is Oversimplified

belted-galwaybelted-galway-brown
Well, not everything.  The black and white cattle living on the farm near my house are not oversimplified.  They just are what they are.  Much of what I might say about them is oversimplified.  Indeed, it is hard to find anything nontrivial to say about them that is just plain true (like 2+3 = 5), w/o any qualifications or exceptions.  From a distance, they are black and white cattle, lounging on green grass under a partly blue sky.  Look more closely, and a few of them have brown instead of black.  Does it matter? Not to me.  Maybe it would matter to somebody who breeds Belted Galway cattle.  I just admire the bu-cow-lic scene and stay upwind.  Does a cow shit in the pasture?

Overeating is something people often do.  They should always try not to, and many of us can succeed most of the time.  Oversimplifying is more complicated.  Sometimes it is harmless (or even helpful as a temporary expedient); sometimes it is hardly better than lying.  Trying not to oversimplify is generally good, but the cure can be worse than the disease.  It may be better to oversimplify, be honest about it, and remain open to working on a more accurate formulation as the the need arises.  A more accurate formulation may well be good enough for a long time, but not forever.  Scientific theories and engineering calculations are like that.  Guess what?  So are ethical principles.

2. Why Is “Golden Rules” Plural in the Title?

What we call “the” Golden Rule has been formulated in various ways by various cultures.  A nice discussion appears on pages 83-86 in the book Plato and a Platypus Walk into a Bar by Cathcart and Klein.  (The book is a great read, even if U aced Philosophy 101 and have already heard many of the jokes.)  They use an old joke to illustrate how seriously oversimplified the rule is:

A sadist is a masochist who follows the Golden Rule.

It gets worse.  Even when how people like to be treated is pretty much the same thruout a group, the Golden Rule stumbles.  I was both amused and disturbed when cartoonist Scott Adams showed how badly it stumbles in a Dilbert strip I should have saved.  The boss proclaims that company policy will henceforth be to follow the Golden Rule.  Dilbert objects; the boss asks why.  The resulting exchange goes something like this:

Dilbert:
Would U like me to give U $100?
Boss:
Um, yes.
Dilbert:
OK, follow the Golden Rule and give me $100.

The boss is reduced to sputtering indignation.  Dilbert is clearly taking the rule too literally and ignoring an implicit consensus about exceptions.  But what are they?  I could not say where Dilbert errs.

Most of the formulations discussed by Cathcart and Klein are somewhat clunkier than our culture’s usual

Do unto others as U would have others do unto U.

They amount to saying

Do not do unto others as U would not have others do unto U.

Maybe people thought of the Dilbert objection and tried to get avoid it by prohibiting X rather than mandating Y.  This does help, but there is still a problem.

Dilbert:
Would U be disappointed if I refused your request to give U $100?
Boss:
Um, yes.
Dilbert:
Please give me $100.
Boss:
No.
Dilbert:
 I see.  U are just as hypocritical about the Confucian version of the Golden Rule as U are about our usual version.

If U fall off a boat and I hear U shout a request to be thrown a life preserver, I will try to do just that.  Just don’t walk up to me and request to be given $100.  What is the difference?  People can start with our usual formulation of the Golden Rule, admit that it is grossly oversimplified, consider what seems reasonable in thought experiments like this, try for a more explicit consensus about exceptions, and remain open to considering more adjustments as more situations arise, either in practice or in thought experiments.  Can we do better?

Immanuel Kant tried valiantly to do better with his Supreme Categorical Imperative, which is a fun read if U like reading tax laws or patents.  Cathcart and Klein have the details.

As a former wannabe mathematician, I would very much like to see a nice crisp formulation of the Golden Rule (or of any other important general principle) that just nails it, w/o exceptions or vagueness.  Nice work if U can get it.  If I ever get stuck with trying to help socialize a child, I will give the kid our usual version of the Golden Rule, say that it is a great starting point for thinking about how to behave, admit that real life is messier, and offer to talk about it more as the need arises.  I will not mention Kant.

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10 thoughts on “Green Grass and Golden Rules

  1. Wow. What a read. You’ve got a real talent for language use Mel.

    This has hit home with me on a number of fronts:
    1) Politics – the simplicity of Trump drives me nuts, and I am resisting with all my strength from becoming cynical because I can’t believe how many voters think he’s the answer.

    2) Asimov, and the 3 laws of Robotics – this is a continuing conversation between my daughter and I. We have both read the I, Robot series multiple times. You may know, the 3 laws are simplistic, and at first read, appear iron clad. But his 4 novels explore otherwise.

    2) AI – I have been reading about artificial intelligence lately and it seems to be a real worry in regards how to program something that may in short order become a million times smarter than all mankind, and do so in such a way we can insure our survival. Some programmers have posited the golden rule or variations thereof. Your post gives insight why it’s not that simple.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, the “I, Robot” series is a great classic. Thanks for pointing out how nicely it illustrates the difficulty of saying anything nontrivial that is short and clear w/o it having unwanted consequences in the messy world.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Hmm. Your intelligent post brings to mind Occam’s razor which pushed the simpler theories rather than more complex ones, because they proved to be more testable.

    Blast from the pas -. I hadn’t thought of Occam’s razor for years. Thanks for a walk down memory lane, Mel!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. All parents should consider Kant as a suitable addition to their children’s goodnight bedtime reading. The usual suspects don’t seem to be helping the situation. 😉

    Much to chew on here, so in an effort to keep it short, I’ll just toss in evolutionary biology. Why not, eh. All sentient creatures operate on generalizations and over-simplifications because there is frankly too much detail in the world, even if one is standing in just one spot. And if that spot happens to be the community watering hole, the survival of the self (and of one’s off-spring should they be there) has to focus both on the water and the possibility of a predator or two. To not focus on either one of them amounts to increasing the likelihood of extermination.

    At this point details in the environment that don’t pertain to those two areas of focus are irrelevant, even dangerous if they are allowed to become distractions. To immerse one’s focus on the individual plants and trees that surround the watering hole beyond whether their movement indicates a predator is to give said predator a hand up.

    On this basic biological ability to focus, to concentrate on just a few of the details and blurring or ignoring the other details, human slapped language on top of it. Language unfolded (evolved) from its infancy in the human story adapting itself to the biological imperatives. Eventually language was to over-ride the biological imperative, allowing people to behave in such a way that runs counter to the biological desire to sustain itself. But that’s another story.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, indeed. Attention to a detail can be a dangerous distraction in one context, while inattention to the same detail can be a dangerous oversimplification in another context. The complexity of our civilization can make it hard to decide which is which. Yet another post on why and how to (not) oversimplify may be in the future.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I also would throw in there regarding Kant and mathematical formulations about the unfolding of life, I would just toss out Edward Norton Lorenz, who, through his work in non-linear statistical models and weather forecasting, brought us the butterfly effect, strange attractors, and the notion that systems like weather operate on the most simplistic of mathematical equations, yet lead to unpredictability and what we refer to, from our human-scale perspective, chaos.

    Liked by 1 person

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