ethics, humor, oversimplify, philosophy, politics

Green Grass and Golden Rules

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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.

Leader McConnell, is the sky blue?
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

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:

Would U like me to give U $100?
Um, yes.
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.

Would U be disappointed if I refused your request to give U $100?
Um, yes.
Please give me $100.
 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.