The Platinum Rule and Utilitarianism

Posted on February 26, 2016

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[Note: this post assumes an acquaintance with philosophical utilitarianism.]

Do not do unto others as you would that they should do unto you. Their tastes may not be the same.

–George Bernard Shaw, Maxims for Revolutionists

It’s become a platitude to say that the Golden Rule transcends cultures, but it remains true nonetheless. It can be found in places as far apart as the Analects of Confucius and The Way to Happiness by L. Ron Hubbard. Today, it is most recognizably expressed in the somewhat atavistic phrase ‘Do unto others as you would have them do unto you’.

But I, like Shaw, have doubts. We don’t share the same wants. If A wants B to sit on his face, does morality require him to sit unto her face (as he would have her sit unto his)? Uh…Well, I hope not. So here we have an objection to the Golden Rule.

The response that’s sometimes given is that the Golden Rule isn’t really saying what it seems to. But I’m inclined to side with the critics here. The plain meaning of the Golden Rule, as commonly stated, leads to absurdities. It can be improved by replacing it with a statement something like this: ᴛʀᴇᴀᴛ ᴏᴛʜᴇʀs ᴀs ᴛʜᴇʏ ᴡᴀɴᴛ ᴛᴏ ʙᴇ ᴛʀᴇᴀᴛᴇᴅ, and hopefully they’ll do the same for you. This modified version has been called ‘the Platinum Rule’. I ❤︎ Pt.

When put this way, I think affinities with utilitarianism become more apparent. What’s the difference between treating others as they want to be treated and satisfying their preferences? To me, the two sound pretty darn alike. It doesn’t sound too far removed from adding to their pleasure either. Seen in this light, the Platinum Rule bears a strong resemblance to the principle of maximization of utility.

Of course others have pointed to antecedents of utilitarianism, but I haven’t heard anyone accuse the Golden Rule of being one. I hereby make that charge.

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