Wednesday, May 17, 2006

The Plutonium Rule

We're all familiar with the Golden Rule: "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you." It famously suffers from the problem that others might have wildly different preferences from you. This has lead some to propose the Platinum Rule: "Treat others the way they want to be treated." That seems an improvement, though of course you can't give everyone what they want, and doing so wouldn't always even be good for them (say when people have ignorant or self-destructive desires). Still, I think the underlying idea here could be captured even better by what I will call - for want of a more sensible name - the Plutonium Rule: "Treat others as you would in the knowledge that you will one day be* them." Complement this with my theology of choice and you won't even need the hypothetical.

* = (I guess it's kind of like a really big mutation.)

Seriously, it seems like the sort of principle you could live your life by. And it really would be nice to be able to believe the theological underpinnings. (It's so much cooler than all the other religions I've come across.) One's sense of shared humanity could be significantly augmented by a sense of shared divinity. You would "belong to something greater" than your (mortal) self in a very literal sense! This satisfies some very basic human yearnings. But even if you don't take it literally, the heuristic value of the hypothetical strikes me as pretty significant. It really helps you (or, at least, me) appreciate the striking reality of other people, empathize with their concerns and aspirations, etc., in a way that can be difficult on the usual way of thinking which sets oneself apart from others.

The heuristic naturally leads to the sort of moral theory defended in my 'Consistency and Utilitarianism', which I find pretty plausible. It's not brute preference utilitarianism, because I really don't want my future fundamentalist other-self (say) to have his theocratic preferences satisfied. Far better if he/we could be given the opportunity to become more enlightened. (I expect he would want the same on ideal rational reflection, so an idealized preference utilitarianism might yield the same results.) Similarly for rehabilitating criminals and such. In general, the plutonium rule should remind us of how important it is to enable others to improve themselves and realize their full potential.

The rule may also help us to resolve puzzling questions about the total value of humanity as a whole. Consider the population paradox. We should not be pure aggregators, since we wouldn't think that living a zillion lives of barely-above-baseline welfare is all that wonderful. But nor should we accept a purely 'averaging' approach to value theory. If you could live another life, still very worthwhile but just below the average utility of your other lives, then that sounds like an opportunity worth accepting. (Doesn't it? If you disagree about this then you could be an averager, I suppose.) So, trade-offs and discretion are required. In general, we might evaluate a possible world by asking how you'd like to be the immanent 'God' of that world, living each of the lives contained therein. The best worlds are those that we'd most like to divinely experience (on ideal rational reflection). Sound plausible?



  1. This seems like a fairly solid formula for how we're to treat people in inter-personal relationships, but I don't really think it works as a way to regulate our actions towards impersonal groups. Could policy-makers consistently apply this rule, when a proposed piece of legislation would harm some one group while causing another to flourish? Just a thought.

  2. hmmm I imagine you might tend towards being an averager - ie you would kill yourself with the knowledge the next life would probably be better for yourself.
    Or you might have a maximising life theory In which case oyu would want to have tons of babies.

  3. Or you could simply imagine that you might have been them, had circumstances worked out differently. "There but for the grace of Cthulhu go I..."

    Either version seems to get you straight to Rawls - though some might not regard that as a strength.

  4. Very interesting but I am not sure you really separate yourself from the problem with the golden rule. The Plutonium Rule presumes that you can correctly identify what it would be like to actually be the other person(s). I can only think of a handful of people that I know well enough to even attempt a guess at what it would be like to be them. Any attempt to evaluate a casual aquaintance, let alone a complete stranger, is destined to lead to the imposition of our personal stereotypes. For example, suppose a religious person sees a person who is committing what he considers a sin. Using the plutonium rule he reasons "If I am going to be that person one day I want to be saved so I can improve my life and live free of sin. Therefore, I will do everything I can to convert him."

    This is reasonable logic. I know many people who have been converted to religion and are very glad they were and the religious person could be correct. However, there are also many people who don't want to be saved and might think to themselves, "If I am going to be that religious man someday I want someone to stop me from wasting my life following a false belief that hinders my enjoyment of life." Ultimately, both may attempt to impose their beliefs on the other because neither could comprehend wanting to live under the others belief system and think they would be much better off if their beliefs changed. One reasoning "I am more happy since I found religion so he will be too." The other "I am more happy without following religion, therefore he will be too." In the extreme this logic could extend to using coercion to force people to conform closer to what you consider a better life. Think of everytime you look at someone and say to yourself "I'm glad I am not like that." Following the Plutonium Rule would actually encourage you to change that person because if you don't want to be like that, and you will one day be that person, you would want that person to change.

  5. I think the Plutonium Rule is no different than the Golden Rule. If I know that, say, not smoking is better for Bob, even though he doesn't want it, then I will want that when I become Bob, someone stops me from smoking even though I will *then* (as Bob) irrationally want to smoke.

    It follows from the basis of my knowledge that smoking is bad for Bob, that if Bob doesn't accept that smoking is bad for him he is either irrational or ill-informed. The knowledge that I will one day be irrational or ill-informed too doesn't mean that I want my irrational then-wishes followed to my own future harm (i.e. Bob's present harm).

    In other words, I'll apply my own judgments of what is good for Bob, even though I know that when I actually *am* Bob I will no longer know that it's good for me.

    By similar reasoning, Bob will try to convince me *to* smoke, since he "knows" that it's a harmless and pleasurable habit that he wants to be able to engage in as me and that therefore he/I will be happier if I presently smoke.

    I don't think this is dependent on religion - merely the belief that my own beliefs are generally true and well-grounded. Any two people who believe something mutually contradictory about how to achieve happiness will have this problem - they want to share their knowledge of true happiness with the person who doesn't have it, so that when they *are* that person, they'll be truly happy too.

  6. O.K. Before my writing continues, I have to confess a few things so I won't get hammered by them later. I am a high school drop out, and while I used to read voraciously, prior to having children, I was never deemed a learned man(I'm speaking, of course, of this life). I am a person who works alone 99% of the time and it gives me lots of time for my thoughts to wander. I read this post the other day and it kept creeping back into my thoughts. The problem I am having with it is that I try to live by the Golden Rule. I can't grasp either the Platinum Rule nor the Plutonium Rule for one major reason. I don't believe in sympathy. You cannot have sympathy for another even if you have suffered from the exact same catastrophe because your view and aspect are completely different. I'll go one further; you cannot even be sympathetic with yourself. Think back on the worst physical pain you have ever endured and try and remember it. You can remember the overview of it, but not the particulars. Even with mental or emotional anguish, the aspect and focus changes over time, so even if you are an emotional wreck every time you think of some horrific event, you can't capture the exact pain of the first time. Sometimes the pain gets worse, like a wound that never heals because you contantly irritate it. It could be a pain you have re-visited so many times, you become desensitized to it. So if you adopt the Platinum or Plutonium Rule, you can only be second guessing and even that cannot remain a constant because your view from that specific time and place will differ greatly with each "guess". I can only go by the Golden Rule because I can make a field judgment from that exact point in time. It would stay within a certain range from instance to instance, but that has to do a lot with an individual's emotional stability. O.K. Let the hammering begin.
    The Writhing Of Something Nailed Down In Torment

  7. I think sympathy is possible. Even if one cannot perfectly grasp another's point of view, one can at least do so imperfectly. And often that's enough. (Simple example: suppose you hate wine, but a friend tells you that they really like the stuff. You would never want a gift of wine for yourself. But it might make a good gift for your friend. This requires going beyond the golden rule.)

    Chris - I think my example above shows them to be different. More generally, the distinction requires one to hold to a certain welfare pluralism: what's good for me might not be what's good for you. But that's obviously true. So we should all recognize the distinction.

    In some cases paternalism might still be called for. I suggested as much in my main post. But one should always take care before trying to impose their views on others. Perhaps the plutonium rule would have bad consequences when employed by unreflective dogmatists. But unreflective dogmatists can make almost anything bad, so I don't see that as too strong an objection ;-)

  8. See this post over at the Carnival of the Godless! Thanks for the submission!!

  9. Sounds very much like Kant's 'Categorical Imperative' - "Act as if the abstraction of your action were, through your willing it, to become a universal law".

    Which he always claimed was an improvement on the Golden Rule, since it didn't allow for your own preferences to lead to differences from different viewpoints. Ditto to the Platinum Rule.

    I've alway thought it was more of a 'meta moral law'. What I mean is it's not really useful in itself for deciding if a particular action is moral. But it is useful for deciding if a general moral rule is. It seems to capture one of the more crucial aspects of moral rules - they should not generally vary from person to person. Unless you believe in utilitarianism, then it's totally ad-hoc from a global perspective, although rule utilitarianism is an attempt to bring order and impartiality back to the system.


Visitors: check my comments policy first.
Non-Blogger users: If the comment form isn't working for you, email me your comment and I can post it on your behalf. (If your comment is too long, first try breaking it into two parts.)

Note: only a member of this blog may post a comment.