“There is nothing more ethical and fair than reciprocity.”
—- Conservative web pundit “progressoverpeace,” one of the approximately 300 commenters who attempted to make the ethically impossible argument that spreading the falsehood on the internet that “Harry Reid is a pederast (or pedophile)” is “ethical and fair” in opposition to my post, Funny! But Wrong: “The Harry Reid is a Pederast” Rumor.
This is, of course, a profoundly unethical distortion of the real ethical principle of reciprocity, as embodied by the Golden Rule and its many similar ethical systems from various cultures, philosophies and faiths. The Golden Rule is benign, and urges prospective and aspirational reciprocity, advising us to treat others as we would want to be treated ourselves, were we in the other individual’s circumstances. Progressoverpeace—let’s call him “Pop”—embraces a punitive form of reciprocity—I’ll dub it the Fool’s Golden Rule— that endorses retribution, and precludes generosity, kindness, forbearance, perspective, peace—and civilization.
Pop’s “reciprocity” holds that once someone has treated another human being badly, it is ethical for that person to treat him or her just as badly in the same manner, presumably on the false assumption that this will teach him better “ethics.” Of course, what it is more likely to teach him was that he was correct to mistreat that individual in the first place. Such warped reciprocity seeds a perpetual cycle of hatred and escalating feuds, because it begins a cycle that can never stop short of death, terror, or surrender.
The Golden Rule, in contrast, creates a system where we treat each other better over time, employing empathy and emphasizing integrity: we do not do what we know is wrong simply because someone who doesn’t know it is wrong has done it to us. This is, and has always been, a formula for making society better and happier, which is the objective of ethics.
Pop’s application of his perverted version of reciprocal ethics proves its fallacy. He was citing it in defense of the conservative blogger effort to spread the libel (and it would be actionable libel, were not Sen. Reid a public figure) that “Harry Reid is a pederast (or pedophile)” to punish him for his despicable claims that Mitt Romney is a tax evader, offering no evidence whatsoever. By Pop’s foolish formula, however, Reid could also claim to be ethical. Since Pop’s broad concept of reciprocity includes treating someone just as badly as he treated someone else, Sen.Reid can say that he is only doing to Romney what many of Romney’s supporters (and Romney’s pal, Donald Trump) did to President Obama by asserting that he was constitutionally unqualified to be President based on the fact that he hadn’t released all of his birth records. The conservative birthers, though, could retort that they were also engaging in reciprocity, since progressive “truthers” and Obama allies like Van Jones made even more scurrilous accusations regarding President Bush and Vice-President Cheney following 9-11, alleging that they murdered their own fellow citizens. Thus does the Fool’s Golden Rule fuel a cycle of hate that makes a cooperative society or government futile and unachievable.
Even isolating such a distorted ethical system to single episodes, the result is ugly. Pop believes it is ethical for a husband to cheat on his adulterous wife after reconciliation. He believes that it is ethical for a physically abused spouse to return the abuse in kind, turning marriage into perpetual physical conduct. He believes that liars can be ethically lied to, and rumor-mongers should be made the victim of rumors. Thieves should be robbed. Jerry Sandusky should be sexually molested…or perhaps his grandchildren. If someone insults you, insult her: that’s ethical, in Pop’s world. Pop’s world is, you see, violent, uncivil, mean and driven by retribution. There is no integrity, because it is ethical to adopt the bad conduct of others for the purpose of revenge.
I would not bother to feature Pop’s vile ethical formula if he were an outlier, and aberration or a nut, but he is not. Based on the vast majority of like-minded conservatives who argued here for the “ethics” of spreading an obvious (but unfunny) lie regarding the Senate Majority Leader, he is part of a significant segment of the public, and I have no doubt that he has plenty of counterparts on the other side of the political spectrum. Make no mistake: these unethical people are determined to make our world into Pop’s world, and they are succeeding.
I can’t blame Pop for this, to be fair. If our culture hadn’t significantly abandoned the understanding and teaching of ethics as a priority, Pop could not exist. How can someone be raised in a family, go to school, read history, interact with others. live in a nation founded on that most humanistic and ethical of political philosophies, democracy, and be so utterly ignorant of right and wrong? It can happen–it has happened—because while America is frantic to ensure that children are thoroughly instructed on sex from the age of–what is it now, five?—it shrugs off the obligation to teach its young about ethics, leaving them to acquire their values from TV, pop culture and the street. The result is millions of Pops, and they are making the political process, social interaction and the nation less functional, less endurable, and less ethical with every passing day.