Every time I come across a rationalization for the Ethics Alarms list, I metaphorically, and sometimes literally, slap myself on the forehead. How could I have missed it? Thus I have been long convinced that there was a huge, obvious, missing rationalization that somehow got lost in the search for others. Jimmy Durante did a piano routine called “I’m the Guy Who Found the Lost Chord!” (“The Lost Chord” is a previously famous composition by Sir Arthur Sullivan) in which he celebrated finding the chord, then lost it again mid-song. (Jimmy later found it again when he sat on the keyboard in disgust, and the magic chord issued forth. “Strange” he said, “I usually play by ear!”) This is how frustrated I was until today, when veteran commenter Tim LeVier led me to the Lost Rationalization, #57, “The Golden Rule Mutation,” or “I’m all right with it!” It’s a major one:
57. The Golden Rule Mutation, or “I’m all right with it!”
The hardest unethical conduct to detect is that which you don’t find objectionable even when you are the object of it. Thus the devout Catholic reasons that there can be nothing unethical in corporal punishment inflicted by teachers because Sister Mary used to smack him with a ruler and he grew up just fine. Another example is the open-minded liberal who doesn’t mind four-letter words in public, so he uses them in front of everyone. Cruel pranks and practical jokes are often excused with this rationalization: “Hey, I wouldn’t get upset about that!”
The issue that prompted the use of this rationalization in an Ethics Alarms thread was taking photographs of strangers in public without their consent. The position that there was nothing unethical about the conduct was supported by a chain of rationalizations: 1. The Golden Rationalization, or “Everybody does it,” 1A. Ethics Surrender, or “We can’t stop it,”4. Marion Barry’s Misdirection, or “If it isn’t illegal, it’s ethical,” 10. The Unethical Tree in the Forest, or “What they don’t know won’t hurt them,”36. Victim Blindness, or “They/He/She/ You should have seen it coming.”and #24. Juror 3’s Stand (“It’s My Right!”). Then I realized that one rationalization that surfaced was missing from the list. It was an appeal to the Golden Rule: I’m not doing anything to the stranger I’m taking a photo of that I would object to if he did it to me!
That’s not the Golden Rule, however. The Golden Rule asks you to consider how another party would feel if you treat him or her a certain way, by placing yourself in his belief system with his sensitivities, experiences and needs. It does not mean, for example, that because you like snakes, it is ethical to place a rubber snake in the bed of a friend who might be terrified of them. In the case of taking non-consensual public photographs of strangers, the photographer must assume that the subject might not want to be photographed, that it might make him uneasy or place him in fear, and that ethical principles of empathy, respect, fairness, kindness and caring require that the photographer ask permission first.
True, that requirement means that capturing a candid, unconsciousness moment may become more difficult. It would also be fair and considerate to take a photo first and then ask permission to keep it. Maybe that process increases the likelihood of being asked, “What will the photo be used for?” “Are you going to profit by it?” Is my image going to end up on line?” Well, those concerns are legitimate, and help explain why taking photos of strangers without consent is unethical.
57. The Golden Rule Mutation, or “I’m all right with it!” is like a reverse #32. The Unethical Role Model: “He/She would have done the same thing.” In #32, a famous individual is cited who would engage in the same unethical conduct, suggesting that the conduct couldn’t be unethical if such a revered individual did it or would do it. In #57, the unethical actor substitutes himself for his victim, and his values and needs as well.
This is as good a place as any to mention some of the more popular distortions of the Golden Rule used to validate unethical conduct, like…
- Do unto others as you know others would do unto you.
- Do unto others what they did unto you.
- Do unto others as you wish others would do unto you even though you wouldn’t deserve it.
- Do unto others as those others treat others.
- Do unto others as they threatened to do unto you.
- Do unto others as others who think like you do would also do to those others.
- Do unto others according to how you feel about what they did unto you.
- Do unto others before they do it unto you.
As for #57, it translates into…
Do unto others as if the others felt like I do, even though they may not.