I Found It! Presenting The Lost Rationalization, #57: The Golden Rule Mutation, or “I’m all right with it!”

sleeping woman

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.



21 thoughts on “I Found It! Presenting The Lost Rationalization, #57: The Golden Rule Mutation, or “I’m all right with it!”

  1. This is also a variation of the Y summer camp story preceding this post, The Golden Rule Perpetuated: Do unto others as some of their ancestors might have done unto some of yours.

  2. It’s almost a disappointing discovery. I think Jesus was assuming more common sense among those that heard him proclaim the Golden Rule. Perhaps something was lost in translation, allowing fools to warp the meaning and intent.

    • Jesus also bothered to add further during his sermons as well…the more oft quoted Golden Rule one liner is Luke 6:31 “And as you wish that others would do to you, do so to them.”

      The one liner ought not be misinterpreted as it falls within the “Sermon the Plain”, a general sermon on ethical behavior that would clarify just what “doing to others as you would have them do to you” looks like. But its synoptic parallel, which also falls in a general sermon on ethical behavior (the Sermon on the Mount) adds to the one liner:

      Matthew 7:12 “So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets.” Where else do we find this phrase or allusion “for this is the Law and the Prophets” within the Gospels?

      In Matthew 22:34-40, when the lawyer, astonished at Christ silencing the Pharisees and Sadducees in debate, asks Christ what is the greatest law then? Christ answers twofold: the greatest law comes from Deuteronomy 6:5, but the 2nd greatest, comes from Leviticus 19:18: “you shall love your neighbor as yourself”. Then Christ sums up by saying, “on these two commandments depend the Law and the Prophets”.

      So, you get a different wording of the Golden Rule: Love your neighbor as yourself.

      That dialogue also has its synoptic parallel in Luke; only Luke records Christ giving further clarification on just what that neighborly behavior looks like with the much beloved story of the Good Samaritan. To round it all out, when Christ gave the summary quote from Leviticus 19, his audience would have been familiar with the whole series of interpersonal relationship regulations found in verses 9-19.

      To summarize: only an idiot could really misinterpret the Golden Rule, but even then, given the context of the Golden Rule’s multiple instances of preaching, even the idiots wouldn’t have excuses.

  3. This is the psychopath’s excuse for bad and creepy behavior. It explains why the paparazzi can get away with taking unflattering pictures of celebrities with absolutely no guilt. Also frat rats engaging in their escapades, racists of all color using offensive terms freely, and politicians using ugly attack ads. Brilliant Jack!!

  4. What you’ve found is where ethics “jumps the shark”, but that isn’t without precedent. My entry into discussing issues with you dates back to The Scoreboard and a post about someone utilizing their access to a tennis court to practice and improve their serve. I was fine with a person utilizing their access of a tennis court for tennis related activities, but you have long held that because a two-some showed up to use the tennis court for a friendly match (the tennis court has no reservation system) that continued use of the tennis court by the person practicing was no longer ethical.

    I employ your *new* Rationalization #57 in my stance on the tennis issue. If I arrived with my tennis partner to a court hoping to be able to use it and someone was already using it for their tennis related activities (practicing serves by themselves), I would have no problem waiting until they had concluded their activities, nor would I think them unethical.

    Suffice it to say, I hung around regardless of that disagreement and I’ll continue to hang around (lurking mostly…) after this disagreement.

    • *lurking mostly for no reason other than because your passion tends to lead you into the political posts and there’s not much substance to add. The ethics issues around presidential candidates are difficult to relate to and…ughh…

      • I don’t recall if I mentioned at the time that I had once been in the situation as the lone player using the court, but while a foursome waited. I felt like a schmuck, and gave up the court. The fact that wasn’t playing very well and they were sneering at me didn’t help.

      • Do I like it? Not particularly. It seems to give an inordinate amount of cover to a person’s irrational fear and feelings. We’ll have to see how it plays out – my goal will be to invoke it as often as I think I can to see if it annoys you. If I fail, it’s probably a good one – though, if I fail it’s actually probably because of minimal effort.

        When you see me pull this out of the hat, don’t think of me as trolling. Though it appears as such, I’m just putting it through the paces in a sort of “peer-reviewed” manner. I might make some bad arguments along the way and I probably won’t stand up to the fight if I find the fatal flaw in the logic that brought me into the discussion. So, let the testing begin.

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