Flourishing, Intuition, and Precious-Metal Rules
Photo by Marek Studzinski / Unsplash

Flourishing, Intuition, and Precious-Metal Rules

What people really need is hard to simplify, and our intuition about it only gets us halfway there.

This is the second article in a short series on how to know the right kind of help to give someone, by thinking about what it means for them to flourish.

In my previous article, I talked about how we often give the wrong kind of help with our heart in the right place. Because we take a too-narrow view on what others need, our help turns out to be not so helpful. I suggested that we should instead take a broader view: what does a person need to flourish?

We most quickly answer the question with simple intuition. It’s a good place to start asking “What would I want if I was in their shoes?” The problem, though, with an intuitive approach is that our intuition often gets it wrong by assuming too much.

Precious-Metal Rules

Consider the Golden Rule. “Do unto others as you would have others do unto you.” This version, expressed by Jesus Christ in the Sermon on the Mount, is just one of countless formulations found around the world. Here are a few of the hundreds of other examples from the Golden Rule Project:

  • Judaism: “That which is despicable to you, do not do to your fellow.” - Hillel the Elder
  • Buddhism: “Hurt not others in ways that you yourself would find hurtful.” - Tripitaka Udana-Varga 5:18
  • Confucianism: “One should not behave towards others in a way which is disagreeable to oneself.” -Mencius Vii.A.4
  • Hinduism: “This is the sum of the Dharma duty: do naught unto others which would cause you pain if done to you.” - Mahabharata 5:1517
  • Islam: “None of you truly believes until he wishes for his brother what he wishes for himself.” - Number 13 of Imam “Al-Nawawi’s Forty Hadiths

And these are just some of the religious formulations. You’ll also find the idea invoked across a wide range of cultures, philosophies, and politics. The Golden Rule is perhaps one of the most widespread maxims in human history. It’s widespread because it teaches something that every person in the world needs to learn: how to think about someone else. We all live in our own heads, and the Golden Rule teaches us to empathize, an essential life skill.

And yet, there are problems in application of the Golden Rule. Before you think I’m about to burst heathen-like onto sacred ground, please consider that no religion has ever taught only the Golden Rule. On its own, the Rule is incomplete.

Here’s the basic challenge embedded in every version of the Golden Rule: we all want different things. To do for someone what I want for myself assumes that they value what I value. Clearly this is not a reliable assumption, for reasons ranging from the trivial (favorite ice cream flavors) to the intractable (political strife). I love donuts and, strange as it seems to me, there are people who don’t.

If you think I’m picking nits, just consider:

  • The birthday present someone gave you because they love it, or
  • The unsolicited advice to start the same diet that your friend is on, or
  • The invitation to Karaoke when the last thing you want is to get on a stage and sing badly in front of strangers.

Wanting different things is exceedingly common, and yet we still have a hard time seeing those desires in others whom we want to help.

This logical pothole in the Golden Rule inspired someone (unknown) to write the Platinum Rule, “Do unto others as they want done unto them.” Of course, this just substitutes one problem for another. Do I help the meth addict afford her next bump? Do I help a murderer make his escape? The Platinum Rule assumes all desires are good for us. (Consider, too, that the police prefer that I help them catch the murderer. The Platinum Rule doesn’t tell me whom to help when interests collide.) Not everything we want is also helpful to us.

Rules Upon Rules, but Incomplete Answers

We can come up with even more rules to address these gaps or conflicts, but then those rules need testing. For example, we might say, “Do unto others as they wish, but don’t do any harm.” Some harm is ethically justified and proper, though. After all, doctors use scalpels. We have a wide range of tools in society that impose harm with moral necessity, like prisons, taxes, and timeouts for my kids. (We might not think of mild punishment as harm, but kids do.)

The point of all of this precious-metal rule-wrangling is that what people need is hard to simplify, so intuition is at best incomplete. Enhancing our intuition with rules—Golden or otherwise—can be useful as quick tests for our behavior, but rules, too, can be inapt for the moment. We need something more, something richer, to understand what makes people flourish.

In the next article, we’ll take a look at happiness. What if we just focus on making the world a happier place?

In the meantime, I would love to hear your thoughts. Please email me or leave a comment if you have something to share.


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Written by

Aaron Miller

Aaron Miller

Provo, UT