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Newton’s 3rd Law is a corollary of the Golden Rule

Jordan 2018-06-06
#culture

I.

The Golden Rule is to treat others as you would like to be treated. If you would find an act hurtful when done to you, don’t do it to someone else. If you would appreciate something, make an extra effort to do it for others. This works very well between like-minded people: I can guess that Jill will appreciate effort I put into spending time with her because that’s how I feel when people put effort into spending time with me. It also works in communities of people with shared norms: I know that people normally enjoy receiving a gift from a friend, so I can guess that Dave will be happy if I get him a gift.

One corollary of this is that if I have a weird quirk that I know to be abnormal, then I should defer to my community’s norms when making predictions about others. If I really love Saharan plants, and my entire life people have pointed out how odd that is, I shouldn’t think to get Dave a Saharan cactus just because it would make me happy if he were me. In other words, don’t apply the Golden Rule to the specific reduced statement “I would love to receive a cactus as a gift,” apply it to the unreduced statement “I would love to receive a gift that fits my interests.” Reflect that statement so it’s about Dave, then use what you know about Dave to try and reduce “a gift that reflects Dave’s interests” into something specific.

A similar corollary is that if I am especially averse to something, and I know this to be abnormally strong compared to my community’s norms, then I should expect others to defer to the norm when making predictions about me. If I’m weirdly sensitive to tardiness, I shouldn’t apply the Golden Rule to the specific reduced statement “when people are tardy it hurts me a lot,” I should apply it to the unreduced statement “when people do something I especially dislike it hurts me a lot.” I can reflect that statement so it’s about others, and then use what I know about them to try and reduce “something others especially dislike” into something specific.

II.

If I get Dave a Saharan cactus but Dave only likes flowers from South America, he shouldn’t assume that I don’t care about him. The Golden Rule is common knowledge, but it’s corollaries are not. If our community normally considers gift giving to be appreciated, then by getting Dave a gift at all, I’m putting myself in the green. Dave can still wonder why I got him the wrong gift, and he can still explain the corollary so that next time I’ll know better and I’ll get him some Chilean orchids. But it’s only a violation of the corollary.

On the other hand, if Ryan kicks me in the shins, I can go ahead and treat him like he means me harm and he broke the Golden Rule. Nobody likes being kicked in the shins, and I don’t believe him when he says “so what? I don’t mind being kicked in the shins. See, here, kick me in the shins, I don’t care,” because truly nobody at all likes being kicked in the shins.

If Dave is willing to accept that there are people like me who are so different from him that they don’t like South American flowers, why shouldn’t I accept that there are people like Ryan who are so different from me that they don’t mind shin kicking? There’s an answer here involving societal norms – that it’s not about how different we are from each other, it’s about how different we are from the norm and how likely it is that Ryan could grow up without realizing his weird quirk compared to how likely it is that I could. But even after you give these norms their weight, at the end of the day the question is just whether or not you trust someone to have your interests at heart. You can investigate whether or not they are deserving of that – make your preferences known, ask them to change for you – and make your decision slowly. Some friends will change and others won’t.

III.

The Golden Rule is common knowledge, but it’s corollaries are not. So if Jill oversleeps and misses our brunch date, who has the responsibility to do what? Am I in the wrong for being too sensitive? Or is Jill in the wrong for not being caring enough? The norm isn’t necessarily halfway in between our two weird quirks, so how do we figure out who needs to change for whom?

Well, I appreciate it when people forgive my mistakes, so I can guess that Jill will appreciate it if I forgive her for oversleeping and missing our date. This is the Golden Rule, not a corollary, so it is required behavior. Everybody appreciates forgiveness.

And Jill appreciates it when people put effort into spending time with her, so she can guess that I appreciate it when people put effort into spending time with me by trying not to oversleep. Again, this is the Golden Rule, not a corollary, so it is required behavior. Everybody appreciates quality time.

But Jill is also quirkily lax about tardiness; she wants her friends to spend quality time with her, but she honestly doesn’t mind when a friend is late, and that’s why she tends to end up being late herself. This is a failure to apply the corollary: Jill has a weird quirk which makes her especially tolerant of lateness, so she should defer to her community’s norms about not being late when making predictions about me. I can wonder to myself why she was late, and I can explain the corollary so that the next time she’ll be on time, but I can’t treat her like she doesn’t care about me, because the fact that she even made plans to spend time with me at all puts her in the green.

And I’m also weirdly sensitive to tardiness; I try to never be tardy when meeting with friends, so I tend to expect the same from my friends and take it personally when they miss my expectations. This is also a failure to apply the corollary; I should accept that Jill might defer to our community’s norms about about lateness not being unforgivably intolerable. Jill might wonder why I seemed so hurt, and she might explain the corollary to me so that if she happens to be late again I won’t be as offended, but she can’t treat me like I shouldn’t feel hurt, because the fact that she was tardy at all puts her in the red here.

If you treat the Golden Rule as a requirement and the corollaries as optional but appreciated, then nobody’s needs take precedence because they’re not actually in conflict. My needs exert a force on Jill’s behavior just as hers exert a force on mine. It’s Newton’s third law, our weird quirks exert equal and opposite forces on each other.