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An In-depth Exploration of the Golden Rule, Game Theory, and Decision-Making

  The Story-Telling, Game Theorist, Problem-Solver

Helping people to create better lives through efficiency, effectiveness, precision, self-awareness and game-based strategies


Q. In creating a more evolved and self-aware life I often use the term “The Golden Rule” in serving others. Do you have any thought about the Golden Rule in relation to game theory, Eastern wisdom, and the creation of effective life strategies?

A. The Golden Rule “Do unto others, as you would have them do unto you” is an important tool for game thinkers and can be applied in win/win and win/lose games alike. The Golden Rule is a maxim of altruism that can be found in many human religions and cultures. The concept may appear as a positive or negative injunction governing conduct.  Theoretically one could ignore this rule in order to “Win” and do so without violating any specific ethical or moral codes, but this is usually not an effective strategy especially in the long run.

The fundamental concept of the Golden Rule is that:

  • One should treat others as one would like others to treat oneself (positive or directive form).
  • One should not treat others in ways that one would not like to be treated.
  • What you wish upon others, you wish upon yourself (empathic or responsive form).

The Golden Rule differs subtlety from the maxim of reciprocity captured in do ut des—”I give so that you will give in return”—and is rather a unilateral moral commitment to the well-being of the other without the expectation of anything in return.

The concept occurs in every religion and ethical tradition. It can also be explained from the perspectives of psychology, philosophy, sociology, and economics. Psychologically, it involves a person empathizing with others. From a Philosophical perspective, it involves a person perceiving their neighbor also as “I” or “self”. Sociologically, ‘love your neighbor as yourself’ is applicable between individuals, groups, and also between individuals and groups. Clearly, without some kind of reciprocity society couldn’t exist.

The term “Golden Rule”, or “Golden law” began to be used widely in the early 17th century in Britain; the earliest known usage is that of Charles Gibbon in 1604.

Possibly the earliest affirmation of the maxim of reciprocity reflects the ancient Egyptian goddess Ma’at. This appears in the story of The Eloquent Peasant, which dates to the Middle Kingdom (c. 2040 – c. 1650 BC): “Now this is the command: Do to the doer to make him do.” This proverb embodies the do ut des principle”. Of course, the Golden Rule has a prominent place in the sacred texts of all Abrahamic religions including Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.

Since game thinking is so closely linked to economics as is the Golden Rule one cannot really discuss one without discussing the other. Richard Swift, referring to ideas from David Graeber, the anthropologist, and influential anarchist activist, suggests that “without some kind of reciprocity society would no longer be able to exist. His article, “Pathways & Possibilities”, has a subsection called

“A Reciprocal Economy” which refers to Graeber’s concept of “baseline communism”.  Swift writes:

“If we treated each other ….strictly on the basis of profit and loss, life would be intolerable. So why shouldn’t we make the principle of generous reciprocity, so present in everyday interactions, the basis of economic life rather than the current model of competing egoism?”

Strategists interested in Behavioral Game Theory recognize that if the negative/prohibitive form of the Golden Rule would stand alone, it would simply serve as a proactive motivation against “wrong action.” But the Golden Rule in general actually serves as a powerful motivation toward proactive choices.  Even for the most selfish player, it is common sense that The Golden Rule is of no use to a player whatsoever unless they realize that it’s their move!

In spite of how influential the Golden Rule is in defining human behavior, it has its limitations. For basic game thinkers seeking to solve simple problems, the Golden Rule is a powerful tool. Still, as a game becomes more sophisticated and the strategies and intentions of other players become increasingly unclear the Golden Rule may not be an effective approach to dealing with win/lose scenarios.  It is not that it isn’t a great rule, however, there are a number of valid objections that have been presented concerning the concept that needs to be addressed her.

Many great philosophers including Immanuel Kant and Friedrich Nietzsche, have objected to the Golden Rule on a variety of grounds. The most serious among these is its application. How does one know how others want to be treated? The obvious way is to ask them, but this cannot be done if one assumes they have not reached a particular and relevant understanding of the rules when applied to game thinking. Besides they may not wish to tell you the truth in this matter. In addition,  people have different needs and desires and may not share the same values as others.  For example, the way you want to be treated may not be the way they want to be treated. Hence, the Golden Rule of “do unto others” is “dangerous in the wrong hands”. Because a member of ISIL has no aversion to death the Golden Rule might inspire them to kill you in a suicide mission though they would not wish you to do the same to them.”

Game Thinking requires that one constantly deal with unique and different situations. Unfortunately, the Golden Rule is overly sensitive to these differences of situation. Kant points out that a prisoner duly convicted of a crime could appeal to the Golden Rule while asking the judge to release him, pointing out that the judge would not want anyone else to send him to prison, so he should not do so to others.  Kant’s concept of the Categorical Imperative, introduced in “Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals”, is often confused with the Golden Rule.

In his important book “How to Make Good Decisions and Be Right All the Time”, philosopher Iain King has argued that “(although) the idea of mirroring your treatment of others with their treatment of you is very widespread indeed… most ancient wisdoms express this negatively – advice on what you should not do, rather than what you should.” He argues this creates a bias in favor of inertia which allows bad actions and states of affairs to persist. The positive formulation, meanwhile, can be “incendiary”, since it “can lead to cycles of Tit-for-tat reciprocity,” unless it is accompanied by a corrective mechanism, such as a concept of forgiveness.

Therefore, he concludes that there can be no viable formulation of the Golden Rule unless it is heavily qualified by other maxims. Walter Terence Stace, in “The Concept of Morals” (1937), wrote: …that “doing as you would be done by” includes taking into account your neighbor’s tastes as you would that he should take yours into account. Thus the “Golden Rule” might still express the essence of a universal morality even if no two individuals in the world had any needs or tastes in common.

Marcus George Singer  the American philosopher and ethicist observed that there are two importantly different perspectives concerning the Golden Rule:

  1. That you perform specific actions that you want others to do to you,
  2. That you guide your behavior in the same general ways that you want others to.

Counter-examples to the Golden Rule typically are more forceful against the first perspective than the second.    Still, the Golden Rule can be a valuable tool in game-based scenarios. The Objections of Kant and others are valid if one applies the Golden Rule in certain general ways (namely, ignoring differences in taste, in the situation, and so forth). But if we apply the Golden Rule to our own method of using it, asking in effect if we would want other people to apply the Golden Rule in such ways, the answer would typically be no. This is because it is quite predictable that others’ ignoring of such factors will lead to behavior which we object to. In this way, the Golden Rule is self-correcting.

It is possible, then, that the Golden Rule can itself guide us in identifying which differences of a situation are morally relevant. We would often want other people to ignore any prejudice against our race or nationality when deciding how to act towards us, but would also want them to not ignore our differing preferences in food, desire for aggressiveness, and so on. In this sense, these rules on reciprocal behavior are often self-correcting.

In order to apply the Golden Rule as a serious strategy in game thinking it is important to explore ways to transcend constraints inherent in the rule and maximize the potential of the rule. This is best done through the study of reciprocal altruism.*


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