Morality: When Gold Is Better Than Platinum
The Golden Rule: Do to others what you would want them to do to you.
For those whose childhood memories contain mornings spent in Sunday school, this moral rule is impossible to forget. Taught by Jesus in the first century, the Golden Rule has shaped the moral outlook of the Christian West for centuries. (After all, if God incarnate highlights one foundational moral rule, you should probably observe it.) The Golden Rule is simple, concise, memorable, and an effective moral rule that can guide literally any area of behavior. No wonder it was considered worthy of the title Golden!
But in recent years, I’ve seen another rule contending to be recognized as the supreme guide for behavior. However, I didn’t encounter it in churches, taught by priests or pastors. Nor did I encounter it in theology or philosophy courses, taught by the academic explorers of human wisdom. No, I found it in the business world, taught by marketers, those holy purveyors of gain.
Somewhere in this development of the marketing arts, marketers realized that the Golden Rule had a shortcoming. You can treat a person the way you want to be treated, but what if he or she doesn’t want to be treated the way you like to be treated? You might treat them in a way they dislike. They might dislike that. They might dislike you. Oh, the marketing horror! So, someone realized the solution was to make a small yet critical adjustment. Instead of treating people the way you want to be treated, you should treat people the way THEY want to be treated.
It was a brilliant modification! The new rule wasn’t subject to the frailties of the Golden Rule. There was no longer any danger of treating someone in a way he or she disliked based on one’s own personal desires. The new rule was forceful and undivided in its aim: understand what people want to experience from you and give it to them. This rule was superior in its effect than its predecessor, the marketers thought. So it was dubbed the Platinum Rule.
To this day, the Platinum Rule is often depicted as the top standard for how to attract people and build brand loyalty. The reason for its elevated status is understandable. When you give people the treatment they desire, they naturally like the both treatment and you. This in turn works to build the harmony, relationship, and loyalty between the two parties, without the risk of the displeasing behavior to which the Golden Rule gives space. Should the Platinum Rule then become the reigning standard of not only our marketing practices but all our social behavior as well? Could greater social harmony be found if we all stopped thinking about ourselves entirely and focused solely on giving to others the treatment they desire? The answer can be found in the same reason my stomach turns with indignation when I hear the Platinum Rule described as superior to the Golden Rule. As a moral rule, the Platinum Rule is horrendously flawed.
Tell any set of parents that they should treat their kids the way their kids would like to be treated. They’ll get a chuckle out of it. Tell a man he should treat his alcoholic, rehab-avoiding brother the way the brother would like to be treated. Tell a woman she should treat her reality-denying, physically abusive husband the way he wants to be treated. Tell anyone that he or she should treat every narcissistic, greedy, self-serving sinner the way the sinner wants to be treated. You’ve now found the problem with the Platinum Rule. The problem is that sinners typically don’t want to be given the best treatment; they often want to be given the best feeling treatment. The typical sinner will happily embrace enjoyable dysfunction over painful transformation. That is why, if you take up the Platinum Rule as a moral rule, you ultimately have to either give people even the dysfunctional things they want or break from the rule.
But where the Platinum Rule fails, the Golden Rule excels. The Golden Rule can look at any dysfunctional person and say, “If our positions were reversed then I’d want him/her to treat me in the way that’s best for me, even though I wouldn’t like it.” The Golden Rule, then, is able to see that the morally required behavior is that which gives a person what is best, not what feels best or is preferred by said person. This is what parents choose when they require obedience from their children against their children’s pleasure. It’s what a man chooses when he requires his brother to go to rehab. It’s what a woman chooses when she calls out her husband’s abuse. It’s what God chooses when, for the sake of our sanctification, he deals with us brutally rather than nicely.
Some could point out that perhaps I’m comparing apples and oranges when I compare the Golden and Platinum Rules. After all, the Platinum Rule seems to turn up most frequently in the marketing world, where making sure people are pleased with your brand is an imperative for business. I think this point is quite valid, and I’m exceedingly grateful for that fact. I’m glad that most people possess an intuitive understanding that giving people exactly what they want can’t work in daily life. But even if the Platinum Rule is heavily relegated to the world of business then what does it say about our values? It reveals a willingness to overlook a person’s greater good for the sake of profit. How many service personnel accept unjust abuse for the sake of not losing a displeased customer? How frequently is poor character overlooked when the business relationship is lucrative enough? And–I’m not afraid to say it–why is Hollywood happy to produce a movie like 50 Shades of Grey even though it depicts little more than dysfunctional, unedifying sh*t?
We can’t pretend our business practices are insulated from our overall culture. These practices are both formed by and in turn form our culture. The willingness to waive morals in business for the sake of lucre is reflective of our overall human willingness to give people what they want as long as it in gives us what we want in return. So maybe the Platinum Rule hasn’t pervaded our society. But, then again, maybe it just hasn’t pervaded our society in a very apparent manner.
Ultimately, we must recognize the genuine wisdom the incarnate God provided when He taught the Golden Rule. The Golden Rule truly does reveal the moral foundation that supports healthy relationships and healthy society, and we must both cling to and practice it, rejecting the deficient imitation.
Image courtesy of The Gold Standard.