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  • Dan Connors

The Platinum Rule vs the Golden Rule- ethics on trial

Updated: Sep 24, 2021

"Do unto others as you would have them do unto you." This is the original Golden Rule, as taken from the Bible and Jesus's Sermon on the Mount. It encapsulates a basic ethical principle that has guided humans for centuries. "Don't be a selfish asshole," is another way to put it. We all have to live on this planet together, and to have a set of special rules of treatment for yourself but not others is a sure path to resentment, chaos, and even war.

Now there is a new rule that has been taken to heart by businesses all around the world, and that's the Platinum Rule- "Do unto others as they would have you do unto them." First coined by communications researcher Milton Bennett in 1979, the Platinum rule has been canonized by large corporations everywhere as a way to make their customers happier by giving them more of what they want.

You don't offer meat to a vegetarian, alcohol to an alcoholic, or a box of doughnuts to someone on a diet. Obviously, the Golden Rule needs qualifiers. So do you treat people they way you'd like to be treated, or do you try to get inside their head and read their minds? Human beings are very different, and one thing that delights me may be disgusting to you, and vice versa. This is where it gets tricky. The intention is the key.

It used to be that gold was the highest standard everywhere. Gold is a useless metal because of its softness, but its beauty and scarcity made it the perfect material to create things of value and beauty. It became the gold standard that everyone looked up to. But in the last few decades platinum has taken over. Now instead of a gold level membership, everybody wants a platinum level one- that costs a bit more and has more goodies associated with it.

Curiously, the metal gold is still worth much more than platinum, almost twice as much per ounce as of this writing. Platinum is stronger than gold and has more uses, so maybe that's why it's taken over. But from a distance it still looks identical to silver, which is a lesser-prestige metal that has always taken second place to gold. Actually, the most valuable metal in the world is Rhodium, which is why people keep trying to steal catalytic converters from cars.

But is the Platinum Rule actually better than the Golden Rule? Yes, and no. Yes, it is better if it means that we get to know our fellow humans better and give them more of what they actually need instead of what we think that they need. But the Platinum Rule has a dark side. It can be abused and go into overdrive trying to figure out what we want all of the time, enticing us with things that it knows we want but don't really need that much. It can gather information from every corner of our lives to build a model of our likes and dislikes, tailoring our world and our experiences to a dangerous extent.

Gone are the days of when advertisers paid for huge marketing campaigns directed at everybody. Now marketers know way too much about each of us and are able to anticipate our wants and needs even before we're aware of them. News and information algorithms figure out our opinions and beliefs and create tempting rabbit holes that can entrance us for hours on end with meaningless, deceptive bubbles of infotainment, conspiracy theories, or nonsense. As complicated humans, we are often not even aware of what we truly need, much like the crying five-year-old at the grocery store begging his mama for a bag of cookies from the shelf.

This is a thorny problem for ethical people everywhere. Giving people exactly what they want most of the time can make them spoiled and entitled if done the wrong way. Sometimes the thing people need to hear most is "no", or "your opinion isn't supported by the facts." I think a lot of our polarization and hate today is due to too much catering to whims of people who have no idea what they want or what the consequences of their behavior might bring.

Here's a simple ethical question- you are in a pandemic and Person A wants to do business in Person B's establishment, but they don't believe in masks or vaccines. What should person B do? The Platinum Rule would say that B should treat A as A wants to be treated, and that would include ignoring the mask recommendations that B finds offensive. Under the Golden Rule, B, who believes in infectious diseases, should treat all his potential customers as he himself would want to be treated- requiring masks and protections. A, on the other hand would want every business to respect his opinions.

We need another rule. After some internet digging, I found it- the Platinum Plus Rule. "Treat other people the way that their best self would want your best self to treat them."

What's a "best self"? Also known as a "higher self", this is the part of you that is loving and spiritual and looking for the best results for all concerned. Many people have no idea what their best self wants, but using this rule forces folks to dig deeper and figure out what's really important in how they treat themselves and others. In the example above, both A and B would go beyond personal opinions and seek out what the highest goal here is- to stay healthy, safe, and alive- in whatever form that takes.

What do you really want? Forget the Platinum Rule and all the data on your past- jobs, grades, social media, or purchases. As humans, we all want pretty much the same big things- to be loved, respected, and heard. The best gift that you can give to someone is often not a gift at all. It's taking the time to hear them out and listen to their pain, confusion, or loneliness with the realization that we all need each other and have the ability to heal each other.

The Platinum Plus, or Rhodium Rule (as I'm calling it), is the ultimate in ethical standards and one we should try to incorporate into how we treat others. It's the Golden Rule on a spiritual level, and it acknowledges that we are different and individual, but we are also part of the human family and as such need to be treated with love and respect no matter what. If we could somehow get past all the labels that keep us from seeing each other's higher selves- (race, income level, age, body type etc..), we could see and appreciate the beauty inside each of us. And that's a Rule I can live by.

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