How to treat people is a fundamental question of life. To find your answer, you can take the thorough route and read deeply in the field of ethics, ponder the different approaches and answers to this question. After such in-depth study, you can decide which of those options rings most true. You can also take the simple route. Just take an existing heuristic from your parents, philosophy, or religion, that guides your behavior. Arguably the most famous one-liner in ethics is the golden rule, as found in the bible:

Treat others as you want them to treat you. — Matthew 7:12

Sounds fairly reasonable, no? A good rule to aspire to. I think this rule has a serious flaw, and I argue that you shouldn’t follow it. I’ll also give you a better alternative.

The Flaw of the Golden Rule

The Story

I don’t really care about birthdays. Don’t get me wrong, I like a good reason for getting together and celebrating like the next guy, but I can do without the congratulations, well wishes, and gifts. I appreciate those things when they come, but I don’t miss them if they don’t.

This is also the reason I can’t remember anybody’s birthday without my calendar. My brain has difficulties arguing for the importance of a date that is only important once a year, so the information never makes it from the short- to the long-term memory. At some point, I switched e-mail addresses and forgot to transfer the birthday events from one calendar to the next. I was flying blind but didn’t notice it.

One day, a friend called me up while I was trying to find the right bus that would take me to the airport of Fuerteventura. It was a good chat, you know, a simple catch up call between friends who haven’t talked in a while. I thought nothing of it. A day or two later, I’m reminded by his social media post that it was his birthday. I wrote him my belated birthday wishes, felt a bit bad, and apologized for my forgetfulness. He never really forgave me and still holds it against me to this day.

The Point

What the hell does this have to do with ethics and the golden rule? In the story above, I completely followed the golden rule. I treated my friend as I wanted to be treated by him. I don’t care particularly about birthday wishes, and so didn’t feel a strong obligation to remember. The thing is, people care about different things. People also want to be treated differently. If you treat everyone the same as you want to be treated, you will treat them badly at times. In case the story doesn’t convince you as an example, here are two more:

  1. Helping someone with chores if they are sick. Some people are thankful, others feel patronized.
  2. Gifts. The type of gifts people like is highly individual. Some people don’t like gifts at all.

A Better Alternative

Nassim Taleb offers us a better alternative in his book Skin in the Game. He introduces the silver rule of ethics, which neatly circumvents the problem laid out above.

Do not do to others what you would not like them to do to you.

Subtle difference, but essential. With this rule, you focus on all the ways you prefer not to be treated by others. It is a peculiar thing, but people can agree much more on what they don’t like than on what they like. There is more overlap in what is considered negative treatments than positive ones. Of course, the rule isn’t perfect either and there are still many ways in which you’re not treating someone a certain way can offend them. But even then, thanks to another subtle point in ethics, this would still be a better outcome. Most people would consider actively harming someone worse than harming someone by omission — by not doing something. So even when the rule doesn’t work perfectly, you’re still better off.