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soapbox: the golden rule

“Act only according to that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law.”

via wikipedia categorical imperative

“Too many people were using the program just to get frequent-flier miles.”

via NPR’s planet money

This article about “clever” travelers taking advantage of a loophole setup by the US Mint has really stuck with me over the last few months. It’s one thing to take advantage of an airlines misguided attempts to lock people into their promotional program. It’s another one entirely to take advantage of the US Mint (and by proxy, US taxpayers) to rack up points on your credit card. I think my problem with this kind of behavior is fairly fundamental.

I (probably) harbor no illusions about my own moral superiority. I’m guilty as much as anyone else at cutting a few corners here and there. But what bothered me so much about this behavior is that it violates the notion of a categorical imperative quoted above. To paraphrase, I find this behavior distressing because if everyone were to engage in it, we would have a serious problem.

To illustrate metaphorically, they took a beautiful shortcut through the woods. A shortcut that had we all followed, would have eroded and eventually destroyed the forrest. An individualist might say “but the creator of the shortcut is the one responsible, not me for taking it”. I disagree with that position. I think we are all responsible for our actions, and if we choose to take the path less traveled, we ought also accept responsibility for the impact our traversal has on that path.

To draw another parallel, writing a few mortgages with a high risk of default is not so big of a deal, unless of course everyone else is doing it…

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One Comment Post a comment
  1. michael #

    What individualist? Individualism would say that each person is responsible for the consequences of his or her actions. A person trampling the forest is equally responsible for his or her share of the damage, so says individualism. Moral relativism says, “well at least I wasn’t the first one in the forest.” or “well hundreds of other people trampled the forest.” A true individual would be responsible for themselves and their actions, and be willing to suffer any consequences thereof. A moral relativist says, “Well at least I’m not a Nazi.”

    Though the most secular of secular individuals might say something like “Well the forest is here to serve my purposes so…too bad.” And that’s entirely different.

    What you’re talking about is integrity? Doing the right thing when nobody is looking. I think integrity and moral relativism might be mutually exclusive.

    October 15, 2011

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