Hidden in the maze of disparaging comments about fragilista economists and policymakers, Nassim Taleb has a more profound side. The majority of his content is geared to tackle things through a lens of risk mitigation, but I do think that there are pieces of what he says that go much deeper.
I discovered a series of gems in his Facebook feed the other day. Through several posts, he suggested that people should abide by the “Silver Rule” rather than the “Golden Rule”.
The Golden Rule, of course, is “do to others as you would have them do to you.”
The Silver Rule, in all its double negative glory, is “do not to others what you don’t want them to do to you.” In other words: never impose on others what you would not choose for yourself. It’s close in some ways to the Hippocratic Oath, or “do no harm”.
The Golden Fallacy
The Golden Rule seems ideal in at first glance. It’s straight from the Bible. In fact, there’s a version of it that can be found in many different world religions. And – if everyone is doing nice things for others, then who can argue against that?
However, it turns out to be a magnet for problems, misinterpretation, and intrusion.
The problem with the Golden Rule, as Taleb points out, is that it can be “an invitation to interventionism, utopianism, and meddling into other people’s affairs”.
Upon further reflection, this makes sense. We don’t all have the same preferences, so it does not really make a lot of sense for me to push something on other people because I would have liked it myself. It gets muddier when we mix in different viewpoints, cultures, and systems. As Carl Sagan sums up: “The Golden Rule takes no account of human differences.”
Sagan, who also looked at this in-depth, takes a game theory and prisoner’s dilemma perspective: “The Golden Rule is not only an unsuccessful strategy; it is also dangerous for other players, who may succeed in the short term only to be mowed down by exploiters in the long term.”
The Silver Lining
Taleb recognizes multiple benefits of using the Silver Rule over its golden counterpart. First, under uncertainty, the Silver Rule requires “skin in the game” (personal risk), as you can only expose others to risk that you are taking yourself. If you apply the Silver Rule and are mistaken, you have still done others no harm. In other words, it is more robust to errors.
Second, the Silver Rule also follows Taleb’s concept of via negativa. That is, omission of actions have no potential side effects or chains of unintended consequences. Remember that governments, corporations, consultants, and bankers do not usually follow via negativa. The only way they can personally gain is by adding something new. More regulations, policies, programs, and meddling. This is a recipe for making systems more complex, which leads to further fragility.
What I find most interesting about this whole discussion is that the Golden Rule is actually considered to be the basis of much utilitarian thinking. In fact, John Stuart Mill’s book Utilitarianism describes the rule as the “ideal perfection of utilitarian morality.”
The Silver Rule, on the other hand, seems to be more akin to the libertarian non-aggression principle. That is, that one should not initiate the use of force against others or their property.
Now, Taleb is not a libertarian or a utilitarian – he describes himself as a “left-wing conservative” and a “conservationist”. As I mentioned earlier, he tends to look at things from a risk perspective rather than an all-encompassing world view.
That said, I think there is much more to the Silver Rule than just risk mitigation. It may have the edge in practical morality as well.
The Dangers of Short-Term Thinking