The golden rule, or the new Platinum Rule?

Is doing unto others as you would want done unto yourself simply not enough anymore?  Talking with a workmate yesterday about the “Golden Rule” that Karen Armstrong has abstracted out of world religion (1) he suggested a “Platinum Rule” he had heard discussed in his marketing class.  “Do unto others as they would want done”.  Its a recipe for customer satisfaction, he claimed.

I’m not so convinced: and my immediate argument was firstly, how do you know what they want?  The answer to that was research.  Find out what people say they want.  Listen to them, and at last resort, ask them. You can do a lot with that, I thought.  Asking people, in sophisticated ways, what they want is a good thing.  Its the basis of elections, after all.  The problem is though, you are always going to be dealing, at some level, with giving people what most people want, not what they want themselves as individuals.  Its a bit of a tyranny of the majority style trap.  Even in my market segment, I may be the one who wants something different. Pareto says that most of the time though, you’ll get it right: and not just a simple majority of the time, either.

Do people know what they want?  Can they articulate it? Most of the time, sure, but in reality, do we spend most of our time and energy asking what they want, or what can we sell?

My second argument against the platinum rule came from my experience working with systems.  What exceptions are there to it?  If you can run a few use cases against an algorithm, you can get an idea of how well it will work.  If it catches exceptions in an OK way, and does so that you can deal with them in a generalised fashion, then its practical (for more on this you can see Veen’s discussion on “exception buckets”(2)).

The exceptions to the platinum rule come thick and fast.  What if your 12 year old son wants a bottle of vodka to take to the park to share with his mates?  Or your friend want to drive home drunk? What if I want your watch?  Gimme your watch now, buster! Here the things that are ‘wanted’ are seriously detrimental to either party – and fail the platinum rule if it is something we should use as a basis in living valuable, constructive, whole lives, something the golden rule pretends to do.  If I wanted a bottle of vodka at age 12, I’m now pleased that my parent’s didn’t give it to me: they wouldn’t have wanted it for themselves in the long run, either.  The next morning I’m pleased my mate kept my car keys.  If I give you my watch involuntarily: if you steal my watch away, our relationship is not doomed for a satisfactory ending – and maintaining positive relationships is I believe in the end we want to achieve with these rules.

Just the fact that I want something is not reason enough in these cases.  The golden rule, however, seems to stand up a little better.  By only doing what I think I would want done to myself, I can act within a framework of consistent values.  If I would like you to sell me pot, then selling you pot is OK. Questionable, but OK.  Internally consistent, at least.  Its that consistency that means the golden rule creates a healthy outlook.  If I sell you pot, but would never have bought it myself, as the platinum rule might suggest, then I’m a hypocrite, and that eats away at my own sense of self, and actually in end degrades me.

The platinum rule was sold to me the same way as a hamburger.  I can have it ‘my way’. It will be ‘excellent’, and I’ll be ‘delighted’.  Well, I happen to be on a diet because I’m obese, and as much as I might want it, what you’d rather give me if I were you, is an apple.  It will be good, and I’ll be happy.  Nothing wrong with that, nothing at all.


  1. Karen Armstrong, Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life, 1st ed. (Knopf, 2010).
  2. Jeffrey Veen, The Art and Science of Web Design, 1st ed. (New Riders Press, 2000). 

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