Subtraction over addition

The law of reciprocity is probably older than civilization itself. Its earliest record is in the Code of Hammurabi, which dates back to 1750 BC. It is featured in Confucianism, Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Judaism, Taoism, Zoroastrianism among several major religions of the world.

The law takes two popular forms. The Golden Rule, which states “do unto others as you would have them do to you”, is its positive or directive form. The¬†more understated Silver Rule is its inversion: “do NOT do unto others as you would NOT have them do unto you.”

What is the difference between the two? Is there even a difference? And which one is superior?

Improvement can happen through both addition and subtraction. To improve a smartphone app, you could add useful features or do away with features that make it harder to use. To improve vehicular movement on a highway, you could add an additional lane or reduce existing bottlenecks. To lose weight, you could add an exercise plan or subtract through your diet. The Golden Rule advocates addition through prescription, while the Silver Rule favours subtraction through proscription.

To add is often the more tempting option (and why the Golden Rule is golden). The person who works harder seems like the more valuable employee. When shown two cameras identical in other respects, people end up picking the one with more features. But the problem with addition is that it often introduces more complexity and hidden feedback loops to an inefficient system. Let’s say a particular diet gives you a tummy ache. Taking a pill might make the ache go away, but the pill now interacts with the body in unforeseeable ways that might now give rise to other problems (what we like to call “side-effects”). With improvement through addition, we make systems more complex and leave open the door open for consequences that we do not foresee.

An improvement through subtraction happens by reducing complexity. It has the opposite effect of addition. Your system now has fewer moving parts, and becomes easier to manage. We are also wired to detect what is bad for us (and for others) better than what is good for us. Ergo, most societal rules are prohibitions and not prescriptions.

In a world of varying preferences and increased freedom, “doing unto others” is to impose one’s taste on others, while “not doing unto others” is to mostly stay out of the other’s way. Or as Hippocrates first principle of medicine states – era-primum non nocere (“First do no harm”).

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