[NOTE: as of April 17, 2017, the content of this post has been supplemented]

…and it relates to what journalists, scholars and librarians all do.

Do we want others, as much as they are able, to give us and our views an accurate — and even sympathetic —  hearing and portrayal? If someone is not “going to bat” for us, do we not want them, at least, to be as “impartial” as they can? To strive to meet standards like these in their professions?*

If yes, then we should aim to do the same for them.

And there is more to this as well — “social constructionism” and these professions ultimately do not mix.

Librarians, like scholars, have always advocated for seeing “the human community of practice” rather expansively (at least when it comes to their international “communities” of choice) and have realized that people want people who will both:

  • try to live honestly; and
  • who, to say the least, will not continually insist that we cannot really begin to know anything about objective reality – particularly when we make careful and disciplined efforts to do so.

I make this very concrete when I talk about a librarian who defies the [ACRL] Framework‘s advice to question “traditional notions of granting authority” in order to effectively do her work (its in section V of my RSR paper, “The Framework Cannot Escape ‘Traditional Notions of Granting Authority,’” which you can read at the end of this blog post).

Again, I continue to argue that there are certainly many particular, individual facts and truths that we are able to discover, even as when it comes to larger questions of Truth (the set of all things which exist), full knowledge and understanding certainly escapes us (and I believe ever will). Why should we assume that because there are many ways of “being in the world” that this is not the case?

So is the “Golden Rule” really as “solid” as I am saying it is? I think so. Some of what follows is from my RSR paper and some of it is material that was cut from the published piece.

As philosopher-librarian Wilkinson notes, in social constructionist philosophy, “all are just different perspectives, and there are no facts independent from the contingent social forces that created them” – an assertion that would apply not only to standards in any discipline, but to any “moral facts” we might think – or hope(!) – exist as well.

For instance, political theorist Nancy Luxon seeks to find ways to “prepare individuals to evaluate persons, claims, and events in the absence of absolute values or certain knowledge” (Crisis of Authority, 2013, p. 43). Alternatively, I argue that we can’t not give serious consideration to just these things – for both, ultimately, seem to be necessary and unavoidable (in any case, we inevitably will judge, in our present, some forms or ways of life as being inferior or even beyond the pale).

After all, when it comes to thinking human beings, who is going to deny that the Golden Rule – first positively stated by Jesus as “do unto others as you would have them do unto you” – at the very least, “sounds like a good idea”?[i] Even if the Golden Rule is a rather abstract idea, in that it does not address particular practices, concrete applications of the dictum in this or that context are readily imaginable. Is it only my own personal inclinations – perhaps informed by my religious training? – which cause me to resonate with it? Or, rather, is it not the case that recognition of this seemingly enduring earthly reality is more widespread?

Indeed it is. Forms of this rule have an impressive pedigree, appearing, importantly, in concrete testimony both trans-historically and trans-culturally. And this, it seems, is most significant for our discussion here regarding social constructionism and its either implicit or explicit claims about power’s all-encompassing role. For understood rightly[ii], the Golden Rule’s profundity is undeniable. As relational beings, all of us, whether we are aware of it or not, constantly make moral judgments about ourselves and others (easier!). Here, the Golden Rule gives us the means whereby we might test the consistency of our judgments vis a vis our own lives, consciously self-legislate our behavior, and even recognize the significant overlap of our judgments with those of others – particularly those committed to living ethical lives. Further, it is conducive to building human understanding, respect, and mutuality – solidarity, trust, and even love (Guseinov, 2014).

Perhaps looking at a concrete application might help us to see the problems with the social constructionists’ approach. When it comes to the matter of justice – which, contrary to notions of power, has traditionally depended on ideas of authority and truth (including “good faith”) – the 17th century Dutch Jewish philosopher Spinoza, inspired by Plato, argued that “the beauty of proportionality [in mathematics and nature]” can cause one to “abhor a situation that would bring one into disproportion with everyone else” (Goldstein, Plato at the Googleplex, 2014, pp. 392, 393). Wise persons across a variety of religious and cultural backgrounds have agreed – at least when it comes to those we are closest to (family, tribe, etc.). And one can of course see this as balancing with another observation that John Locke made – certainly in tension with the one above – namely, that human beings realize that taking from others what they have attained by their honest industry without their consent is an injustice – even if one would call it justice (An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, 1959, p. 234).

The “common sense” Scottish philosopher Thomas Reid, quoted by Wilkinson in his defense of his “social epistemology” approach, took this even further, as according to Arthur Holmes he noticed that

“…[m]oral indignation is evident even among those, who, like robbers, have little active regard for the common good. Gratitude for favors only makes sense because a favor goes beyond what is just, and resentment for injury only because it falls short of justice. All these natural sentiments presuppose the idea of justice. Property rights likewise depend on it” (Holmes, Fact, Value, and God, 1997, p. 117)

These are just some of the things it seems different groups of people do not really “design” or “construct” (unconsciously or consciously), but instead, as if by built-in design, can recognize and receive. In other words, they appear to be ethical principles that are intrinsic to properly-functioning human being.

Not only this, but when put in the context of the Golden Rule as expressed by Jesus (“do unto others…” and not “do not do unto others….”), one can see these insights being connected not so much with one’s desire to assert one’s own rights, but rather – at the very least – being concerned to guard and defend the rights of one’s neighbor. Hence the proper Western concern for its colonialist past, which was evil because of the objective wrongness of unjust exploitation – of wrongly-used power.

And – to meet possible objections from social constructionists [in the library world and beyond] – none of these observations necessarily claims that it is easy to explain or apply this Golden rule in lived contexts, for we come to learn that our ethical choices often involve criteria that are tacit and inarticulable (Holston, 2016). Neither does it mean that we come into contact with this rule – and recognize its goodness – apart from the presence of other persons, i.e. community. This is not a positivistic search for “acontextually authoritative and valid sources” of guidance, as opposed to a “more situated and participatory vision” (Foasberg, 2015). It is not, for example, necessary to the argument I am making here to insist on some abstract or transcendental “historically unmediated insight,” i.e. that “human understanding takes place outside the horizon of a particular, historically situated vantage point,” or to deny that we do not, to some degree, “depend on our prejudices… [understood in a positive sense] to furnish contexts of meaning”. (Holston, 2016).

[Apr. 22 update] It is interesting to consider this video “Where Does Morality Come From | Moral Foundations Theory, Jonathan Haidit” in light of both the content of this post and my previous post Sola Commoditas!: Truth is Fitness Alone


For a Christian meditation on the Golden Rule appropriate for the approaching Good Friday, see this older post at my theology blog here.



Golden Rule montage: http://www.care2.com/news/member/827551733/3895730


**For journalism in particular, see the discussion on “objectivity” in this book, for example ; also see here and here.

[i] Recent years have seen a resurgence of scholarly interest in the Golden Rule. See, e.g., Neil Duxbury’s and Harry Gensler’s impressive work on the topic.

[ii] For example, its application need not preclude considering the effects of actions on those neighbors one is closest to (“…as you would have them do unto your mother, daughter, friend, etc…”!), nor consideration of the indirect effects actions could have, in the short or long term.