Beware of Double Standards

Nobody likes double standards, at least in theory.

Double standards treat people differently for reasons that normally shouldn’t make a difference.

For example, consider last week’s university admissions scandal. Some students got admitted on their merits. They’re angry that a few others got in because their parents paid off the right people.

And what of the students who got admitted dishonestly? Some of them probably could have been admitted by an honest process. Most apparently believed they were. But now they’ll never know. Even in their own eyes, their achievements will always be suspect.

That’s what makes double standards so bad. Not only do they deny fair treatment to everyone affected, but they delegitimize institutions that we should be able to trust.

What makes double standards worse is that they’re common. Most of them don’t get publicity like scandals involving TV stars. But like acid, they eat away at our belief in ourselves, our societies, and our fellow human beings.

The only saving grace — and it’s odd for it to be the “saving grace” — is that we’re usually not aware of double standards. They still cause unfairness, but they don’t also erode social cohesion as they would if they were plainly visible.

Most of us apply double standards all the time, but we think we’re just using common sense. We demand that people and things we dislike satisfy much higher standards than those we like.

Did politician A, who we hate, once talk to a sleazy lobbyist? Corrupt! Did politician B, who we like, do the same thing? Totally innocent!

Did we, ourselves, do something that’s morally debatable? Well, it’s okay because of our “reasons.” Did somebody else do the same thing? Call the police! A dangerous criminal is on the loose.

Some unfairness is unavoidable because it’s just part of life. Some people are taller, richer, smarter, or better-looking than others. Those facts sometimes give them advantages that less-fortunate people don’t have.

Even some double standards are at least partly forgivable. If parents cut corners to benefit their children, we can understand their motives, even if their actions are wrong.

As in most areas, it’s best if we try to stay aware of what we’re doing and why.

In general, we should avoid double standards. But if we feel we must apply them, then we should in principle be able to say:

“Yes, I sure did apply a double standard. And for reasons X, Y, and Z, it was the right thing to do.”

Whether or not anyone agrees with us is another matter. But at least we thought about our decision and didn’t make it carelessly. If our reasons are legitimate, it might not even be a double standard.

Check out my new book Why Sane People Believe Crazy Things: How Belief Can Help or Hurt Social Peace. Foreword Reviews called it “intriguing and vital to living.”

About N.S. Palmer

N.S. Palmer is an American mathematician.
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