A modern principle for digital humans

A fundamental human problem: how do we cooperate to maintain our civilization when each individual is a mess of ego and self-preservation?

Evolution gifted us with both the bonding drug oxytocin and a sense of existential dread we call embarrassment. Religions enshrine morality in divine will and immortal reward. Western enlightenment thinkers appeal to rationality and the natural order.

But what always sticks are easy-to-remember principles. The Judeo-Christian marketing department nailed this one: “do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” It even has a catchy name.

However, modern people are organized in more ways than any classic thinker could have imagined. “Just be nice to your neighbor” won’t cut it anymore. Nearly everyone is a part of a company, an online forum, an HOA, a slack group, the prom committee, a twitter thread, or maybe even something more decentralized and weird. Attachments are ephemeral.

So how should we act?

I discovered such an answer only recently (surprising because it comes from my collegiate department). I was amazed by its simplicity and flexibility. Although not quite as pithy as the Golden Rule, it’s nonetheless easy to remember. As proof, this principle spread in unwritten fashion for most of its existence.

The Reasonable Person Principle

Linked above, but we’ll take it in pieces. The overview states:

  • Everyone will be reasonable.
  • Everyone expects everyone else to be reasonable.
  • No one is special.
  • Do not be offended if someone suggests you are not being reasonable.

The bullets are simple enough: be reasonable. I interpret “reasonable” in contrast with two other qualities: emotional and demanding. Emotional actors are irrational — literally not acting with reason. Demanding actors expect others to behave without reason — that is, in the demanding actor’s best interest. Both serve ego. And ego is the enemy.


Reasonable people think about their needs, and the needs of others, and adjust their behavior to meet the goals of a common good for the community, i.e., expressing what you want to say, but accepting and accommodating the needs of others.It holds that reasonable people strike a suitable balance between their own immediate desires and the good of the community at large.

This advocates a community-focused mindset: reason would dictate that what is good for the community is good for the individual. If the community falters, the individual would cease to get much value out of it. Of course, this is a balance. If someone were giving to a community and got nothing back, that person would (reasonably) leave. (Keep in mind: some communities, like citizenship, are not voluntary communities. The principle doesn’t extend everywhere).

I also like the part about self-moderated self-expression. A community should not to tamp down any one person’s individuality. Instead, it should provide the guard rails to make sure it doesn’t descend into 4chan-level madness.

Not all people share the same model of reasonableness, so disagreements inevitably occur. Under the reasonable person principle, the first thing to do is work it out privately (perhaps in person, since e-mail is known to amplify feelings). Indeed, many people would find it unreasonable to bring in third parties before trying personal discussion.

This is a refreshing statement. People interpret law and proprietary differently, and that’s acknowledged from the outset. Better to plan for the inevitable than to try legislating away conflict. It boils down to communication.

More generally, the reasonable person principle favors local, unofficial actions over formal administrative ones. It assumes that people will be responsive when reminded of a conflict or asked to re-examine their behavior. It encourages requesting rather than demanding. And it leaves some room for difference of opinion.

Simple. Let people work things out for themselves. But only reasonable people can be trusted to do this. And in a zeitgeist obsessed with decentralization, perhaps a little reasonableness wouldn’t hurt.

Lastly, if I were to add one thing, a motto that has served me well since college: assume good intentions. It’s amazing the mental shift when you assume others are motivated by good but acting under uncertainty. Instead of thinking “how could they have done that,” try “what good intentions could have led them to do that?” I think you’d find everyone to be a little more reasonable, not least of all yourself.