The Golden Rule: Gold or Fool’s Gold?

The Golden Rule—do unto others as you would have them do unto you—didn’t get its start with a 1961 Norman Rockwell painting. It’s the ethical bedrock for the major world religions, including Hinduism, Confucianism, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, so it has been swimming around in people’s consciences for at least two millennia. In his Analects, for example, Confucius wrote, “What you do not want done to yourself, do not do to others.”[1] The Mahabharata of Hinduism gives similar guidance: “Knowing how painful it is to himself, a person should never do that to others which he dislikes when done to him by others.[2] The book of Leviticus from the Hebrew Bible features a Yahweh who commands his followers “Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.” Five centuries later, Jesus took the “love thy neighbor” idea even further by using the Parable of the Good Samaritan to assert that people had ethical obligations to help strangers in their times of need—even strangers from outside ethnic groups.

Confucius, Yahweh, and Jesus didn’t teach the Golden Rule because they thought it was cute: They taught the Golden Rule because they believed it makes for more ethical people. Not everyone agrees that it does, however—or even that it could. In fact, many modern philosophers think the Golden Rule is philosophical claptrap.

In his defense of the Golden Rule, the philosopher W. T. Blackstone first listed the charges: It’s a flawed ethical principle because it implies that we can figure out how to treat others morally simply by consulting our own wants and needs. It’s flawed because it leads us to treat others immorally if immoral treatment is what we want for ourselves. It’s flawed because it insists that we can look inward to discover what is right, even though this habit of thought breeds ethnocentrism and motivates us to perpetuate society’s moral status quo, no matter how ethically flawed the status quo might be.[3] Or imagine a judge who uses the Golden Rule to justify why she decides to let a convicted mass murderer go free: If the shoe were on the other foot, she would want to avoid prison time, so shouldn’t she extend the same consideration to the killer? Because the Golden Rule seems to have these sorts of limitations, the ethicist Kwame Anthony Appiah has called it “fool’s gold.”[4]

I wonder if the Golden Rule really deserves so much cynicism. It seems to me that most of the philosophers’ worries are quite silly unless you assume that the person attempting to live by the Golden Rule has the intellect and reasoning powers of a five-year-old. A masochist who gets sexual pleasure from abuse at the hands of others, yet seeks to live by the Golden Rule, doesn’t follow it so slavishly as to assume that it obligates him to abuse other people in the same way. Instead, he knows that others might have tastes and preferences that differ from his own. Likewise, the judge who seeks to follow the Golden Rule in her professional decisions doesn’t need to vacate the sentences of mass murderers. Instead, she also considers her obligations to the law-abiding people who would not want convicted murderers running around free.

The philosopher Harry Gensler is the world’s leading exponent of the idea that the Golden Rule can, when read properly, withstand close ethical scrutiny. As he explains in his book Ethics and the Golden Rule, many philosophical objections to the Golden Rule vanish once we have a better grasp on how to implement the rule intelligently and reasonably. Gensler recommends a series of four steps, which he summarizes with the acronym KITA (Know-Imagine-Test-Act). In the Know step, we take time to learn what will help a specific person and what will harm him. A conscientious golden-rule follower does his homework. After having learned about the other person’s basic needs and desires, a conscientious Golden Rule follower will then implement the Imagine step by trying to imagine how his possible courses of action will affect others. Gensler isn’t talking about idle, half-second flashes of intuition. He’s talking about deliberate effort to work through the possible consequences for everyone who might be affected. The judge has to consider not only how her sentence will affect the convicted criminal, but also how it will affect the citizens who don’t want a convicted murderer released back into their community.

After obtaining the relevant facts and running all of the simulations to figure out which ones will harm and which ones will help, a conscientious Golden Rule follower can proceed to the third step in KITA, which is a Test for consistency: We must ask whether the action we have in mind is what we would want for ourselves. If the behavior we have in mind passes this consistency test—if we conclude that the behavior we intend to impose on someone else is consistent with how we think we would desire to be treated in exactly the same circumstances—including sharing that person’s beliefs, and desires—then we are ready to execute KITA’s fourth step: we can Act.[5]

I appreciate Gensler’s efforts to defend the Golden Rule’s honor. I am not totally satisfied that it does everything we might want from an overarching guide to a moral life, but it does seem to make others’ welfare a primary moral consideration, which sits well with my own Utilitarian leanings. In addition, Gensler’s KITA routine does seem to help us avoid most of the pitfalls associated with a five-year-old’s application of the Golden Rule—even though I am skeptical that most of us would take the time to go through all of those steps in real life. Who has the time to do all that homework?

Even so, the fact that living by the Golden Rule is cognitively difficult doesn’t mean it’s dumb to try.

 

[1] Confucius (trans. 1861), Book 15, Chapter 23.

[2] Krishna-Dwaipayana Vyasa (trans. 1896)  Book XII, Section 259, p. 620.

[3] Blackstone (1965).

[4] Appiah (2006), p. 60.

[5] Gensler (2013).

Appiah, K. A. (2006). Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a world of strangers. New York: Norton.

Blackstone, W. T. (1965). The Golden Rule: A defense. The Southern Journal of Philosophy, 3, 172-177.

Confucius. (trans. 1861). The analects of Confucius (J. Legge, Trans.): Pantianos Classics.

Gensler, H. J. (2013). Ethics and the golden rule. New York: Routledge.

Krishna-Dwaipayana Vyasa. (trans. 1896). The Mahabharata (K. M. Ganguli, Trans.). (n.p.): Author. (Reprinted from: 2018).

 

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