Tag Archives: religion

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).



Is Kim Davis Really Wrestling with a Violated Religious Conscience?


Kim Davis, you’ll surely recall, is the Kentucky Clerk of Courts who ended up spending five days in a jail cell after refusing to comply with a federal judge’s orders to sign marriage licenses for gay couples. She’s out now, and back at work, and so far has been allowing her deputy clerks to sign the licenses in her stead. So most of us were hoping we’d never hear about Kim Davis again.

But she’s back in the news. Upon returning to work, according to Brian Mason, one of her deputies, Davis confiscated all copies of the County’s standard marriage certificate and replaced them with the Kim Davis Custom Edition, which “deletes all mentions of the County, fills in one of the blanks that would otherwise be the County with the Court’s styling, deletes her name, deletes all of the deputy clerk references, and in place of deputy clerk types in the name of Brian Mason, and has him initial rather than sign.”

So the struggle continues. In an interview with ABC News that came out today, Davis tried to explain why signing a marriage license for a gay couple violates her religious conscience, and some of these statements are helpful in helping us to get into Davis’s mind:

“I can’t put my name on a license that doesn’t represent what God ordained marriage to be,” she told a reporter. “They’re not valid in God’s eyes.”

Sounds like a classic claim of a violated religious conscience, doesn’t it? Davis can’t participate in the duties that the State of Kentucky requires of her office, she says, because of a religious objection. Most bloggers are focusing on whether the law entitles Davis to accommodations, and whether such accommodations are possible without placing an undue burden on a class of people, but I have been thinking about a different issue:

Is it possible that Davis only thinks that signing a gay couple’s marriage certificate would violate her religious conscience? Is it possible that even Kim Davis doesn’t understand Kim Davis’s motivations?

If we’re not dealing with a violation of religious conscience, what else might we be dealing with? I see three possible alternatives.

Open-Hearted Ignorance? Why are Clerks of Courts required to sign marriage licenses in the first place? Best I can tell, the Clerk’s function in this setting is merely to aver that all relevant documents are in order (i.e., “I looked for everything; it’s all there.”). Now, I’ve never seen a Kentucky marriage license, so I may be wrong here, but I have seen a California marriage license (my own), and as far as I can tell, the clerk is merely certifying that all of the documents that are required to execute a legal marriage contract are on file, that there are no valid legal objections to the marriage on file, and that the credentials of the person officiating (“solemnizing”) the marriage are approved by the State. In other words, the Clerk’s signature is merely an assurance that the paperwork is right. This fits with my intuitions about what a Clerk of Court’s job is more generally: Opening envelopes, cashing the money order you sent in to pay for your traffic ticket, checking boxes, and not losing things.

I wonder if perhaps Davis simply hasn’t thought carefully enough about what her signature on a marriage license—any marriage license–actually means. She’s in pretty deep now, and has dug in her heels, so she probably cannot be reached with reason alone, but it seems like someone ought to try. Who knows? Perhaps with time, perspective, and some discussion with people who love her and whom she trusts, Davis could be convinced that her signature is really just a bit of truth-telling (“Yep!  Everything’s on file!), and thus is in fact extremely consistent with her Christian values rather than an affront to them.

Disgust Masquerading as a Violated Religious Conscience? Second, I wonder whether Davis might be confusing disgust with a violation of religious conscience. Legal scholars such as Martha Nussbaum, as well as many social scientists, have written on the centrality of disgust to people’s anti-gay prejudices, and the Kim Davis situation may provide an interesting and never-before-seen variation on this theme. If Davis is disgusted by gay people or by gay marriage, then she might be hesitant to associate her name with a gay couple’s marriage license because disgust follows the laws of sympathetic magic: The things associated with you carry some of your traits along with them. In the same way that people don’t want to drink from a glass that once held a cockroach, those who are extremely disgusted by homosexuality or homosexual marriage might be unwilling to associate themselves—or their signatures—with a marriage license—a piece of paper—that has been filed by two gay people. After all, the signature has been a highly cherished representation of the self, one’s will, and one’s intentions, for 3,500 years.

If Davis’s problem is in fact not that her religious conscience has been violated, but instead is that she is disgusted by the idea of gay marriage, then the religious language can be removed from the debate entirely and we can start discussing instead what society should do with an elected public official who finds part of her work disgusting.

Weaponized Conscience? Finally, there is the possibility that Davis isn’t experiencing a genuine violation of her religious conscience at all, but instead is simply using that plea as a cudgel that enables her to impose burdens on a class of people whose behavior she (or, perhaps, she believes, God) dislikes. By Davis’s own account, she believes God has been “using” her through this debacle (“For God to use somebody like me, it’s so humbling,” she has said). I’d certainly like for her to explain that statement. It could mean a lot of things, but one thing it could mean is that this entire dust-up, in her heart of hearts, isn’t actually about “U.S. versus God & Davis:” Instead, in Davis’s heart of hearts, it could be about “God versus the U.S. via Davis.”

Take a moment to let that one sink in.

No Truth Serum

None of us, save perhaps those people in Davis’s most intimate inner circle, are ever going to know what’s really going on in Davis’s heart. Is her conscience really, truly, legitimately violated? Is she absolutely sure? Could she be disabused of that intuition by taking a little time to think about what a Clerk of the Courts actually does (remember, their job is merely to open envelopes, cash checks, check boxes, and not lose things) and what the Clerk’s signature on a marriage license actually means? Is her perceived violation of religious conscience just a case of projected disgust dressed in its Sunday best? Or is her plea of violated religious conscience a disingenuous one—a rhetorical weapon that Davis is using to impose a burden on a class of people whose behavior she (or, she thinks, God) dislikes?

The last possibility is the most interesting—and the most troubling, actually, for it raises an ominous but delightfully “meta” sort of question about religious conscience. And it’s a question that defenders of religious liberty—both liberal and conservative—need to take seriously. Should one’s religious (or non-religious) conscience be bothered if someone has debased the very notion of religious conscience by using it as moral cover for a less conscionable goal? I’m not saying she has, and I’m not saying she hasn’t, because I do not know.

But I’d certainly like to know, because the liberal compact is something like this: “You’re free to believe what you want, and I’m going to defend that freedom on your behalf. But it seems to me that there’s a caveat: “If you’re just messing around and don’t actually believe what you claim to believe, then don’t count on me to make good on my side of the bargain either.”

h/t Deb Lieberman.