The Golden Rule as Ethical Touchstone

The Golden Rule as an Ethical Touchstone

Copyright 1998 David E. Cortesi

The Golden Rule can be written this way: Behave toward others as you hope they will behave toward you.

It is a straightforward rule that harnesses and strengthens the natural empathy all healthy people feel, and its clever, self-referential hook makes it memorable.

History of the Golden Rule

Most people know this as a teaching of Jesus. There are two versions. Matthew 7:12:

Therefore all things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them: for this is the law and the prophets.

It sounds as if Jesus intends to restate a traditional Hebrew maxim, reminding his hearers that "this is the law." Isaac Asimov, in Asimov's Guide to the Bible, points to a previous version in the Book of Tobit,

And what you hate, do not do to any one.

and I have seen a citation to Rabbi Hillel, the Babylonian Talmud,

What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor.

In Luke 6:31 the wording attributed to Jesus is

And as ye would that men should do to you, do ye also to them likewise.

The same idea is expressed by Confucius,

What you do not want done to yourself, do not do to others.

and by the Buddha, in the Samyutta Nikaya, translated as

For what is unpleasant to me must be unpleasant to another, and how could I burden someone with that?

and also appears in the great Indian epic, the Mahabharata, as

Let no man do to another that which would be repugnant to himself.

Thus the Golden Rule is of great antiquity and has been repeatedly conceived in different societies.

Weakly Proactive

In that collection, there are two basic forms, a positive and a negative. The negative form, like "what you hate, do not do to any one," is not proactive; that is, it does not call on us to do good, only to avoid the bad.

The Golden Rule as commonly recited in America, "Do unto others as you'd have them do unto you," or the crisp British formula "Do as you'd be done by" (neither of which is in the Bible, that I can find) is positive. It invites us to do more than simply avoiding unpleasant acts to others; it suggests we should go out and positively do the things that we'd like done to us.

The proactive element is not obvious, and most people don't use the Golden Rule in that sense.

Narrow Ethical Coverage

The Golden Rule has a limited scope: it covers only direct interactions between people. The Golden Rule has nothing to say about actions you take that have no direct impact on another person, for example wasteful use of resources, cruelty to animals, or private self-destructions.

When the Other is a corporation or group

It does not seem to me to apply when you are considering an interaction with a corporation; for example when you are considering whether or not to cheat an insurance company, or whether to steal stationery from your employer. A corporation does not "do" or "behave" to you in the same sense you "do" toward it.

Nor does it cover interactions with mobs, gangs, or groups. It makes no sense to say you should "do unto" a group the way you want the group to "do unto" you; the kinds of actions an individual directs toward a group (e.g. being loyal, paying dues, cooperating) are of a different order than the actions the group could direct back to the individual.

When the Other is anonymous or collective

Nor does the Golden Rule cover actions directed against the world at large, like vandalism, nor actions that have no defined victim, like a terrorist bomb or angry driving on the freeway.

Acting through, and as, an agent

In two other situations the Golden Rule is weak if not ineffective. First, consider things done at second hand through an agent. The instigator is pretty clearly still responsible: if you send someone to beat me up, you have violated the Golden Rule. You would not want me to send someone to beat you up, would you?

The agent has less guidance: is the agent responsible under the Golden Rule? What if the agent is under great compulsion? Take a much more common case. You are a first-line manager in a modern corporation. Your boss tells you to fire one of your workers. By the Golden Rule, you have to say "I would not want someone to fire me." By the Golden Rule you should therefore not fire your worker. But you are acting as an agent of your boss, and ultimately as an agent of the corporation; and you are acting under compulsion of being fired or demoted yourself. The ethics of this can be debated at length under other rules, but the Golden Rule doesn't offer much guidance.

When power is disparate

In cases when there is a vast difference in power between you and the victim, so it is literally inconceivable that the victim could ever be able to do to you what you did, does the Golden Rule apply? You are in a position of great power, for example, head of a large company. You decide to fire the janitor. It is inconceivable that the janitor could ever fire you. Other ethical considerations might apply, but does the Golden Rule?

No Defense Against Insanity

The Golden Rule does not protect the general population from those who are even partially insane. To take a blatant example, the Rule empowers the masochist to behave sadistically (think about it). More practically, consider the modern tragedies in which a tormented man (always a man) who hates himself and wants to die, provokes a gun battle with police, often resulting in the deaths or injury of himself and others.

In these cases, the insanity is such that the perpetrator actually wants the reciprocal evil to be done. An ethical framework that simply prohibits harming others, if memorized and internalized, might conceivably help to restrain the insane where the Golden Rule couldn't.

No Provision for Tit-for-Tat

Robert Axelrod (The Evolution of Cooperation, 1984) demonstrates that the most productive ethical stance (in a small, stable group) is "tit for tat"; that is, to always approach a stranger or a new proposal with an open, cooperative attitude, but when cheated, to always retaliate in kind at the first opportunity. (I discuss Axelrod's findings at slightly greater length in the main part of this essay.)

The Golden Rule is too simple to make provision for a Tit-for-Tat policy. Under Tit-for-Tat you must occasionally and rarely "do unto" another not as you would prefer to be done by, but as you were done by on a previous encounter.

No Community Input

A final, and important, criticism of the Golden Rule is that it leaves all choice to the individual, without any input from the community or group. I treat this problem in more detail in the discussion of the Imperatives of Kant and Sartre.

Here's how the Golden Rule stacks up on our four criteria:

Prescriptive Yes.
Authority Scriptural authority in many religious traditions; also, clever phrasing encourages self-affirmation.
Compact Extremely compact and highly memorizable.
Coverage Covers most personal interactions only.

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