Golden Rule: Definitions

“Do unto others as you’d have them do unto you” is the positive version; “do not do unto other as you wouldn’t have them do unto you” is the negative one.

Let’s say I am treating my subordinate, Smith, in a certain way. Someone asks: “How would you like to be treated this way by Jones, your own boss?” That’s a wake-up call. “Oh wow,” I say. “I’ve been a jerk. I’ll make it up to Smith.”

There is a syllogism of the following sort:

(1) I want to be treated by Jones with respect.
(2) Therefore, I ought to treat Smith with respect.

But what is the nature of the “therefore”? Why does (2) follow from (1)?

The GR makes 3 assumptions.

First, that there is an interaction between the moral agents. I am capable of affecting Smith in a relevant way but not Shaka Zulu. I have no expectation that Shaka will treat me in any way at all; hence the GR fails to instruct me on how I ought to treat him.

Second, that I love Smith sufficiently to want to treat him justly. For I want to do good to myself; in particular, I want good to be done to me (such as by Jones), because I love myself. If I do not love (or if I hate) Smith, then (2) does not follow.

Third, that I am temporarily unaware that my actions are hurting Smith. Then the GR can jar my out of my complacency and teach me a lesson.

Golden Rule: Negative vs. Positive

The negative formulation of the GR has at least instrumental importance:

Parent: Do not do evil.
Child: What is evil?
Parent: That’s an involved question, but let’s start with pain and the things and experiences that are feared.
Child: What’s pain and what’s feared?
Parent: Think about what causes you pain. This’ll give you an decent idea of the nature of pain as such, as well as of what things tend to cause pain. You are human, like your fellows. If you are punched in the nose, you’ll feel pain. Therefore, as part of “not doing evil,” do not punch other people in the nose.

We share similar minds (e.g. logic) and bodies that work somewhat similarly. That’s a start.

But its positive formulation is outrageous. Every person is different with his own unique preferences. To look at oneself for clues as to what others want is narcissism extraordinaire.

For example, if the third assumption does not hold, and I do know how do promote Smith’s welfare, then the GR is entirely superfluous. I just do what’s good for Smith without undertaking any “imaginative role reversals.”

Golden Rule: Complications

Suppose Smith hates me and does evil to me. The GR would seem still to prescribe returning good for evil.

But that will only encourage Smith! If good consequences follow from Smith’s mistreating me (from myself no less), then why should he stop?

So, the first step might be to present the GR to Smith, asking him whether he’d like to be treated the same way he is treating me.

If that fails, then I’d have to fight him, and the GR is in this situation a vicious principle.

1. I want to be treated X-ly; hence, I’ll treat others X-ly. But there is also:

2. I want to treat others Y-ly; hence, I will agree not to become upset when others treat me Y-ly. But then it follows that: I do not mind being treated Y-ly; hence, I am permitted to treat others Y-ly.

Thus, let’s say I live my life according to the principle “I give no quarter and ask for none myself.” How does the GR evaluate this?

It may be true that I do not mind being treated with no mercy, but it would surely be wonderful if others did show mercy to me. I’d like to be treated with mercy. Hence, I ought to show mercy to others.

It seems that the GR contradicts my more self-interested though still consistent and non-hypocritical ethic. It may be that consistency is bought at too high a price.

Golden Rule: Counterexamples

1. Say, I build a better mousetrap and put my competitor and producer of old mousetraps out of business. It is asked, “If you were him, would you like to be treated this way?” I would say, “No,” so the GR treats my greater efficiency as immoral when in fact it is perfectly licit and even praiseworthy (benefits the consumers, abides by utilitarianism, etc.).

In fact, the GR seems to condemn any competition whatsoever. If I win, I can always be asked how I would feel if someone else had won, to which I’d answer, e.g., “upset,” which means that it would be wrong to seek victory, such as in sports, business, within a company competing with other employees, even war, and so on.

This make no sense and is a false positive.

2. Regarding the positive version of the GR: suppose I am giving my girlfriend a box of candy. I myself don’t like candy. Does it mean that I shouldn’t give candy to her?

Again, the GR works only on the highest level of generality: I want others to “do good” to me; hence, I ought to do good to them. But each person’s good is unique.

Different understanding of what is good is not limited to narrow happiness but apply to virtue, as well. Let Smith be a good person, and Jones, bad. It is good for Smith to learn to fly a plane, say, for fun. But that would only be a distraction for Jones who, before having fun, needs to find virtue, both self- and other-regarding. “Bad” people have no right to seek narrow happiness; they need to self-correct first.

Thus, Smith cannot look at his own desires in assisting Jones.

3. Suppose I hate X and wish him harm but also am afraid if him. This is clearly evil by any standard.

But if I were asked, “How would you like it if he hated and feared you?” I might reply “Awesome! It’s downright cool to have an enemy who is intimidated by me. Let him hate so long as he fears, etc.”

4. Let it be that Moriarty is trying to deceive Holmes. Despicable, right? When demanded that he do unto Holmes as he’d have Holmes do unto him, Moriarty replies that he’d relish the chance to match wits with the detective. Again, a false negative.

5. Again, suppose a person has enlisted in the army, knowing that he would be expected to abide by the rule that “if a grenade is thrown into your trench AND the lives of more than 10 soldiers are at stake AND you are closest to the grenade, then you must jump on the grenade and sacrifice yourself to save the rest.” This is a good rule, because any soldier would have a 1/10 chance to die but 9/10 chance to be saved by another in this manner.

This is exactly what happens, except that our person cowardly runs away. Bad all around, right? But when asked, “How would like it if another failed in his duty to jump on the grenade and save you?” he replies “Are you kidding? Who wouldn’t run away! It’s perfectly reasonable.” Another miss (i.e., immoral conduct sanctioned).

6. There cannot be a society in which the strong do not oppress the meek. I was born one of the meek, so I suffer; but if I were strong, I’d oppress others without a second thought, for that is the way of the world. Here, GR seems to fail to get off the ground.

Golden Rule: Further Subtleties

What of crazy desires? I’d have other people worship me as a god. Hence, as per the GR, I ought to worship them as gods.

Here the “reverse” GR (RGR) can be of help. I’d rather not worship any man as a god. Hence, I am OK with other people’s not worshipping me.

One is free to pick either the GR or the RGR as a guide. For crazy desires, the RGR will serve as a reality check and be chosen for self-interested reasons.

Even here, a counterexample to RGR, as pointed out below, is that it would be “cool” if others worshipped me; therefore, I must worship them.

This is another false positive.

The case of the judge. A judge sentencing a criminal is applying the GR to his own conduct. If the situations were reversed, he’d like the judge to pardon him. Hence, he ought to pardon the criminal.

The GR is N/A, because the judge is not permitted to pardon at will. The reasoning “Smith would like Jones to do his homework; hence, Smith ought to do Jones’ homework” is invalid for the same reason: one is not permitted to do another’s homework.

Moreover, more than the criminal’s welfare is at stake. Just as with the mousetrap example, more than 2 people, society as a whole in fact, are involved. The GR falters in such situations.

Again, Smith has a choice between A and B. If he chooses A, then Jones will be happy; if he choose B, then Robinson will. Which one of these two is the “other” with whom Smith must practice his role reversal?

The GR as an anti-hypocrisy principle. Suppose I am a utilitarian. But I am not privileged relative to anyone else. Then I must not disclaim my own doctrine the moment my good is slated to be sacrificed for the greater good of others.

The GR as natural law. We have natural rights by virtue of belonging to the species Homo sapiens. This way we escape the problem of people’s different personalities and tastes.

“You shall not steal” is addressed to all humans. And the GR makes this commandment particularly poignant.

Surely, I would not want to be a victim of a violent crime. Then I ought not to violate the rights of others.

Golden Rule: Case of Wattles

I don’t think I ever read a book more devoid of the author’s own opinion or analysis than The Golden Rule by Jeffrey Wattles.

He deals with objections to the Golden Rule such as advanced in my previous posts essentially as follows:

Some unsubtle philosophers have advanced objection X against the GR, claiming that X makes the GR output perverse results. But I really like the GR. Therefore, X cannot be a real objection.

The GR is a humble ethic. It does not prescribe any particular conduct. Instead, it tells a person to remember or imagine being well-treated himself. But Wattles is anything but humble. We should treat others, he implies, the way he, Wattles, a lofty and spiritual being, wants himself to be treated. He personally will not “act abusively,” is certainly not “at any stage of immaturity,” but is gifted with “insight” and “diffuse illumination provided by intuition.” Thus, Wattles wants to be treated “in a loving or appropriately humane way.” But that means what, exactly? One of the objections he needs to deal with is that what is good for me differs from what is good for him, so if loving = willing good to, then the GR will churn out a false positive, namely a required conduct that is unethical.

In my view, the negative version of the GR is useful in educating children about the natural law, especially the ethics of liberty. In this sense, it may be considered to be “part of our planet’s common language, shared by persons with differing but overlapping conceptions of morality.” But so are arithmetic, common calendar, and weights and measures. Most adults learn these things early on. Similarly, most adults have no use for the Golden Rule.

Golden Rule: Conclusion

There is yet a way to salvage the Golden Rule. As I pointed out in the first post, the GR is a makeshift remedy for failing to realize that one is treating the other person poorly. It thus admits ignorance and proposes a simple way out. At the same time, it presupposes power and love.

Now any type of ethical rule-following is never an end in itself but is a means to character-building. Following rules is intended to create a routine, then a lifestyle, and finally a set and permanent character or personality. “Human virtues” are an intermediate step between “human duties” and “human actions.” Duty is supposed to cement virtue which will then allow the person to seek narrow happiness.

Successful execution of the GR already requires a modicum of interest in other people and charity toward them. Following St. Thomas, call these “nurseries of virtue.”

Following the GR is expected to increase those. For example, it impels a person to engage with, to interact with others. If one is a hermit or loner, living in his private-idiotic isolation, then the GR can push him into communion with others.

Again, treating others according to a rule is merely a proximate end; the GR has the potential to increase one’s charity. This potential varies; e.g., both autistic and psychopathic persons will have trouble abiding by the GR; the former, because they do not even realize other people have minds and are like them; the latter, because though they do realize that, they do not seem to care.

Consciously following the strictures of the GR can thereby increase both one’s power not to do evil and to do good and diminish one’s hatred for others and increase one’s love.

Update. Here is another way in which the GR can increase one’s virtue. A con man, Smith, reasons: “I want to be trusted, so that I can scam people. Therefore, I should trust other con men.” Since the conclusion is false, Smith must either abandon the GR or quit his job. If he is determined to abide by the GR, then he has no choice but to become an honest man.

But won’t the new GR look like this: “I want to be trusted; hence, I should trust other people, including con men”? Now that Smith is a really good man, he could reckon as follows: “As a trustworthy person, I like to be trusted. If I were not trustworthy, then I’d prefer, for my own sake, not to be trusted so that my power to do evil would be lessened. Therefore, I should trust other trustworthy people and not trust con men.”