Morality Matters

How do people distinguish between good and evil? Is reason hardwired in the brain? How are moral beliefs ingrained? Long the province of philosphers, morality is increasingly an avenue of scientific inquiry.

The Golden Rule, Part 4: Dreams of Utopia

What if the golden rule went viral?

At their innermost core, all the different versions of the golden rule are rooted in empathy—though none of them mentions this concept explicitly. Ironically, if they did, it would be almost comically anachronistic. For this psychological term didn’t even exist before the 20th century. As a key relationship idea, empathy goes substantially beyond the simple “sharing” of feelings denoted by sympathy (with which it’s often confused). Rather, it’s to be distinguished from this much older, and less sophisticated, term in referring to our inborn capacity to accurately appreciate—or better, identify ourselves with—another’s situation and their concurrent feelings.

Because of the much deeper emotional comprehension that results from such identification, when we’re able—and willing—to empathize with others we’re more apt to treat them as we, too, wish to be treated. Given our understanding of their distress, and our vicariously feeling it, to do anything else would make us as distraught as we were making them. And why would we ever (masochistically) choose to inflict such hurt upon ourselves? Which might explain why, though almost all of us have the ability to empathize with others, it’s not our normal mode of functioning either . Doing so involves not only a willingness to experience unpleasant emotions, but also requires deliberate mental effort. It’s nowhere as automatic (or instinctual) as simply feeling, or offering, sympathy.

I’m focusing here on the kindness, good-heartedness, thoughtfulness—and yes, even spirituality—of empathy because I think it’s the key prerequisite to living a life quintessentially aligned with the golden rule. To regularly think as much of others’ welfare as your own requires considerable maturity and a highly evolved conscience. As an ethical ideal in responding to everyone you encounter, it’s sufficiently lofty that I doubt more than a select few of us could attain, or sustain, it for more than brief periods of time.

All the same, if we could ever routinely exhibit such “virtuously compassionate” behavior, we’d reach an ethical summit as yet unknown to our species. With the consequence (as discussed in part 3 of this post), that what was right and what was loving would be harmoniously fused. But far more than this, if such behavior were universally enacted (or, indeed, enactable!), it would be instrumental in creating a true utopia.

Never mind that, as stated, the golden rule has nothing to say about about how we might best behave toward ourselves. Or, for that matter, toward groups, organizations, animals, or (far more broadly) planet Earth. For hardly anyone would argue that if the golden rule is understood beneficently—as implying a conscientiously caring stance toward all people and things—we can easily enough fill in the gaps of what this mandate overtly fails to include. As long as we’re coming from a place of love and concern (see part 2), having an empathic regard for everyone (and, by extension, every thing) the rule can be expanded to deal with a broad variety of contexts (e.g., protecting endangered animals from extinction, or conserving the world’s natural resources). The only critical stipulation here is that in any given situation we’re not simply focused on acting out our impulses, or maximizing our immediate, wholly self-interested pleasure.

Returning to the notion of utopia, what is a utopia if not a society that would equitably administer justice and mercy to everyone? Would serve everyone equally? Provide everyone with the same chance to be successful and happy? And do everything possible to facilitate the personal and communal growth and development that would maximize the odds of all this becoming a reality? Such a society would be defined by its largesse, by its unbiased encouragement and good will toward all. And because, finally, it would be the collective will of its citizenry that gave rise to—and would maintain—such a truly “Welfare State,” what fundamental guiding moral principle could better lead us to such an idyllic habitat as the golden rule?

Again, if we applied an “informed empathy” to direct all our actions, then whatever childish inclination we might have to act selfishly—or to treat others with indifference, hostility, or downright malice—would be held firmly in check. Not wanting ourselves to be recipients of wrongful or hurtful behavior, we’d refrain from carrying out such behavior ourselves. And although this contingency is nowhere mentioned in the golden rule, assuming that the dictum could hardly have been meant to legitimize destructive behavior toward the self (since we wouldn’t want others to treat themselves harshly), it seems reasonable to add self-compassion to the mix as well.

A utopian society rooted in the golden rule would define all relationships as between equals. Regardless of our station in life, the underlying premise would be that we’re all here—humanistically—to serve one another. And even though our wants and needs might differ, as long as they don’t threaten others’ freedom and welfare, they would be subject to the same (equitable) standards as everyone else’s. In addition, assuming that the State was committed not only to the creation and maintenance of social equality but also to equal opportunity, it could be expected to promote a wide variety of social services available to everyone who needed them.

Continuing with these notions of utopia, it’s only logical to expand the golden rule’s applicability to the realm of economics and politics. So economically, the government would devise laws that would prevent people from taking financial advantage of others. Tax codes (also grounded in universally accepted ideas of equity) would be simple, straightforward, and devoid of privileged loopholes.

Politically, people in public service would not be “fundamentalist ideologues” or cater to the interests of the wealthy elite or large corporations (if, indeed, such institutions were permitted to exist!). Rather they’d represent their constituents and show themselves willing to make legislative compromises best contributing to their electorates’ well-being. Additionally, publicly elected judges would act impartially, making decisions based not on their religious assumptions or commitments, or on legal technicalities, but on painstakingly considered criteria that focused equally on matters of golden-rule fairness and compassion.

Similarly extending the golden rule to systems, Jeffrey Wattles (in The Golden Rule, Oxford, 1996) poses some crucial questions. And I’ll quote him directly:


What the rule does for systems is to prompt questions that imply norms [my emphasis] for systems. . . . In society, are extremes of inequality of wealth and power tolerated? Does talk of ‘community’ along ethnic lines betray human kinship? In business, does the profit motive eclipse the service motive? In politics, does a nation go beyond intelligent patriotism to assert its sovereignty without regard for planetary responsibilities? Does an organization benefit those within and those without? By virtue of its implied respect for human dignity, the golden rule is inconsistent with sexism, nationalism, racism, and mistreatment of others based on distinctions of class, age, condition of health, religious belief or disbelief, level of education, linguistic preferences, and so on. (p. 174)


Finally, imagine just how idyllic it would be to actually live in such a State. Your freedom wouldn’t be limitless: that is, you wouldn’t be permitted to do whatever you wished (and to hell with everyone else). It would be circumscribed by humane laws that—as a mature, responsible, caring individual—you’d (hopefully!) choose to be governed by.

. . . But, alas, the woeful matter of human ego must always be reckoned with. And it’s our ego that, throughout history, has compelled us to define ourselves as separate and distinct from others. And which has driven us to strive for some sort of superiority over them—whether by performing better than they do, possessing more than they have, or being more than they could ever be. And so, regrettably, it may be that the spirit of cooperation and mutuality required for “birthing” such a utopia as I’ve described may remain forever beyond our reach. Undoubtedly—from everything we know—up till now the only utopias the world has managed to create have been in works of fiction. And even here writers seem to have found it more difficult to portray an envisioned utopia than to depict its opposite: that is, a dystopia. Consider, for example, the frightening, dehumanizing worlds of 1984, Brave New World, and Fahrenheit 451.

Certainly, for writers to fantasize cultures and countries where misery, oppression, overcrowding, and disease prevail seems a lot more reflective of present-day realities than one in which everyone diligently conspires to make everyone else happy. Ultimately, it may be that the only place utopias can exist is in well-wrought constructions of science fiction. For sadly, our chronic inability to generate one in the real world would appear related to age-old ego constraints—which prohibit us from balancing our personal wants and needs with the equally legitimate desires of others.

In short, from living our lives in accord with the golden rule.

NOTE 1: For those who may have missed any—or all—of my previous posts on this subject, here are the links for parts 1, 2, and 3.

NOTE 2: If you resonate with this post and believe others might find it of interest as well, kindly send them the link.

© 2013 Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D. All Rights Reserved.

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Morality Matters