The Golden Rule, Part 1: Don't Take It Literally!

Are the golden rule's fault lines fatal?

Posted Mar 26, 2013

pxhere/CCO Public Domain
Source: pxhere/CCO Public Domain

The golden rule, sometimes referred to as the “global ethic” or the “ethic of reciprocity,” is found in all major religions. And it can be viewed as foundational in secular ethics as well. Articulated in many different ways—from the Buddha and Confucius to Rabbi Hillel to Matthew and Luke in The New Testament, and beyond (including Great Britain’s wonderfully pithy “do as you’d be done by”)—the rule mandates that we treat others as we’d like them to treat us. What moral principle could be simpler, or more elegant? As an unusually succinct guide to proper behavior, it would appear almost flawless.

Yet its very simplicity has made it highly vulnerable to attack—as too simple, maybe even a bit simple-minded. And many writers (philosophers in particular!) have found much to malign about the golden rule. From almost all directions, it’s been nitpicked over, carped at and criticized. Which is regrettable, since the dictum—certainly on the surface—seems so innocent, praiseworthy, moral, and virtuous: in a word, humane. Behaving in accord with such a universal rule would seem almost to guarantee that the actor was coming from a place of compassion, understanding, and respect. Similar to Kant’s Categorical Imperative, the golden rule would appear to be one of the few absolutes we humans can trust to help us navigate our way through life’s ongoing perplexities. So it seems almost mean-spirited for writers to deprecate it—as they relentlessly “deconstruct” its meaning.

But the lamentable fact is that if the golden rule is taken literally, it’s all too easy to shoot full of holes. And as a result, to see it as less valuable (or “golden”) than it really is. So, to solve as much as possible the interpretive conundrums that have long inflicted it, this four-part post will (1) highlight some of the exceptions—at times, glaring—to its being implemented positively, (2) reveal what this dictum unfortunately leaves out, (3) demonstrate how, nonetheless, it's a powerful learning tool and, as an ethical precept, remains extraordinarily robust and resilient, and (4) discuss how its utility can be fruitfully expanded by applying it to politics, economics, and society in general.

But first, let’s explore the alleged weaknesses of the golden rule, almost all of which relate to the interpreter’s too literal focus on its so-compact phrasing—rather than on its underlying, unquestionably humanistic, spirit. Below (though very selectively) I’ll count the ways:

  1. A sadomasochist, projecting onto others what he’d like them to do to him, could inflict pain on people who don’t at all share his predilections.
  2. Looked at in reverse, a Nazi, upon discovering his Judaic origins, might arrange to have himself and his family dispatched to the nearest concentration camp.
  3. A judge (again, following the letter—not the spirit—of the golden rule) could give a convicted criminal an unusually lenient sentence, thereby putting innocent people at increased risk because of his early release (i.e., the rule, emphasizing sympathy for others, could interfere both with prudence and justice; or, put somewhat differently, a judge’s tempering justice with an excess of mercy could fatally undermine what, on a case-to-case basis, is fair and equitable).
  4. Too closely identifying with their children’s wants, frustrations, and fears, parents could overindulge or overprotect them (thus stunting their healthy development).
  5. An individual, endeavoring to cheer up his depressed friend, could interfere with their need and desire to be left alone to independently work through feelings of disappointment, alienation, grief, or hopelessness.
  6. Lavishly demonstrating sympathy for someone who’s handicapped, a person might end up making them feel all the more pitied or patronized (as in, looked down upon)—and so revivify old feelings of shame and humiliation.
  7. A partner, empathizing with her spouse’s addiction to the point that she regularly covers for or makes excuses for him (further enabling or "supporting" the addiction), could make it that much harder for him to seek out desperately needed help. (And here is yet another example of how the golden rule, simplistically applied, might betray serious deficiencies in the actor’s intelligence, judgment, or wisdom.)
  8. Attempting to help someone with a crippling addiction (who also happens to be afflicted with enormous self-contempt and an extremely weak ego), a relative sets up an Intervention with a whole host of friends and family members to directly confront the addict. In consequence, the confronted individual, rather than enter the recommended in-patient treatment program, might wander off and kill himself.
  9. Ditto for a delinquent teenager, who’s “caringly” thrown out of his house as part of a rehabilitative “tough love” program. And a famous line from Hamlet might (ironically) be brought in here: “I must be cruel only to be kind.” But sometimes the impulsive and emotionally unprepared recipient of such “kindness” might be much more likely to react to the surface cruelty in such harsh treatment than to its finally benevolent motives.
  10. A couple, attempting to better their distressful marriage by exhibiting more caring behaviors toward one another, perform “loving” acts that badly misrepresent what their partner actually desires from them. Oblivious of the maxim “different strokes for different folks” (which thoughtfully takes into account the crucial matter of human diversity), they blindly project their own wants onto their mate—whose wants differ considerably. And, as a result of such insensitivity and misunderstanding, their marriage deteriorates further.
  11. An employee, ambitiously seeking advancement and priding himself on getting projects done quickly, turns in a report well ahead of schedule—fully anticipating kudos from his boss. But instead, he’s rebuked for his haste (which led him to overlook several of the project’s crucial details) and a more attentive co-worker receives the promotion he’d been competing for.

Obviously, these examples could be extended indefinitely. Enough here to say that in a substantial number of situations, manipulatively or mechanically applying the golden rule can be imprudent, insensitive, brutal, or immoral—at times, frighteningly so.

A few of the above examples were adapted from Jeffrey Wattles’ excellent survey of this fascinating topic in The Golden Rule (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1996). And there are still other instances, which I’ll cover in Part 2, that focus not so much on the possible misapplications of the rule as on its various limitations—on what, that is, it fails to include. Still, it seems fitting to end this post by quoting Wattles’ ultimate response to the maxim’s flaws:

“For responding to all these objections, there are three possible strategies: abandon the rule, reformulate it, or retain it as commonly worded, while taking advantage of objections to clarify its proper interpretation. I take the third way” (p. 8).

In part 3 of this post, I too will choose this last alternative—as well as, in part 4, endeavor to expand its popular usage to show the various ways it can promote the common good.

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