The Golden Rule, Part 2: What Is It Missing?

What’s wrong with a simple moral code that requires reciprocity?

Posted Apr 05, 2013

Part 1 of this 4-part post highlighted various ways in which the much-acclaimed golden rule might be misapplied—at times, disastrously so. Complementing that piece, this post will attempt to describe what this so-familiar dictum leaves out. For in the end, however laudatory it may be as a general moral precept, its ambiguities and omissions disqualify it as a foundation for any comprehensive system of ethics.

Brian Solis/Twitter's Golden Rule, Creative Commons
Source: Brian Solis/Twitter's Golden Rule, Creative Commons

In his book The Golden Rule, Jeffrey Wattles, citing the work of Immanuel Kant, addresses the critical difference between that which is merely desired and that which is just, good, and equitable. To Kant, the golden rule cannot be applied universally, for it fails to address our essential duties as humans—whether they be to ourselves or to others. As Kant himself provocatively puts it: “Many a man would gladly consent that others . . . not benefit him, if only he might be excused from benefiting them” [emphasis added].

For Kant (and some of his arguments are difficult to refute), the rule cannot legitimately be adopted as a supreme, overriding moral principle. To begin with, the dictate doesn’t conform to his “categorical imperative” [i.e., that a person do only what he or she can will everyone (themselves included) do in similar circumstances]. Rather, it more narrowly addresses how agents (or “doers”) of a particular behavior should treat their recipients. Additionally, and even more importantly, the rule is not one from which all types of duty can be derived. Specifically, in Wattles’ words, “The simplest of Kant’s objections is that the golden rule does not cover the category of duties to oneself: for example, the duty to cultivate one’s potentials toward perfection or to respect oneself in one’s actions.” Finally, the gist of Kant’s criticisms is that its morality is not sufficiently transparent, and that the basis of any global ethical system cannot logically be centered solely on what’s wanted or preferred but—“categorically”—on what’s right.

As admirably scrupulous as it sounds, the strict, reciprocal focus of the golden rule has come under a variety of attacks. It raises some knotty questions that the rule (at least as stated) is highly susceptible to. One problem is that the implied mandate of the rule is that we project our perspective onto the person who will be affected by our behavior. But what if a third person, or fourth, or many people will be impacted by our action, which we’ve determined only with a single person in mind? And what if that impact, overall, is adverse? Helping somebody—say, one who is opportunistic, and possibly even treacherous—could result in considerable harm to others. And it could do so in ways that, ironically, our “good-hearted” short-sightedness simply hadn’t permitted us to recognize.

Innocently trusting an untrustworthy person is one thing. But if we encourage others to trust that person as well (as we would have them “do unto us”), though not exactly unethical on our part, could hardly be deemed exemplary—and regardless of how benign our intentions might be. Put simply, the golden rule runs the risk of our unwittingly adopting another’s suspect or self-interested moral judgment. In our efforts to please them (as we’d like to be pleased), we could easily end up hurting ourselves and others.

Finally, the golden rule has been critiqued for its “limited scope”. In his book Secular Wholeness (2001), David E. Cortesi ponders whether we might devise some practical (and succinct!) ethical code that all of us might comfortably live by. For, to this author, the golden rule “covers only direct interactions between people” and beyond that “it has nothing to say about actions you take that have no direct impact on another person.” This harks back to Kant’s complaint that the rule, if it’s to be considered as a universal moral principle, must be deemed incomplete. There’s just so much that it doesn’t—or rather, can’t—include. For instance, Cortesi reflects: What about our conserving the planet’s natural resources? Or what about our treatment of animals (who, unless they’re our pets, hardly want from us what we might desire from them)?

And, of course, there’s the matter of the self. What if we’re excessively narcissistic, or self-indulgent? Suicidal? Perilously addicted? . . . How can the golden rule guide us toward making ethical—and, at times, life-determining—choices? How can it enable us to make decisions beneficial to all concerned? Frankly, it’s not able to. For it’s not designed to deal with a person’s relationship to him- or herself, or assist someone in resolving internal conflicts (independent, that is, of more social concerns).

Cortesi also points out the golden rule’s limits as regards helping us decide how to “interact” with corporations. (And yes, whether examined psychologically or philosophically, it can comfortably be asserted that corporations are not people!) As large, impersonal entities driven by the profit motive, they’re hardly interested in “doing unto” us as we might “do unto” them. So what, then, might be an appropriate moral dictum to follow in dealing with them? Certainly, reciprocity with other humans operates quite differently from any sort of quid pro quo relationship we might establish with corporations (almost by definition, unable to perceive—and utterly indifferent toward—our personhood).

In this light, I find Cortesi’s somewhat tongue-in-cheek proposal for a simple, more inclusive ethical code curiously compelling. So I’ll end this segment on the golden rule by quoting it.

Dubbing his own rule “the Mortal [vs. Moral] Imperative,” Cortesi words his ethical mandate as follows: “Always choose the action that maximizes the number of people who will be sorry to learn of your death” [!].

NOTE 1: Part 1 of this 4-part post discussed the various pitfalls of taking the golden rule too literally. This part (pt 2) has focused on its incompleteness, as relates particularly to its narrow reciprocal emphasis. Yet despite the many objections that this rule—historically—has been subject to, in later parts I’ll center on its robustness and resilience (pt 3), and, finally, expand its utility to the realm of politics, economics, and society (pt 4).

NOTE 2: If you know of anyone who might be interested in this subject, kindly forward them the link.

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

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