The Golden Rule, Part 3: Its Uncanny Resilience

How can the controversy surrrounding the golden rule be resolved?

Posted Apr 11, 2013

Ron Mader, The Platinum Rule/Flickr
Source: Ron Mader, The Platinum Rule/Flickr

In parts 1 and 2 of this multi-part post, I explored many of the golden rule’s interpretive problems— linked regrettably to its very simplicity. Recognized by all major religions as a fundamental moral imperative for living both a caring and honorable life, the dictum has yet been subject to all kinds of caveats and attacks. In this post I’d like to advance some commonsensical arguments to counter the objections to its basic validity—which finally I see as more “academic” than real. For properly understood the golden rule is sufficiently robust to withstand its many critics who over the course of history have demeaned, trivialized, or otherwise questioned its practical utility.

Doubtless, to take the golden rule literally is to woefully neglect key matters of human diversity, as well as the sometimes byzantine complexities of human relationships. And if in fact we choose to focus on such complexities—or rather, deviations—then, indisputably, the mandate appears rather naive, even simple-minded. But if we make certain reasonable assumptions about all that’s implicit in this “do under others” dictum—that is, if we judiciously “read into” it (since, as succinctly stated, it’s necessarily elliptical)—then it remains applicable in a broad variety of contexts.

So what do we need to assume about this essential law of reciprocity that, on the surface, it fails to include? Given the undeniable fact that both religious and secular ethical codes assign to it a prominent (if not “golden”) place, how must it be explicated, or expanded upon, so that it’s far less vulnerable to critical denigration? For if the rule is understood as obviously intended, the various objections to it fall away as largely nitpicky—as focusing on semantic niceties that inevitably lead it to be perceived in a negative light. In the end, perhaps it’s not the mandate itself that’s simplistic or shortsighted, but those who have seemed so eager to belittle it.

To begin with, it would appear reasonable to assume that any moral dictum as globally espoused as the golden rule would—at its core—be righteous, compassionate, fair, and humane. With this in mind, let’s take one popular “literalistic” example of the rule: namely, the one involving a sadomasochist and the idea that, reading this rule word for word, it would be fine for a sadomasochist to hurt others because that’s what he’d wish for them to do to him. But given what I think we’d all agree must obviously be the spirit of the rule, such an analysis is frankly absurd. It’s verbal quibbling hardly worth taking seriously.

After all, what foundational moral principle would either encourage or condone a behavior so gratuitously cruel? No doubt explicating the rule by the letter does engender certain semantic entanglements. But consider this quotation from Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice: “The devil can cite Scripture for his purpose”—meaning that, with enough cleverness, cunning, or malice, any interpretation (however false or feeble) can be “crafted” to sound convincing. In short, if we’re disposed to look for faults in a highly compact summation of right conduct, such imperfections will be easy enough to find.

Moreover, if in its various compressed forms, the golden rule avoids noting any exceptions or making any qualifications—and if, additionally, it’s less comprehensive than at times we might prefer—it’s only because tacking on modifier after modifier would be inappropriate. The rule was never designed to comprise a complete ethical system. (And for that matter, what one-sentence “catch-all” ever could?) No, it’s meant to be taken as a “touchstone,” as a general guide to behaving well in the world. As with everything else relating to humans, instances can always be found where, at least as explicitly stated, it cannot legitimately be implemented.

For instance, in part 1 of this post I presented no fewer than eleven examples that might, collectively, seem to deal a fatal blow to the rule’s inherent validity. But upon closer inspection they really pose no mortal threat to it, for none of them exemplifies the mandate’s underlying spirit. Which is to say that if we assume that the ultimate intention of the golden rule is to get people to act toward one another not only caringly and conscientiously but justly as well (which involves keeping in mind how one’s behavior might, secondarily, influence others not immediately affected by it), then rigorously subjecting the recommendation to literalistic interactive criteria seems almost inane.

As an example, if you’re a judge and fail to protect the public’s safety by taking sufficient punitive measures against a cold-blooded murderer (because if you were he you’d want him to be lenient with you), then your behavior—though presumably evincing the golden rule—could hardly be perceived as governed by any broadly acceptable, adult standard of morality. And so such behavior would not reflect the golden rule at all but rather demonstrate one of the ways in which the rule’s humanistic spirit could be violated. Viewed in a broader context, your irresponsibly sympathetic behavior—independent of whether it might actually serve you or the recipient—would not, generally speaking, serve humanity. As Jeffrey Wattles notes in The Golden Rule (Oxford, 1996): “If sympathy can rise to the level of wise compassion, it can also be naive, shortsighted, impulsive, egocentric, and harmful.”

Merely projecting your wants and needs onto others, with no regard for their possibly disparate desires or—more seminally—for the larger ethical demands of the situation, is finally to ignore the “founding principle” of the rule. Which is displaying an attitude of Love (with a capital “L”): the non-self-interested caring for “thy neighbor” and the willingness to evaluate their wants and needs as commensurate with your own. Needless to say, this represents a most lofty ideal. And only the most saintly among us could be expected to regularly abide by it (though I’d wager that a good many of us—myself included!—at least aspire to be as good as the golden rule nobly beckons us to be).

Additionally, in line with the commendable—and humanistic—idealism implicit in the golden rule, I think it’s reasonable to say that it endeavors to unify that which is loving with that which is right. It seems to intimate that, properly implemented, these two cardinal virtues exist in harmony. On the one hand, grounded in empathy, compassion, and respect, and on the other with what’s fair and equitable, the edict asks us not to aggress “unto” others, or compete (vs. share) with them, but to be optimally responsive to them—to treat them as though they were next of kin.

Of course, doing so mindlessly would leave us defenseless in the face of another’s dishonesty, deceit, or exploitation. But how could such a rule—first articulated over two thousand years ago—not have assumed that it would have to be “executed” appropriately, that individuals would need to employ their best judgment in considering how in any individual circumstance it might be lovingly and righteously applied? And here, bringing in the word appropriate is crucial. For, historically, none of those advocating we live by the golden rule could have been utterly blind to the fact that utilizing it automatically (or indiscriminately) is hardly viable. Obviously, it needs to be employed only after making a mature, intelligent assessment of the particular situation.

Which returns us directly to the admirable—and not-so-admirable—aspects of the golden rule. For think of it. We all need some moral barometer to help guide our behavior, especially in circumstances where we may feel required to make a quick decision. In such cases, we need to have at hand (or heart) a simple principle to prevent us from acting imprudently. For we simply may not have the time to review inside our head an elaborate list of mandates that would be both pragmatic and ethical.

But the golden rule, precisely because it was never meant to be taken literally (i.e., as an absolute dictum applicable to any and all situations), can only take us so far. So that if we have suspicions about the other person (or people) involved, or if we just don’t know enough about what we might be getting into, the wisest decision for us to make is to hold off making a decision. And that’s why no simple guideline can ever “cover” us in all circumstances. It’s not that the golden rule instructs us to act hastily but that it doesn’t—and can’t—tell us everything we need to consider in situations that are anything but straightforward.

At last, no simple statement contrived to foster ethical behavior will be without its limitations. Yet, given the indisputably complex (and sometimes labyrinthine) world we live in, having at our ready such a succinct—and memorable!—code as the golden rule is likely to help us better navigate our challenging life path.

NOTE 1: Part 1 of this 4-part post discussed the various problems in interpreting the golden rule literally, while part 2 focused on the rule’s incompleteness (as relates mainly to its narrow reciprocal emphasis). Yet despite the many objections that this rule—historically—has been subject to, in this part I’ve tried to demonstrate its robustness and resilience. The final section (part 4) of this post will attempt to expand its utility into the realm of politics, economics, and society.

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

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

----I invite readers to join me on Facebook, and to follow my psychological/philosophical musings on Twitter.