The Failure of The Golden Rule

By R.N. Carmona

The Golden Rule (“Do unto others as you would have them do unto you”) is very often held up as a judicious rule, and exceptionless rule, and a rule that is universally espoused, or very close to it. (Ironically perhaps, Confucius, though known to prefer the development of virtues to instruction by rules, might have been among the first to give voice to a version of this maxim, though given his broad approach to morality, it is likely he offered it as general advice rather than as an exceptionless rule.) So it must be asked: since we are familiar with the Golden Rule, and it seems like an excellent rule, why are moral philosophers still hunting around for the fundamental rule that should guide all behavior? What more than adherence to the Golden Rule do we need to live a virtuous life?

The general appeal of the Golden Rule has not gone unappreciated by moral philosophers, but they have also realized it has shortcomings as a reliable guide in moral conflict. Under scrutiny, the Golden Rule is not quite what it is advertised to be. First, although “do unto others…” is serviceable enough in the early stages of a child’s socialization, and even a moderately good rule of thumb for common daily social interactions, its application is nothing like as general as is assumed. Consider one huge domain of human action, namely defensive war. Soldiers do kill their enemies while earnestly desiring that their enemies not kill them. And this is regarded as the right thing for a soldier to do, though it contravenes the Golden Rule. Unfortunately, if a soldier does unto his enemies as he would be done by, he stands to be done in.

More generally, in policing and maintaining the peace, “do unto others” applies only problematically, and usually not literally. As a police officer, I might put a child kidnapper in a headlock without at all wishing he put me in a headlock. Likewise, jurors might feel obliged to send the accused to prison without wanting themselves to be sent to prison, even had they been similarly guilty, and so on and on.

Well, one might respond, the Golden Rule is obviously not meant to apply to those situations. Fine, but its claim to be universally applicable is therefore compromised, and in any case, the exception-to-the-rule problem arises again: if there are rules “all the way down,” what more basic rule do we invoke in saying the Golden Rule does not apply? To what are we appealing when we claim a fairly obvious and morally acceptable exception? Perhaps, a deeper, more Golden Ur-Rule—the Platinum Rule? What would that be ? As remarked earlier, knowing what is “obvious” here depends, exactly as Aristotle thought, on background common sense and moral judgement. That, however, is not a capacity that consults a set of rules to tell us when an exception is an allowable exception to the Golden Rule. Most people recognize an obvious exception when given a case, but there’s no evidence that they achieve this recognition by application of a deeper rule.

So the basic answer concerning the Golden Rule as the unconditional, universally applicable rule to guide what we ought to do is quite simple. It is not unconditionally and universally applicable. In many cases, such as the Memorial Hospital tragedy, the Golden Rule just does not get us very far. Worse, in cases where the do-gooder is a besotted ideologue, his application of the Golden Rule may give him precisely the justification he wants for doing what others regard as absolutely heinous things, such as engaging in genocide with the best will in the world.

Churchland, Patricia Smith. Braintrust: What Neuroscience Tells Us About Morality, p. 168-169, 173. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2011. Print.

Churchland’s remarks are in line with the criticisms of other philosophers. The Golden Rule is a rudimentary iteration of egoism. Aside from giving an ideologue justification, it also leaves one open to being taken advantage of. More importantly, the Golden Rule fails on a number of practical fronts. As Churchland states, it isn’t universally applicable and it falls short of being a reliable guide in the social and ethical spheres. Let us review this failure in more detail.

Given that Jesus and the father are one, I related the Golden Rule to the Moral Argument. If moral values and duties hinge on god’s existence and Jesus is god, then the basis of these moral values and duties would be the Golden Rule: “whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them” (Matthew 7:12). Yet there’s a problem in that the Golden Rule is a rudimentary iteration of egoism: what I find beneficial or harmful dictates my moral decisions. This is analogous to the Golden Rule.

That leads to some questions, however: how do I know that what I find satisfactory will be considered such by others? How can I know that what works for me will work for others? To simply assume that would be fallacious, namely the subjectivist fallacy: what works for me works for others. Yet this is precisely what the Golden Rule calls for. Unfortunately, the Golden Rule doesn’t ask us to account for personal or cultural differences. In Hispanic cultures, we expect full hospitality when we’re guests in your home. Specifically, if you’re a close friend or family member, and you’ve invited us over, we expect to be fed. We expect a seat at your dinner table and some of your home cooked dinner. Other cultures don’t always expect this of their friends and families. Living in an urban populace has acquainted me with that fact firsthand.

There is, however, a glaring issue with the Golden Rule. Jesus, god incarnate, has made you the moral arbiter. Whatever you wish people do to you, do also to them; he stated that “this is the Law and the Prophets.” Not only are you assuming that because something works for you, it will work for others, but you now have final say on what’s right or wrong. God no longer makes that decision, so his commands are arbitrary. If the Golden Rule is the basis of the Moral Argument, then the Moral Argument is self-contradictory. Either morality is contingent on god or it is up to us to decide what’s right and what’s wrong. It can’t be both. Yet god gave you the keys to the moral kingdom.

In ethicist fashion, the Golden Rule is utterly inapplicable. If applied to business, it simply wouldn’t work. Again, the Golden Rule doesn’t account for personal and cultural differences. Businesses have failed to succeed in other countries because they assumed that what works for their population will work for other populations. In other words, if Americans like sweet soft drinks, the Chinese will also. If I were to be CEO of an airline, and I were to reason that because I find coach satisfactory, none of my planes should have first class seating, my airline would certainly fail. In business, I cannot treat others as I wish to be treated.

In medicine this doesn’t work either. When removing my wisdom teeth, I chose nitrous oxide over anesthetic injection. If I were a doctor, on the basis of the Golden Rule, since I wish for doctors to use nitrous oxide during my surgeries then I’ll give nitrous to all of my patients. Where is their autonomy? Where is their choice? Where is their right to decide how they want to go about this? The Golden Rule cannot apply to medicine.

It doesn’t apply to education. If I were to become a professor that teaches students based on how I like to be taught, I will actually harm some of my students. What works for me doesn’t work for everyone. Just because I wish for my professors to be (preferably) passionate about their fields, enthusiastic when they speak, and do their best to teach using visuals doesn’t mean that I should become a professor who teaches using mostly visuals. Some students may even be put off if I’m too enthusiastic though, in general, that doesn’t pose an issue. What does pose an issue is the assumption that everyone learns equally.

Ultimately, the Golden Rule, Jesus’ and therefore god’s basis of morality, is inapplicable to our everyday lives. If applied in the fields discussed and certainly others not discussed, the results would be disastrous. It’s also fallacious since it falls victim to subjectivist fallacy. What works for me does not work for everyone else. Aside from this, it is a primitive iteration of egoism, which is generally considered a failed ethical system. As stated earlier, we often act without thinking about our own happiness or benefit. We often act selflessly rather than on the basis of self-interest. Moving outside of the Golden Rule, it fails to account for personal preferences and cultural differences. It fails to account for a person’s autonomy: this is how you want to be treated, so this is how I’ll treat you. Does a person not have a choice in how they want to be treated?

Given this, the notion that the Golden Rule is a principle of empathy is wrong. I think empathy is fully achieved when you have developed the ability to attend to someone else whilst knowing what a given circumstance means to them and on the basis of this, treat them in accordance with or even via their perspective. This sort of empathy is perfectly in keeping with Neo-Kantian ethics. In treating you this way, I honor your autonomy. I’m not, for instance, lecturing you on how the death of a loved one gets easier over time because that’s what worked for me. I listen, I inquire, and then I do what I think you find most meaningful. You may not want a spiel on how it gets easier and the cliche “time heals all wounds”; you may instead prefer a hug, a shoulder to cry on, and an ear that will listen to the memories you have of this loved one. And that’s what I’ll offer you. I will not offer you what works for me because I recognize that we’re different people that are perhaps from different cultures; we have different preferences, had different upbringings, and ultimately, have different brains. We simply work differently and the Golden Rule fails to account for that. So if the Golden Rule is god’s basis for moral values and duties–and given that Jesus is god, I see no reason to think otherwise–he can keep his values. We have advanced far beyond his failed ethical view. For us atheists, there’s no wonder as to why that’s the case.


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  1. Pingback: The Golden Rule | BibleOpia Blog

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