By Michael Berumen
October 1987 (revised 1998)
I suspect no single moral principle has such an ancient lineage and continues to have such widespread acceptance, today, as the Golden Rule. Indeed, on many occasions I have heard non-philosophers identify it as the best of all possible moral rules, and that this rule is all we really require to lead a moral life. Perhaps the most well-known basis for the Golden Rule is found in the New Testament, “Therefore all things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them; for this was the law the prophets (Matthew 7.12).” More modern formulations include, “Do unto others, as you would have them do unto you,” or, alternatively, “Do not do unto others what you would not have them do unto you.”
Of course, the Golden Rule predates Christianity by many centuries. Ancient philosophers such as Isocrates, Plato, Aristotle, and others had variations of it. Five hundred years before Christ, the Chinese sage Confucius said, “What you do not like when done to yourself, do not do to others.”
While I would not deny its efficacy in many situations, the Golden Rule really is not the best of all moral rules, and, in fact, it is inadequate in a number of circumstances. It is certainly not suitable as a universal rule, which, by the definition of universality, would require everyone to follow the rule at all times. At the very best, it is a rule that one ought only to use some of the time.
Here is the problem with the Golden Rule when it is considered as a universal rule. It presupposes that we treat everyone in accordance with the principles that we would have them use in their relations with us all of the time. Perhaps the most obvious problem with this idea is that our principles are often not in accord with how others would want to be treated. But the more serious problem is that the things we would have done to ourselves are sometimes harmful or immoral when we apply them to others. For example, a misanthropic person who enjoys provocation from others would be entitled by this rule to be quarrelsome with them, since that is what he would desire from them. A masochist, someone who wants others to cause him pain, would be entitled to be sadistic towards others and to inflict pain on them. After all, as a masochist, he would want pain to be inflicted on himself. One can think of similar scenarios where it would be inappropriate to apply principles to others that we would want others to apply to ourselves, which rules out using the Golden Rule as a universal principle.
One common variation of the Golden rule is the inversion, “Do unto others as they would have you do unto them.” This emphasizes the need for understanding and empathy as the basis of our behavior. Moreover, it does not presuppose any uniformity of principles, as in the case of the more traditional formulation of the rule. However, this, too, is problematic, for the implication is, ultimately, we simply ought to do whatever anyone else wants. Ought I therefore to refrain from turning a criminal who steals from me over to the police? Obviously, there are a variety of circumstances where our interests collide with the interests of others, or when their interests are patently wrong, perhaps to others or to themselves, and when doing what others want does not make any sense.
A truly universal application of the Golden Rule would sometimes require us to do things that are clearly immoral, and it would even require us to do things that are patently absurd. Presumably, most policemen would not want to be caught or put in jail if they were to commit a crime themselves; therefore, by this principle they ought not to arrest criminals. One might object that the criminal is not himself following the Golden Rule, and that, of course, would be correct. However, the Golden Rule does not say follow it only when the other guy does; it says do what you would have him do unto yourself, without regard to the circumstances. Teachers would not want to receive a bad grade themselves; therefore, teachers ought not to flunk their students who perform poorly. One could go on like this. The point is this: it does not fit every circumstance, a requirement of a truly universal principle.
So why, then, has the Golden Rule received such acclaim, perhaps especially among those most innocent of philosophy? For the simple reason that we usually conceive of morality as having some basis in our own interests, which is to say, we think of moral rules as being the rules we would want applied to ourselves. And, indeed, there is some truth in this notion, for I contend that the only truly justifiable universal morality is grounded in our own rational prohibitions, the things we avoid, namely, death and suffering, that is, unless we have a reason. No rational person wants these objects for their own sake. Sometimes we do want what would otherwise constitute an object of irrational desire, but only in order to satisfy other, more important interests. It is perfectly rational to do so in such cases. For example, I might desire a certain amount of suffering in order to avoid greater suffering, or even because it gives me pleasure. The salient point is that whenever I do desire what would otherwise be an irrational object of desire, I have a rational reason. However … and here is where the mistake comes in … this would not be adequate in order to justify inflicting on others that which I would want for myself.
The Golden Rule does require us to do the morally right thing in a great many cases. However, it does not all of the time. It also generates some obvious absurdities from a moral perspective. It is therefore not viable as a universal principle. At best, it is a useful device for considering the importance of how our own feelings and needs compare with those of others, and as a means of furthering our compassion, sympathy, and empathy, all important sentiments, but insufficient grounds on which to base universal rules of behavior. I believe the only acceptable universal moral rules come from our own rational prohibitions against harming ourselves without an overriding reason (such as enduring the pain of surgery in order to improve our health or save our life), and by extending them to others through the additional principle of impartiality. At bottom, the underlying rationale for accepting such a principle of impartiality is utilitarian and intuitive, the former being obvious, and the latter being because we fell for others and, perhaps at an even deeper level, because it is clear that the universe is impartial about our needs and desires, and gives not a whit about who loses or benefits. But that is another story.