Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Tarnishing the Golden Rule

My interfaith council begins each monthly meeting by introducing a spiritual topic and then discussing the topic from each of our faith's perspectives. This month's topic was the Golden Rule, a version of which is found in nearly every religion, Do to other's what you would have them do to you. I pointed out three criticisms of the rule.

The first criticism is one I learned from Bertrand Russell. A self-hating man would apply the Golden Rule in a way that would lead him to do violence to other people in the hope that they would do violence to him in return. Think of the phenomenon of "suicide by cop" for instance to see a perfect application of the Golden Rule in a spiritually unhealthy way.

My second criticism is that the Golden Rule advocates a strict equity in relationships when actually it is often when relationships are not strictly equitable that they are the most productive and interesting. For instance when I go to the theater I give money, but I don't want my money back I want a show. Likewise the performers don't want me to give them a show, they want my money. I don't always treat my husband the way I want to be treated because we don't always like the same things, or have the same talents and so on.

My third criticism is that the Golden Rule encourages each person to be their own individual ethical guide. This leads to relativism, which can lead to moral chaos. It's important that our ethical standards be based in something larger than just our own preferences. In fact one of the reasons I'm a strong theist is because of my deep sense that there are ethical absolutes greater than my own opinions, or even the opinions of my particular community or culture.


Robin Edgar said...

Excellent post Rev. Ricky. I am aware of some of the problematic aspects of the Golden Rule but you have laid them out very well and your third criticism is one that had not really occurred to me. I had never thought of The Golden Rule leading to moral relativism but that is a very valid point.

Richard Fritzson said...

I agree with you, especially about your third point. However, the golden rule I was raised with (I was brought up in the Jewish faith.) was somewhat more conservative than this. It said "Don't do unto others what you would not want done unto you." (or perhaps something like "What is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow man.")

It's not perfect but it does leave a bit more room for you to find out what it is that your "fellow man" would like to have done unto him.

I don't really know much about why this was changed to the more "positive" form. I have the impression that the eastern religions had the earlier "do not" form and Islam and Christianity have the "do" form, but I'm not much of a scholar in these matters. said...

In the first and second, I think you're unfairly taking each out of context. People should treat others as they would ask to be treated within the context of the situation.

A self-hating man and theatre performer must ask themselves how they would prefer to be treated if they were the other person.

Your third point is correct if taken to extremes. I might wish for someone to punch me in the face if I were working at McDonalds. So should I punch McDonalds workers in the face?

The rule assumes all people have an interest in being treated fairly. I would ask if I would REALLY want people to punch me in the face if I were a McDonalds worker, or if- when further explored- there was a deeper desire implied in the request.
Perhaps a desire for love and help from your fellow man.

One must use situational context when applying the golden rule, and one must dig below the surface to find their true desires.

Even something as simple as the golden rule is not so simple in application.
Thanks for making me think!

Anonymous said...

hmm... The first criticism is beyond my comprehension for which I am grateful that my mind does not think like that. The second criticism sounds like a logos reading of the text rather than a mythos reading of the text. Logos reading is a concrete, literal understanding.

However, that said, there is still equity in the scenario given. You want to receive a show that is worth the value of the money you have given. The performers also want to give you a show for the value of the money that they have received. In this way the Golden rule is followed. The second argument example is similar. While you may not like the same things your husband likes or have the same talents, you do want to be treated with respect to enable your pursuit of your likes and talents. Likewise, you then offer your husband the respect for him to pursue his likes and talents. Golden rule again followed.

The third criticism I think is your strongest case. Relativism could lead to moral chaos but I am not sure that it would do so. WHile I too, am a strong theist, I am less sure about the existence of ethical absolutes.
Blessings, my friend... good to know you.