Some friends of the delightful and brilliant Karen Armstrong recently started a website called Charter for Compassion. The charter is based on the Golden Rule (See Karen’s Ted Talk video at the end of this page). This got me to thinking about the Golden Rule in more detail than usual…
The version most familiar to me is this:
So in everything, do unto others what you would have them do unto you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets. (Matthew 7:12)
The Golden Rule is the simplest expression of two primal axioms of sociality, empathy and reciprocity. This is the basis of all that we call justice and morality. All that has been written on justice and morality over the ages almost seems to obfuscate those issues when compared directly with the Golden Rule. Maybe that’s why Jesus is quoted as saying this single sentence “sums up the Law and the Profits.”
Without empathy, there could be no kindness or compassion. Empathy, kindness, and compassion are far more primal than religion, philosophy and ethics. Empathy has its own type of brain cell, called the mirror neuron, which is also found in other animals. This suggests that the evolution of empathy preceded human beings.
“The feeling of compassion is the beginning of humanity.”
— Mencius, 372 – 289 BCE
But the Golden Rule doesn’t stop at empathy. It also includes reciprocity. Like empathy, reciprocity has its roots in pre-human evolution. It is involved in the process of natural selection. Empathy and reciprocity are the biological and instinctive forces that make animals social and from which all complex human sociality evolved.
Somewhat like the principles on which it is based, the Golden Rule predates recorded history. It was around long before Christianity or Judaism or even religion. It may even predate language. Of course, it would. It is in our DNA — literally.
The Golden Problem
In practice there may be a bit of a rub to the Golden Rule. What if someone doesn’t want to be treated the way I might want to be treated, but the way in which they wish to be treated is perfectly reasonable and agreeable to me? Then perhaps I should do unto them the way I would want them to do unto me if I were them. This would make the rule somewhat recursive.
Then, what if the way some people wish to be treated is bad for them? All responsible parents and guardians face this problem. The recursive property doesn’t help in this case. Nor can the parent necessarily treat the child the way the parent might wish to be treated if she is perfectly honest with herself. We are all a little too childish and selfish ourselves to follow the Golden Rule to the letter without indulging each other far too much. Another modification is needed.
Golden Solution: Enlightenment
A certain amount of indulgence is good for us, especially as children, but enough is enough and too much is bad for the character (and often for the waistline, too). Responsible parents sometimes attempt to treat their children the way an enlightened person would want to be treated, hoping that such patterning helps a child to develop into that enlightened person. We can apply this to everybody, really, since all of us can stand to become a little more enlightened.
But what is enlightenment? Who is enlightened? What does an enlightened person want? How would they wish to be treated? I guess this is what all the books on justice and morality are about–maybe this is why we need them. They are trying to tell us what enlightened people should believe, what they should want, or how they should behave; and they are written (broadly speaking) by our best and brightest (i.e. most enlightened) minds.
But what good is the Golden Rule if we are still thrown back into this quagmire of disputed and contradictory theories of right and wrong? Is there no simple rule for enlightenment?
According to Emmanuel Kant, the Golden Rule could be formulated in a broad, general way that he called a categorical imperative. It is intended to minimize the subjective variations in what different people consider good behavior by removing the relative advantage of acting selfishly in the pursuit of one’s own personal good:
“Act only according to that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law.”
In other words, don’t do anything you aren’t willing for everyone else to do right back at you. I don’t think it solves any of the above problems, though. Kant’s deontology still turns upon consequences. What are rules of behavior but after-the-fact consequentialism? Any practical kind of deontology or consequentialism must be derived from experience. What else could we base either one upon, unless we want to base or morality on legend, myth, or superstition; fictions which like Santa Clause and the Tooth Fairy are more suitable for ignorant children than responsible adults.
Corollaries of the Golden Rule
I will propose several corollaries to the Golden Rule, which I hope will fill in some of the blanks and answer some of the questions left hanging by the Rule. To qualify they must be consistent with (if not directly implied by) the Rule, and they must share its simplicity of expression in plain language. The aim of this short list of corollaries is nothing less than to dispense with the rest of the Prophets and the Philosophers of law, which the Golden Rule failed to do on its own.
This corollary helps to answer some of the questions about enlightenment I asked above. I will do unto you what I would have you do unto me if it is also in your best interest and (as much as possible) for the greatest good of the greatest number.
This is the principle that persons “do well by doing good.” This meansthat acting to further the interests of others (or the interests of the group or groups to which they belong), ultimately serves one’s own self-interest.
When possible, respond to an aggressor without violence. The phrase originates from the Sermon on the Mount in the New Testament:
38 ¶ Ye have heard that it hath been said, An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth: 39 But I say unto you, That ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also. 40 And if any man will sue thee at the law, and take away thy coat, let him have thy cloke also. 41 And whosoever shall compel thee to go a mile, go with him twain. 42 Give to him that asketh thee, and from him that would borrow of thee turn not thou away. (Matthew 5:38–5:42 KJV)
In the Gospel of Luke, as part of his command to “love your enemies“, Jesus says:
27 ¶ But I say unto you which hear, Love your enemies, do good to them which hate you, 28 Bless them that curse you, and pray for them which despitefully use you. 29 And unto him that smiteth thee on the one cheek offer also the other; and him that taketh away thy cloke forbid not to take thy coat also. 30 Give to every man that asketh of thee; and of him that taketh away thy goods ask them not again. 31 And as ye would that men should do to you, do ye also to them likewise. (Luke 6:27–31 KJV)
“A soft word turneth away wrath…” (Proverbs 15:1 KJV)
“Hey, before you abuse, criticize and accuse, walk a mile in my shoes” (Joe South).
Or, to put this another way, “Judge not, that ye be not judged,” again from the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 7:1). Saint Matthew goes on to say:
3 And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother’s eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye? 4 Or how wilt thou say to thy brother, Let me cast out the mote out of thine eye; and lo, the beam is in thine own eye? 5 Thou hypocrite, cast out first the beam out of thine own eye; and then shalt thou see clearly to cast out the mote out of thy brother’s eye.
This is all about empathy and reciprocity, the foundations of the Golden Rule. But lest you doubt me, does Matthew 7:12 sound vaguely familiar:
“All things therefore whatsoever ye would that men should do unto you, even so do ye also unto them: for this is the law and the prophets.”
Literally translated, “From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs!” This is the phrasing of Karl Marx, but the first known description of the principle was given by Étienne-Gabriel Morelly (1717 – ?) a French utopian thinker and novelist, but an otherwise “obscure tax official.” (Wikipedia) Morelly proposed in his 1755 Code of Nature :
- Every citizen will be a public man, sustained by, supported by, and occupied at the public expense.
- Every citizen will make his particular contribution to the activities of the community according to his capacity, his talent and his age; it is on this basis that his duties will be determined, in conformity with the distributive laws. (Wikipedia)
I don’t know (or care) much about Communism, but I think I know the Golden Rule when I see it. Who would not want to be treated in such a fashion, from each according to ability and to each according to need, unless they had previously been brainwashed by some cruel and perverse ideology (I won’t mention any names)?
This one is a little more technical, but its not complicated. Decisions and authority should be vested at the lowest practical level of an organization or institution. This is a clear “do unto others” corollary — do you want to maintain your human dignity in your place of work or your community?
Subsidiarity is the idea that decisions are better made where they have immediate effect. The idea is a key because it enables people to make decisions for themselves. Human Dignity demands more than becoming a cog in a wheel.” (Solidarity With Salisbury)
1. (Christianity / Roman Catholic Church) a principle of social doctrine that all social bodies exist for the sake of the individual so that what individuals are able to do, society should not take over, and what small societies can do, larger societies should not take over
2. (Government, Politics & Diplomacy) the principle of devolving decisions to the lowest practical level
“Solidarity is not a matter of altruism. Solidarity comes from the inability to tolerate the affront to our own integrity of passive or active collaboration in the oppression of others, and from the deep recognition of our most expansive self-interest. From the recognition that, like it or not, our liberation is bound up with that of every other being on the planet, and that politically, spiritually, in our heart of hearts we know anything else is unaffordable.” – Aurora Levins Morales
“Men are free when they belong to a living, organic, believing community, active in fulfilling some unfulfilled, perhaps unrealized purpose. Not when they are escaping to some wild west. The most unfree souls go west, and shout of freedom.” ― D.H. Lawrence, Studies in Classic American Literature
I’m going to stop on that note, but please suggest any other corollaries to the Golden Rule that you think should not be left out. The goal is not to include everything but the kitchen sink, but to include essential corollaries that keep the Golden Rule from being overly ambiguous, or from being too silent on important social issues..
Related PRA 2010 Posts
- The 99% Solution
- The Origins of Human Nature
- Social evolution: An ounce of allegory vs a pound of theory
- The value of unimportance
- Age of Enlightenment emerges from birth canal
- Fighting Evil
- Karen Armstrong: Let’s Revive The Golden Rule
- Several Short Sentences About Empathy Dave Pollard, How to Save the World blog
- The Great Big Opportunity (Solidarity With Salisbury – Papal Economics)
- The Golden Rule (dogmomesquire.com)
- The Modified Golden Rule. What do you think? (seplerblog.wordpress.com)
- What Penguins Know about the Business World (psychologytoday.com)
RSA Animate – 21st century enlightenment