Golden Rule the World

Bernard d'Agesci (1757-1828), La justice, musé...

Bernard d’Agesci (1757-1828), La Justice. Holds scales in one hand and in the other hand a book with “Dieu, la Loi, et le Roi” on one page and the Golden rule on the other page. (Photo credit: Wikipedia. Click image for larger versions)

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.

"The Golden Rule" mosaic

“The Golden Rule” mosaic (Photo credit: Wikipedia. Click image for larger version)

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.

Utility – the greatest good for the greatest number

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.

Enlightened self-interest

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.

Turn the other cheek

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)
Note that in Luke 6:31 above, the doctrine of turning the other cheek is directly related to the Golden Rule. This principle, in less absolute or categorical terms, may also be the basis for certain versions of the legal doctrine of proportionality. But unlike the “eye for an eye” kind of proportionality, the New Testament kind of proportionality favors the least severe response necessary to satisfy a compassionate and forgiving standard of  justice and to maintain peace.
“A soft word turneth away wrath…” (Proverbs 15:1 KJV)
BTW, by using bible quotes (familiar to many of my tribe) to illustrate some of my corollaries I don’t mean to imply that they depend on any religious authority. No. They have numerous secular expressions.
Thumbnail
Hey, before you abuse, criticize and accuse, walk a mile in my shoes” (Joe South).
I recommend the full lyric and the video.
“Side B” for this this corollary is “Before you accuse me (take a look at yourself)” by Mr. Bo Diddly. (The Eric Clapton version is pretty sweet, too.)

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.”

Jeder nach seinen Fähigkeiten, jedem nach seinen Bedürfnissen!

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)?

Subsidiarity

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)

subsidiarity [səbˌsɪdɪˈærɪtɪ]

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

“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

Community

“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..

Poor Richard

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Pretty Good Truth

Human knowledge of reality and truth is mostly relative.

“Real” Reality and “capital T” Truth belong to metaphysics, or perhaps to secret and invisible regions of the natural world, but not to the human mind. We may wish to infer that an absolute, objective level of reality exists, but we must admit that any ultimate reality is largely unknowable to creatures such as ourselves.

The best versions of reality and truth we can capture might be called “Pretty Good Reality” and “Pretty Good Truth.” (I’m thinking of the security program called “Pretty Good Privacy”).

PRETTY GOOD will do for most ordinary purposes.

(BTW, “Pretty Good Reality™”, “Pretty Good Reason“, “Pretty Good Ethics“, “Pretty Good Truth“, and “Pretty Good Free Will™” are copyright by Poor Richard under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDe­rivs 3.0 Unported License.)

Anti-relativism

What about those who hyperbolically and hypertensively crusade against relativism (esp. “moral relativism“) usually without the slightest understanding of it?

They wrongly believe that relativism means that “anything goes.”

People who fret about “moral relativism” are children. One cannot explain subtle matters to them.

Relativistic Morality

Everything in human life is relative, but morals, well examined, can be the least relative things of all. The passion to be a moral person can come from a place of true conscience, compassion, integrity, and nobility, or it can come from a place of fear and conformity. But if it is the former, the desire or passion to know reality and the passion to act morally are inseparable. In this kind of pragmatism, the fact of relativity is acknowledged, but one struggles through constant practice to achieve one’s highest and best approach to morality and objectivity. The life of the mind, properly understood, is not unlike the athletic life. Excellence comes from practice on the field, not only from books and chalk board talks.

Non-authoritarian, adult, secular morals are based on some version of the “Golden Rule“, which is about empathy and reciprocity, and on utility (the highest good or greatest well-being for the greatest number) both in respect to people and the entire interdependent community of life.

Empathy is a feeling or sentiment that evolution has given us (in part via “mirror neurons“) to make the fundamental law of reciprocity more agreeable to us. But reciprocity (or the “law of reciprocal maintenance” as G. I. Gurdjieff put it) is an essential law of living systems and ecosystems, with or without empathy or consciousness.

Some people find in the law of reciprocity a justification for living things feeding on one another, but I question that. To fully satisfy the law of reciprocity one would have to be willing to be eaten or otherwise exploited in return. If there were a species of creatures that treated us as we treat the cow, pig, dog, etc.–would we be happy about that? The question of pain is only one factor to consider when imagining how agreeable such a reciprocal relationship would be to us. Would we only be concerned about the process and not the end? Because nature may be in some respects a “war of all against all” (Hobbes), does that limit the human imagination from devising less cruel and violent relationships with nature? Of course not, unless one is simply a dull clod.

Perspective

One aspect of  human relativity is perspectivism. This is a philosophical view developed by Friedrich Nietzsche that all ideations take place from particular perspectives. This means that there are many possible conceptual schemes, or perspectives in which judgment of truth or value can be made. This implies that no way of seeing the world can be taken as definitively “true”, but does not necessarily entail that all perspectives are equally valid.

Simulation

A basic idea of epistemological relativity is that the closest anyone can come to objective reality or truth is some approximation. Each brain creates its own simulation(s) of reality based on its sense inputs, its processing of those inputs, its interpretations, and its own intrinsic characteristics. Since brains can communicate with other brains, multiple perspectives can be combined or merged to some extent.

Wheels within wheels

“…and their appearance and their work was as it were a wheel in the middle of a wheel.” (Ezekiel 1:16)

We are further removed from absolute truth or reality by the possibility that all we know of reality may be part of another level of simulation. Reality may consist of recursive simulations within simulations. This is the “simulation argument” or “matrix hypothesis”.

http://en.wikipedia/simulated_reality :

“A simplified version of this argument proceeds as such:

  1. It is possible that an advanced civilization could create a computer simulation which contains individuals with artificial intelligence (AI).
  2. Such a civilization would likely run many, billions for example, of these simulations (just for fun, for research or any other permutation of possible reasons).
  3. A simulated individual inside the simulation wouldn’t necessarily know that it is inside a simulation — it is just going about its daily business in what it considers to be the “real world.”

Then the ultimate question is — if one accepts that the above premises are at least possible — which of the following is more likely?

a. We are the one civilization which develops AI simulations and happens not to be in one itself?

b. We are one of the many (billions) of simulations that has run? (Remember point 3.) In greater detail, this argument attempts to prove the trichotomy, either that:

  • intelligent races will never reach a level of technology where they can run simulations of reality so detailed they can be mistaken for reality (assuming that this is possible in principle); or
  • races who do reach such a sophisticated level do not tend to run such simulations; or
  • we are almost certainly living in such a simulation.

http://www.simulation-argument.com/

 

In summary I’d say truth is probabilistic by which I mean that we might know an approximation of some fraction of the truth which may be fit (or pretty good) for a particular purpose. To paraphrase George Box, all facts are wrong but some are useful.

Poor Richard

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