Do not do unto others as you would have that they would do unto you. Their tastes may not be the same.
–G.B. Shaw, as quoted by J.L. Mackie1
The religious and people who have a soft spot for religion like to appeal to the fact that some version of the maxim called “the Golden Rule” has a lot of interfaith currency, often implying that ubiquity, perhaps even the universality, of the rule implies a core of moral truth achieved by religion or religions. I wish I had a dollar for every time I’ve heard a religious apologist cite the Golden Rule as an example of how kind and good and decent religions were are their cores.
A popular version of the Golden Rule comes to us from Christian scripture, offered to us by Jesus himself, where, along with a great deal of other advice Christians have spent many centuries somehow failing to follow, he offers this:
Matthew 7:12 “Therefore all things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them: for this is the law and the prophets.”
Though as with so many things in Christian tradition, it has been taken from an earlier Jewish tradition (without proper credit, of course). There is an earlier version of the rule, formulated by Rabbi Hillel. As with so many things in Jewish tradition, it comes with a poignant story attached.
Once there was a gentile who came before Shammai, and said to him: “Convert me on the condition that you teach me the whole Torah while I stand on one foot. Shammai pushed him aside with the measuring stick he was holding. The same fellow came before Hillel, and Hillel converted him, saying: That which is despicable to you, do not do to your fellow, this is the whole Torah, and the rest is commentary, go and learn it.” – Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 31a
I hate to have to disagree with the learned rabbi, but unfortunately there’s a problem. The Golden Rule is substantively empty. John Mackie certainly did not fail to noticed this fact:
The teetotaller may be happy to prescribe universally that no one should drink wine or beer, the philistine that old houses should never be allowed to prevent the construction of motorways or divert their course, the sturdy individualist that social services should be kept to a minimum. e may see little or no moral force in the protection of freedoms whose exercise we would not enjoy, and we may be more ready to regard as vices ways of behaving in which we not want — or at any rate which we do not consciously want — to engage.2
A generalization of Mackie’s point might be something like this: in order to apply the Golden Rule, someone needs to perform an operation which I’ll call the Inference to the Object, that is, figuring out what it is that the would have others do unto them (in Jesus’ formulation) or what it is that is despicable to you (in Hillel’s negative formulation). But the Inference to the Object requires the use of principles and premises that are not themselves part of the Golden Rule, and which furthermore vary significantly across persons.
For the acute of mind, Mackie’s observations should be enough to sink the Golden Rule, but I think that the point deserves to be driven home a bit harder. People are poor listeners, and certain points need to be made over and over again. So here goes: let’s borrow the characters from Amartya Sen’s presentation of the Paretian liberal paradox and update their preferences to a more contemporary issue set. The characters are called Lewd and Prude, and the issue is to whether Internet porn should be banished in their country.
Lewd reasons as follows: I think masturbation is just fine: quick, hygienic, and a pleasurable relief from the strains and miseries of everyday life. Having Internet porn around makes it quicker and easier to masturbate. I would hate to have someone take that away from me, and I would therefore not want to take that away from anyone. Following the Golden Rule, therefore, I am against prohibiting Internet porn.
Prude reasons as follows: I think masturbation is icky and degrading, even though it is pleasurable. If Internet porn is available, I will be tempted to masturbate to it precisely because it is pleasurable. I would hate for someone to make this temptation available to me, and I would be grateful to others if they would somehow make it unavailable to me. Following the Golden Rule, I am in favor of prohibiting Internet porn.
Neither Lewd nor Prude makes an incorrect Inference to the Object in trying to apply the Golden Rule, but manage to reach opposite conclusions in applying it. That’s a grave problem for the rule. (It might be the case that either Lewd or Prude is reasoning from incorrect premises, but if that’s the case then the only way to fix their reasoning is to fix their premises. Getting them to apply the Golden Rule more “correctly” won’t help them.)
The point made here generalizes. For any policy or behavior one wants to recommend, it is going to be possible to find (or, as needed, invent) premises that will make it somehow “required” by the Golden Rule. So viewed, the Golden Rule seems less like a cherished principle of morality and more of a rhetorical stick with which to beat people who disagree with you. Though on further reflection, perhaps there isn’t really that much of a distinction between those two things at all.
1J.L. Mackie, and Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong (New York: Penguin, 1990 ), p. 89. Back to main text.
2Mackie, Ethics, p. 89. Back to main text.