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Moral Moments

Testing Your Moral Metal

by Joel Marks

“An 83-year-old retired schoolteacher delivered her own version of the Golden Rule on Tuesday, doing unto a mugger as he was doing unto her. [She] punched and slapped at [the man] who had grabbed for her purse. ‘I don’t remember being hit,’ she said; ‘I was so busy hitting him’.” (Reported by William Kaempffer, The New Haven Register, March 31, 1999.)

For all the verbiage that has been spilled about moral issues, including by yours truly, there is still no better ethical advice one can Give, or Receive, than the Golden Rule. While it is found in some form in every major cultural tradition, the one we native speakers of English know best is: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. (Matthew 7:12; for references to other versions, see ‘Golden Rule’, by Marcus G. Singer, in The Encyclopedia of Philosophy, ed. Paul Edwards). It seems perfectly transparent in its meaning. Oh, it may escape attention when one is in the throes of some passion or rationalization; but once brought back to consciousness, its counsel cuts through the haze of feeling and fallacy to show where one has gone astray, and to point the right way. That, at any rate, has been my experience.

It has also been my experience, alas, that any number of alternative rules have been put forward, not always consciously. Through the years I have become something of a collector of these inferior injunctions, which I discover by analysis of utterances and by reflection on behavior (including, of course, my own). Herewith, then, an inventory of rules of baser metal.

Do unto others as they have done (or are doing) unto you. I call this the Leaden Rule; but perhaps ‘Iron-ic’ would be an even meeter metal, for far from being a principle of morality, this rule is a license to model one’s behavior on the worst tendencies of others. It sanctions revenge, retaliation, retribution – in short, tit for tat. It implies that two wrongs make a right (besides two rights doing so). Yet like a classic logical fallacy, it has the very feel of its opposite, since to most of us at certain times, requital seems the epitome of justice. But no amount of moral alchemy will transmute this rule to gold. (See Richard Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene, however, for a fascinating discussion of the biological economy of ‘Grudgers’.)

Do unto others as they would do unto you. This variation on the above has even less in its favor, because the harmful behavior it endorses would not even be justified by any harm done.

Do unto others as they would like to do unto you. There are few base acts that would be barred by such a doctrine as this! It is precisely at the level of thought and desire that immoral inclinations most spontaneously manifest; if these manifestations were to constitute authorization of behavioral expression in another, morality would be devilish in deed (indeed!).

An interesting set of commandments results from an otherturning of all of the above; for example, Do unto others as they have done unto OTHERS. So now, instead of just ‘getting back at someone’ for what they have done to you, you might be, say, avenging what they did to your sister. But, again, however psychologically understandable that may be, it does not seem to be what morality is about. It helps explain, but does not justify certain behaviors; it may mitigate, but does not exonerate. Anyway, if morality only encapsulated what we naturally feel, wouldn’t it be otiose? Curiously, though, God (cf. Matthew 7:2) and Karma (as in, “What goes around, comes around”) are supposed to act in accordance with this rule!

Do unto others as they would (see fit to) do in your place, or in other words, if they were in your shoes (forgoing the metal metaphor, this forgery may therefore be dubbed the Leathern Rule, as opposed to the Leaden Rule). This one I have great sympathy for whenever a student protests that a grade I have given him or her is ‘unfair’, when from my point of view it is obviously very fair; so I wish the student were able to adopt what I consider to be my broader perspective. But I also know what it is like to be shod upon (so-to-speak), as when an administrator does not grant one of my own petitions, for reasons which the administrator no doubt considers to be more comprehensive than mine. The problem with the Leathern Rule is that it invites self-delusion based on a failure to empathize: We don’t really know how others feel, or, feeling what they currently do, how they would feel if they were in our shoes – we just know how we feel. It also lends itself to the complacency of ‘bourgeois morality’, as when one thinks, “Those folks in Ethiopia wouldn’t lift a finger to feed me if our positions were reversed, so why should I make any sacrifices to help them?”

Do unto others as you would have them do unto you IN ORDER THAT they (or somebody else) will thus do unto you. This introduces a whole new class of rules, which postulate some ‘ulterior motive’ or further justification for abiding by the Golden Rule. But the Golden Rule is itself conceived as the ultimate justification, or at least as a fundamental axiom, of our moral behavior. If you obey the Golden Rule only to attain some further end, you are really following some other ‘rule’; for example, if your real concern is that others treat you well, then in effect you could be following the rule of so-called ethical egoism, which states, “Do whatever is likely to work out the best for you in the long run.” The Golden Rule would then reduce to a rule of thumb – something you would do so long as it conforms to the imperative of some other commandment, and not otherwise. But the Golden Rule is not supposed to be conditional in this way.

The reader is invited to add to this inventory of pyritic principles. In closing, I must admit, however, that even the Golden Rule has its problems, such as the notorious question: How would a masochist apply it? For further elucidation I refer the reader to the discussion of the rule’s limitations – or, better put, proper function – on pp.57-9 of Alan Donagan’s The Theory of Morality (University of Chicago Press, 1977).

© Joel Marks 2000

Joel Marks is Professor of Philosophy at the University of New Haven in West Haven, Connecticut, U.S.A. He would like to express his indebtedness to colleague Darrell Harrison for, as always, a number of astute caveats.

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