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The Golden Rule Redux

by Joel Marks

One of the joys of philosophy is to keep coming back to the same thing. There is always more to think about; there are always new discoveries to be made. Sometimes an earlier understanding will be completely overthrown. An entire life – indeed, a centuries-long tradition – can be devoted to a single idea, mining its never-ending wealth. Or for the restless of mind, the alternative is to ponder one thesis or phenomenon, in due time jump to another, then someday return to the first.

The Golden Rule now invites me to reflect (or ‘bend back’). Do unto others as you would have them do unto you (e.g., Matthew 7:12). In an early column (‘Testing Your Moral Metal,’ four years ago in Issue 29) I considered many artificial forms the rule can take, such as “Do unto others so that they will treat you the same way.” My intent was to exhibit the Rule in its purity, to rid it of misunderstandings that can utterly pervert its meaning and, hence, its practical import. When it is spontaneously grasped or else its essence revealed by analysis, the Golden Rule is a marvelous rule of life.

Or is it? From a certain point of view the Golden Rule appears to be devoid of content. This is because it leaves completely open what you would have them do unto you. This is why the Rule falls prey to the Masochism Objection, since, taking the Rule literally, a masochist would be obligated to treat others sadistically. Now I am pointing out that the objection runs deeper than that. Logically speaking, the Rule offers no general guidance regarding right and wrong behavior whatever.

But there is a ‘save’: One can postulate a certain human nature. If it turns out that human beings have standard desires, then, while formally empty, the Rule would in fact have specific content. For example, if everybody would like to be rescued by a passing stranger when stuck in quicksand, then every one of us should help strangers under like circumstances. If we realize, then, that the Golden Rule presumes a certain way that human beings are by nature, then the Rule does not ‘dissolve,’ but makes the sense it was intended to.

Of course we must recognize that there will be exceptions. Even if there is such a thing as human nature, there can be aberrant humans. Masochists do exist, for instance. Perhaps, then, we need to pay more attention to the word ‘rule’ in the name ‘Golden Rule’ and understand it to mean that the Golden Rule is only applicable as a rule. In other words, it is not an exceptionless principle; it is not the ‘Golden Law.’

That is not necessarily a flaw. Aristotle observed that “it is the mark of the educated man to look for precision in each class of things just so far as the nature of the subject admits ...” (Nicomachean Ethics I:3, tr. W.D. Ross). Still, we are not home free yet. What if, say, everybody has masochistic tendencies? Would that make it right to be a sadist? If not, how does the Golden Rule fare?

In other words, it now seems that analysis has revealed a second assumption of the Golden Rule, in addition to the uniformity of human nature; namely, that all basic human desires regarding how one wishes to be treated by others are good desires. This assumption is easily overlooked, since the first – that a desire is universally shared – might seem sufficient warrant for the goodness of that desire. But of course it isn't. There could be any number of desires inherent in us all that we would wish to suppress on moral grounds, even if they pertain in the first instance only to the condition of the desirer, such as wanting to be humiliated and abused by others, or wanting to be coddled indefinitely.

Here again we could invoke Aristotle and assert that, by and large, the desires that humans harbor regarding themselves (and, more specifically, how they wish to be treated by others) will pass moral muster, so the exceptions need not be considered fatal to the Golden Rule, taken as a rule (‘of thumb’). Could we, by the way, now dispense with the other assumption about universality? Why isn't it enough to hold that a desire regarding treatment of oneself by others be a good one in order to justify its applicability to our treatment of other people (and animals, I would hope) via the Golden Rule? But that won't work. Imagine, for example, that you, but not your mate, like to be tickled; then tickling him or her is not the ticket. So both assumptions are needed for the Golden Rule to function properly.

In sum: The Golden Rule seems best understood as a rule rather than an exceptionless law. Furthermore, it presumes that there is such a thing as human nature and that human nature is, by and large, good. Conceived in this way, the Golden Rule is both true and useful ... that is, provided its assumptions are true! Conceived otherwise, like anything that is misunderstood, it can be baneful.

As a philosopher I am obliged to point out that the story is still not over. It seems to me that the Golden Rule has now shown itself to be not a theory of ethics, as might have been supposed. For however correctly and usefully it may point us to right actions, it does not give us a clue as to why actions are right (or wrong). As we have seen, it already presumes that we can identify certain things as morally good or bad, specifically, ways in which we ourselves can be treated by others. In effect it says, “Do unto others as you should wish them to do unto you,” but how is that? It passes the buck, but where does it stop? Furthermore, the Golden Rule does not explain why it is appropriate to treat others in the same way as oneself. Finally, it does not even address how one ought to ‘treat’ oneself; for example, it seems to be silent on suicide or self-mutilation.

© Joel Marks 2005

Joel Marks is Professor and Chair of Philosophy at the University of New Haven in West Haven, Connecticut.


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