Juggling the golden rule

“You should desire for others what you desire for yourself and hate for others what you hate for yourself. Do not oppress as you do not like to be oppressed. Do good to others as you would like good to be done to you. Regard bad for yourself whatever you regard bad for others. Accept that (treatment) from others which you would like others to accept from you… Do not say to others what you do not like to be said to you” — Ali ibn Ali Talib (4th caliph of Islam, son in law of the Prophet Muhammad)

Ali didn’t come up with this concept – it’s been around for thousands of years. The Prophet said it too, but I liked Ali’s version of the quote since it was a bit longer and more elaborate. I’ve always had a rather skeptical view of the golden rule, which I suspect many have but never speak out loud.

It does have a fair amount of disparage from intellectual celebrities. George Bernard Shaw, Immanuel Kant, Friedrich Nietzsche, Karl Popper, and Bertrand Russell aren’t fans of the novel concept. The argument they make is simple and rather convincing; it goes something like this:

“Do not do unto others as you would that they should do unto you. Their tastes may be different” — Bernard Shaw (British playwright)

Alright, fair enough. What if I were a masochist? Clearly, the golden rule has its issues. Its fundamental premise, seemingly, is a rather naïve sort of kindness. It’s a selfish, indiscriminate, and degrading treatment of others. Kindness comes out of how you think others should be catered to, how you think one person should be treated versus another, and how you think morality should play it all. So much for humility.

“There’s only one rule that I know of, babies…you’ve got to be kind” — Kurt Vonnegut (American author)

The golden rule, arguably, relies on this arrogant idea that’s all about you. It requires you to judge others – to decide what’s best for them. That sounds familiar: I know what’s better for you better than you know yourself. Just looking at history, we know that works. Kindness doesn’t take into account the receiver; it’s all about the sender. The sender decides how to give off kindness and in what shape or form. The sender is the one who makes the game and the rules to that game. This is the sort of arrogance people try to avoid. It’s one danger to believe you’re at the center of the world, and a whole other story to believe you’re the benevolent center of the world. All of a sudden, no one’s opinion of themselves count – how dignifying.  You, your egocentric self, know them better than they know themselves. Sounds suspicious.

So let’s forget about this archaic law. Let’s deal with empathy, okay? Instead of treating others the way you would want to treat yourself, why not treat others the way they’d want to be treated? That would make the world mighty better. All of a sudden, the judging goes. A true call to empathy and compassion might save us all. Empathy leads to real understanding, not an artificial one. Empathy is taking your shoes off and going into someone else’s. It’s taking off the lens you view the world and putting on someone else’s. The golden rule, on the other hand, is never bothering to do just that, right?

“You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view . . . until you climb into his skin and walk around in it” — Atticus Finch (in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird)

I treat that with similar suspicion though. Can one really remove their bias and see it from another point of view, while using your own conscience and your own mind? Claiming you can doesn’t sound honest to me, and I’m tired of those ‘truly objective’ individuals that float around. When you take your skin off and put someone else’s on, what you’re really doing is putting someone else’s skin on top of yours and walking around. You’re just  seeing someone else’s view from your own viewpoint. You’re looking at a lens with another lens, pretending the first isn’t there at all.

Judging is inherent in the human condition, and there’s no use trying to get rid of it. The sender of kindness, pretending they can, is lying to themself just as they are lying to the receiver. Empathy, at the deepest and truest level, isn’t realistic. We need to stop pretending.

The golden rule, then, isn’t perfect. But it calls on people to be true to themselves. You can’t expect to know how others want to be treated. But you have a reference point – how you’d like to be treated. And we all want to be understood – so we’d treat the other with an attempt to understand. And though the egocentricity remains it’s fine. You are only being honest to the flawed human condition. It’s only a recognition that you cannot fully understand someone else, so you use the only frame of reference you have: your shoes, your lens, your skin. The beginning to understanding others, then, is understanding you can’t really understand at all. And Socrates says it best:

“I know nothing”

10 thoughts on “Juggling the golden rule

  1. I never really thought about the Golden Rule as being egocentric; I thought it was just saying be nice, be polite, and if you couldn’t be nice and polite, keep your mouth shut. This is quite a thought-provoking post, particularly for the holiday season where we’re again hearing arguments on how to greet each other.


  2. Yeah, I mean, the phrasing of the rule might seem egocentric, but it seems like it is more or less recognizing that people are reliably selfishness and trying to address that common disposition.
    Moreover, I think that Shaw’s comment, which basically amounts to very strong relativism, misses the mark. It would make sense if we talking about ice cream flavors or sports interests, but as far as kindness, it’s pretty universal. That’s why we find this rule in about every moral/ethical tradition that there is. A very common fallacy, brought about by a slew of social sciences and moral relativism, is that people are very, very different. They are so different, that you can’t know what another is thinking, you can’t “step into someone else’s shoes,” you can’t know what someone’s concept of kindness is. But people are simply NOT that different. There is a vast body of human universals that oscillates within only a very narrow window: most people don’t want to be physically harmed, most people want to be loved, most people want to be respected. In a biological sense, we all have extremely similar DNA that codes for similar traits and behaviors. Moreover, people are not born masochists. They might be genetically disposed toward that behavior, but they are not masochists by default. That is negligible. When it comes down to it, of course the golden rule has issues–any broad rule will. As we know, there are always exceptions–except when they’re aren’t. But it offers a far better moral milieu than anything else out there. Breaking it down with trivial philosophy does not stifle its potency or ubiquity.


    • Precisely! I found your comparison to relativism insightful – I did not catch that. Now, what about on a grander scale – in international cross cultural relations? How is one to decide to follow the golden rule or to be relativistic, in say, hijab laws or the treatment of free speech?



      • Well, I think you touched on it yourself when you said “Empathy is taking your shoes off and going into someone else’s. It’s taking off the lens you view the world and putting on someone else’s.”

        In international relations, we all want our own culture to be respected, so, as such, we have to respect other cultures. So we show respect by understanding the other culture and perhaps conceding a bit of our own culture as we meet with them (like if I were, for some reason, to meet with a conservative Muslim man, I should dress modestly and conservatively so as to not cause complete offense or shock. But it would be disrespectful of him to expect me to wear a full burqa.)

        I would caveat that this respect should be applied to customs and aspects of culture that don’t override the most basic of human rights, like life and control of one’s own body.


      • Yeah, that’s a good point. I was not thinking about the golden rule as a foundation for international law. I suppose I think of the golden rule as something that happens on the individual level. People have to internalize the importance of kindness in their own lives. When implemented as a law, I think that it becomes more difficult. How does one mandate kindness? In the case of the hijab laws, I’m not sure if you are referring to the mandatory wearing of the hijab in some Islamic country or the prohibition against wearing the hijab as a government employee in France (what were they THINKING?) At any rate, I feel like wearing the hijab is fairly innocuous. Free speech is trickier because of the exceptions–yelling “fire” in movie theater or hate speech, for example. I think if the people who said hateful and dangerous thinks turned inward a little bit more and embraced kindness, there wouldn’t be as many instances as this. If we direct ourselves with mean spirits, who are we really going to help? Kindness can’t just be a vague cultural idea. It has to be internalized by individuals, and I think that’s what the golden rule attempts to do.


        • Indeed, I agree. The golden rule must be internalized in us – as a direct attempt for empathy but the recognition it cannot be achieved.
          Now, concerning international affairs, I wonder what makes nations different? Aside from the mutual respect rules brought up by kheldarson, perhaps the golden rule ought be a given too. We live in a world with a European conception of rational nation-states, in which it is perfectly acceptable for leaders to act in their own nation’s interest and their own amoral judgments. I’m not so confident in that conception – and I think the golden rule would do the world a darn amount of good if it was bashed into Obama’s, or Cameron’s, or Rouhani’s head.



  3. Pingback: Mulling over relativism (Part 1) | Whispers of Satan

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