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”