Friday, May 23, 2014

The Golden Rule kind of sucks: Here's a better one
Growing up Catholic, I learned the most important of all God's commandments was the Golden Rule which reads, "Do to others whatever you would have them do to you."

It was the simplest and easiest thing to remember, and it seemed so obvious and true and yet...

It doesn't work. Not really.

I ran into this problem almost immediately, when I got into some kind of trouble or another, and my typically angry father magnanimously asked me what I thought my punishment should be. I thought about it, and using the Golden Rule, put myself in my father's position. I knew that my father wouldn't want to suffer any of the punishments he brought down on me, so how could I, temporarily granted his power, inflict such punishments on anyone, never mind myself?

I told my father (probably not with these exact words) that all punishment was wrong, as the very concept violated the Golden Rule.

My Solomonic wisdom was rejected. I got punished.

There are limits to the Golden Rule. Some people see life as a big game and all they want to do is win. These people will screw you over mercilessly, and will grant you no respect if you don't try to screw them over as well. They follow the Golden Rule scrupulously, doing unto others as they would have done unto themselves. But even if we set such people aside, the Golden Rule fails to account for the findings of game theory, that show punishment and negative reinforcement are built into the deepest parts of our ability to cooperate as a species.

The Golden Rule is one of those sayings that sounds nice, but has only marginal utility. As philosopher Iain King concluded, we'd have to add a whole bunch of qualifiers and contexts to make the Golden Rule truly useful. Instead of looking for simple answers to complex questions and problems, we should acknowledge that the real world is full of subtlety and compromise. 

The point of the Golden Rule is to get people to treat each other better, to expand our circle of care beyond ourselves and our immediate family. Jesus was full of these kinds of ideas. He said, in addition to the Golden Rule, that, "as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me." An honest Christian must admit that every time we torture a suspected terrorist, we might as well be torturing God. Whenever we neglect to feed the hungry or provide shelter for the poor, it's exactly like we are denying such basic necessities to God.

I don't believe in God. I'm a Humanist. I think people should be treated well because they are people, not because they are stand-ins for God. I strive to treat people with compassion not because I hope to be treated with compassion myself- though such treatment is always welcome and appreciated- I treat people with compassion because all people are inherently worthy of compassion.

Over the course of time we fight for incremental improvements in the way we treat each other. A state might outlaw capital punishment. A court case allows same-sex marriage in Pennsylvania. A generation of children from mixed race unions come up with new perceptions and understandings on race and gender identities. A black President is elected. We don't see the extent of these improvements until we take the longer view. Like the formation of mountains, expanding rights seems to occur in geologic time.

The flipside is that we don't always advance, and sometimes we slip backwards. A black President helped create a large racist backlash in the form of militia groups and certain parts of the Tea Party. Women's reproductive rights are under constant and sustained attack. Being gay can be a crime punishable by death in Uganda. The backslides and lack of positive movement can be demoralizing, but it's important to never give up trying.

And that's the real Golden Rule.

Never give up.

It's simple. It has the ability to focus you in ways "Do unto others" never can. Even in our darkest moments, when defeat is inevitable and despair clutches our hearts, we can get up from the floor, battered and bruised, and say,

Never give up.

Even when we fail. When a child dies from hunger or neglect, when a family loses their home to a financial chicanery of a criminal bank or when the last poacher kills the last rhino we should know that there is always another child in need, another family in danger and another species edging towards extinction.

Never give up.

Never give up.

Never give up.


  1. The Golden (and Silver) Rule implicitly requires punishment, and when punishment such as shunning is incorporated, the Rule works well. We (and other species) exhibit this Rule without needing instruction.

    The other things it implicitly requires are a general agreement about good and bad things, and rational behavior. Wanting to be treated like a hostile vampire, with no context, is not rational. And the Rule doesn't apply to a predator-prey or parasite-host relationship, because the predator or parasite would always die by refusing to act, and the prey or host might try to sacrifice itself. It's meant to be applied to cooperating members of similar groups, not hostile vampires and humans.

    Regarding "never give up", the argument you started with works against you. "Never give up" is not really the message I would send to groups as varied as serial killers, workaholics, frauds, and oil companies.

    Regarding Game Theory, the Golden Rule is highly effective:

    1. I think the fact that the Golden Rule implicitly requires such things as punishment, general agreement about what is and isn't moral and a commitment to rationality shows why it is insufficient. These are the "qualifiers and contexts" that "make the Golden Rule truly useful" as I said above.

      "Never give up" actually suffers from all the same deficiencies. As I pointed out above, "Instead of looking for simple answers to complex questions and problems, we should acknowledge that the real world is full of subtlety and compromise."

      Both "Never give up" and "Do unto others" are lacking when used as a message to "serial killers, workaholics, frauds, and oil companies."

      So I agree. The argument I started with works against my contention that "Never give up" is a better rule, but as I hoped I showed, simple rules carry powerful emotional resonance and little day-to-day utility. But sometimes emotional resonance is what one needs to move forward, and "Never give up" motivates me more than "Do unto others."

  2. Felix Adler, founder of humanist Ethical Culture, had a great one liner: "Always act so as to elicit the best in others, and thereby yourself."

  3. I really like Adler. I also appreciate "Deed before creed."