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What do we do with the Golden Rule?

By ZACK LOSEY
Contributing Writer

As I’m no doubt writing to a generally conservative, Christian audience I’d like to start with a disclaimer—I mean no offense. That said, what I’m about to say is potentially offensive. People derive their moral code from many sources: moral philosophy, personal experience or contemplation, religion, etc. Deciding on whether things like revenge, lying, cheating or violence are appropriate are is not a clear-cut decision. Some would say that such behavior is never acceptable, while others would contend that there are often circumstances in which it is in fact appropriate to engage in those actions. In the West, one moral guideline has been dominant: the Golden Rule. Many trace its roots back to Jesus, who does in fact state in Matthew 7:12, “So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets” (NIV), though he is not the first to propose such a guideline. Quite often this simple rule is heralded as the epitome of moral goodness, particularly among Christians. Now bear with me, but I can’t help but notice that there are several problems with the Golden Rule.

One of the most obvious problems is that it is virtually impossible for someone to actually adhere to it. No one abides by it and it is simply human nature to self-preserve. “Turning the other cheek” isn’t a realistic expectation. If one were to be confronted with a merciless enemy, following the Golden Rule is essentially guaranteeing endless suffering. So firstly, it is simply unrealistic to try to live one’s life by this rule. The Golden Rule also doesn’t account for human differences—not everyone wishes to be treated in the same manner. If I were to treat everyone around me how I would like to be treated then I’m elevating my idea of what is good and right above anyone else’s; it’s narcissistic. Basically, it is saying that if I like being treated a certain way, everyone should. This is simply not true and ignores diversity among the human race. If I’m outgoing I may prefer people to give me attention, but a shy person may not appreciate that. A more extreme example can be shown in the case of masochism. Should someone who enjoys having pain inflicted upon them do so to those around them? Of course not! Simply treating everyone else how you want to be treated does not work. Confucius makes a good point when he says that if you repay evil with kindness, then with what shall you repay kindness? His variation of the Golden Rule (introduced several centuries before Jesus’ birth) is perhaps more comprehensive: “Do not impose on others what you do not wish for yourself.”

It can also be stated as “do not do unto others what you would not have them do unto you,” also known as the Silver Rule. Modern exemplars of this rule include Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr., who taught their followers not to repay violence with violence, but rather to fight injustice and oppression through nonviolent noncompliance. Through obedience to the Silver Rule, an adherent would attempt to simply eliminate negative actions and behavior, which are typically much more agreed upon than what is “good” or “the right thing.” The Silver Rule does not encompass the secret to any sort of absolute, objective morality—it has holes as well. However, as far as I have been able to analyze and contemplate on these guidelines (which I’ll admit is not nearly enough for me to be called an “expert” in such matters), abiding by the Silver Rule may be both more plausible and practical.