A Flaw in the Golden Rule

(via Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal)

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the editor of Friendly Atheist, appears on the Atheist Voice channel on YouTube, and co-hosts the uniquely-named Friendly Atheist Podcast. You can read much more about him here.

  • Bob

    A sadist is nothing more than a masochist who follows the golden rule” ― Thomas W. Cathcart.

  • Stev84

    Another reason why the Platinum Rule is superior. The Golden Rule is good general guideline, but you can’t apply it universally

    • http://squeakysoapbox.com/ Rich Wilson

      “Do unto others 20% better than you would expect them to do unto you, to correct for subjective error.” 
      ― Linus Pauling
      ?

      • Stev84

        Treat others as they would like to be treated

        • http://dogmabytes.com/ C Peterson

          That’s great when it works, but it assumes you can figure out how others want to be treated. That’s a big assumption.

          The beauty of the negative form of the Golden Rule is in its reciprocity. We need make few assumptions about how other people think, or what they might or might not want. There’s a very good chance that simply not doing anything to them that we would ourselves find unpleasant will result in, if not the best, at least a highly acceptable outcome for all parties.

          • Stev84

            But if you can figure it out, it’s better. Knowing what others want is better than just guessing.

            All of the different versions have their weaknesses. The negative version (sometimes called Silver Rule) isn’t universally applicable either, as it doesn’t even cover all of your possible actions. It only prevents you from doing harm.

            • renegadeoboe

              I agree! The Golden Rule always struck me as having a pretty self-centred view of the universe. An “if I want this or do not want this, everyone else is going to feel the same way” idea that is pretty blatantly wrong. “Do unto others as they would have you do to them” with perhaps a caveat of “if you can” and without breaking the rule from the perspective of the other party (taking part in something you don’t want done to you) seems to me to be a better rule?

              And as to how others should be treated: that’s why we have developed communication and empathy. It’s sheer laziness that religions use an ancient set of rules to discern how to treat other people than asking those other people how they’d like to be treated.

            • http://dogmabytes.com/ C Peterson

              There is a LOT to be said for doing no harm!

          • Edmond

            There’s something to be said for ASKING a person how they want to be treated.  It gives you a definitive basis on how to behave, and hey, it starts two people getting to know each other!  Always a plus.

            The trouble with the “negative form” is that it only instructs on how NOT to act.  Well, a hermit living in a mountain cave can live up to that, but it doesn’t provide him with any guidance on how to ACTUALLY interact with others.  You can avoid people entirely and do no harm.  But harm is always a risk in interpersonal interactions.  Avoidance only limits those interactions, and I always felt that the purpose of the Golden Rule was to strengthen people’s interpersonal relationships, not limit them.  There’s more to be gained from a guide on how TO behave, rather than from a guide on how NOT to behave.  “Keep your mouth shut and stay away from people at all times” would work to avoid harm, but it doesn’t advance the goal of bringing people together.

            • http://dogmabytes.com/ C Peterson

              Personally, I’d like the majority of people I casually encounter to largely ignore me- just as I ignore them. I don’t need to be continually assaulted by strangers asking me how I’d like to be treated- that’s no better than being assaulted by proselytizers who don’t ask that question!

              Realistically, we only interact meaningfully with a fraction of the people we encounter, and I agree with others here that how we choose to treat them is best derived from our actual knowledge of them. Outside of that, however, the negative form of the Golden Rule provides a very useful guide to interaction with everybody else.

        • http://www.themonthebard.org/ Themon the Bard

          Someone recently said, “I will strive to see you as you wish to be seen.”

          One of the others immediately said, “I wish to be seen as the Dark Fairy Lord.”

          Someone else said, “Me, too! Me, too!”

          The first said, “Stand down, bitches. There can be only one Dark Fairy Lord.”

          And then there was much smiting and hollering.

  • http://dogmabytes.com/ C Peterson

    The pre-Christian form of the Golden Rule largely gets around this problem. Do not do unto others what you would not have them do unto you.

    • Rabid

      That doesn’t get around it at all. If you want men dressed as anatomically porpoises to surprise you at night you’d have no problem, as per the rule, of doing it to others even if it’s not something they want. It’s exactly the same problem.

      • Rabid

        I accidentally a word.

        *anatomically correct

  • Tony Sarjeant

    A better rule is to minimise the harm done to others.

  • http://www.facebook.com/don.gwinn Don Gwinn

    Do unto others as you would have them do unto you, but when in doubt, use your words like a big boy and ask others how they wish to be treated.

  • Bill Godfrey

    Just add “within reason”. 

  • newavocation

    Help those in need today, you maybe the one in need tomorrow.

  • dangeroustalk

    Sure there is. “Don’t do unto others what they would not have you do unto them.”

    • Rabid

      Then you get into trouble with stuff like violence in self-defence and necessary medical treatment that a patient refuses to give consent for. Ethics is never that simple, the golden rule and any of it’s derivatives are just common sense rules of thumb.

  • MG

    The flaw in the golden rule is the same as the flaw in any human law–the humans.

    • http://www.facebook.com/AnonymousBoy Larry Meredith

      It’s simple. We have to kill the humans.

      • Edmond

        Hey baby, wanna kill all humans?

  • GoldenRuleTheWorld

    Thank you for bringing this well known objection to the Golden Rule up for discussion. I’ve enjoyed reading the comments below and would add that the picture is quite humorous and provides a very clear description of this criticism.

    When critics of the Golden Rule invoke the potential for abuse, such as imposition of values, or misguided altruism, they risk throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

    For the most part, proponents of the Golden Rule are simply asking for people, groups & nations to consider the impact of their actions on others, and to turn the mirror on themselves to ask “how would we feel if someone did this to us?”, before making decisions that will effect others.

    On the surface, the Golden Rule may appear to be selfish… “I’m going to treat this person this way because that is how (I) want to be treated.” or “I won’t treat this person this way because that is not how (I) want to be treated.”

    But the Golden Rule is actually just a practice used to develop empathy (the ability to understand another’s feelings or problems) and compassion (awareness of another’s suffering and the willingness to relieve it).

    “Consider others as yourself.” -Buddha
    Is this selfish? Sounds more like empathy.

    “Love your neighbor as yourself.” -Jesus
    Again, not so selfish. This is compassion.

    On our website, Golden Rule The World, we ask people from all backgrounds to imagine a world where everyone treated each other with the same respect, dignity & kindness they would want for themselves or their loved ones.

    For some, it’s hard to imagine. But we’d like to change that.

    http://GoldenRuleTheWorld.org
    http://www.facebook.com/GoldenRuleTheWorld

  • Drew M.

    Bill and Ted nailed it:

    “Be excellent to each other.”

    • Drew M.

       And party on, dude!

  • http://www.facebook.com/AnonymousBoy Larry Meredith

    Do unto others as you would have them do unto you… said the rapist
    - Bo Burnham

  • Blanc_Slate

    It doesn’t necessarily follow that because there’s a hole in the golden rule, therefore there is no such thing as a perfect ethical law. How about ‘treating others as they would like to be treated.’


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