When the Golden Rule Goes Wrong

In Dutch philosopher Floris Van Den Berg‘s new book Philosophy for a Better World (Prometheus Books, 2013), he “charges individuals to reimagine society from the position of one at the political and ethical control board.” In other words, it’s full of a lot of interesting thought experiments that involve you putting yourself in the shoes of others (including animals in a fascinating section on vegetarianism/veganism).

In the excerpt below, reprinted with permission of the publishers, Van Den Berg discusses “A New Golden Rule.” (Keep reading afterwards for your chance to win a copy of the book!)

In a number of religions the idea of the golden rule is an important ethical principle. This rule is: “Don’t do to others what you would not have them do to you.” So if you don’t want other people to steal from you, you yourself shouldn’t steal from others.

It is interesting to note that the golden rule, in the Christian version as in others, does not refer to a god. The golden rule puts the individual at the center. The subject, the central and fixed point of ethical action, is put into another person’s shoes. The golden rule is a subjectivist ethical theory. Very different from that other ethical theory that is central in the Abrahamic religions: the divine command theory in which God commands Abraham to sacrifice his oldest son Isaac:

And he said, “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains that I will show you.” So Abraham rose early in the morning, saddled his donkey, and took two of his young men with him, and his son Isaac; he cut the wood for the burnt offering, and set out and went to the place in the distance that God had shown him…

Then Abraham reached out his hand and took the knife to kill his son. But the angel of the LORD called to him from heaven, and said, “Abraham, Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.” He said, “Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him; for now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me.”

At the moment that Abraham is about to kill his own son as a sacrifice, an angel comes between them to restrain Abraham. Instead of his son he is allowed to sacrifice a ram that god has supplied. If we apply the golden rule to Abraham’s action, we get this: “Don’t do to others what you would not have them do to you.” Suppose that the roles had been reversed and that Isaac would have to sacrifice Abraham, would Abraham have wanted this? It could be that Abraham would have had the kind of slave mentality that would have caused him to say: “If God asks my son to sacrifice me then I want it, too.” Although it is possible that people exist who have this extreme sadomasochistic tendency, the vast majority of people will not want to be sacrificed to a god.

The golden rule appears in Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and Confucianism. Well may you ask yourself why there is nevertheless so much discord in the world. The golden rule has a positive (GR+) and negative (GR–) version. The negative version is best. An example of the positive version is: I would like the people I meet to massage my neck and shoulders. So, my wish would be for all people, when they meet, to massage each other’s necks and shoulders. That is great so long as everyone likes it, but it becomes problematic when someone doesn’t like it. In Japan it is actually quite common for colleagues to massage each other’s necks, shoulders, and even hands. The positive version states: “Do to others what you would have others do to you.” Even more problematic examples can be imagined. Suppose a man says: “I want to have sex with every attractive woman I meet,” and he tries to have sex with attractive women. This fellow will be guilty of harassment if not outright rape. This is because he does not respect the wishes of others, and perhaps he cannot imagine that a woman may not want to have sex with men she doesn’t know. Applying the positive version of the golden rule means imposing your own will, wishes, and preferences on others. That is coercion.

A great many cultures and traditions take their departure from this positive formulation but apply it by the group against the individual: “We consider homosexuality to be depraved, so you’re not allowed to be gay.” Or: “We, your parents, consider religion to be very important, so you, our child, have to observe the rules of our faith.”

So, although the principle of the golden rule, including the negative version (i.e., the ethically sound version), has been known for centuries and even millennia in various cultures, the positive or paternalistic form often dominates. As well, the golden rule is generally applied to one’s own group and is not valid for outsiders. Believers are often not especially kind to those of other faiths or to nonbelievers, or to those who fall outside the prescribed pattern, such as homosexuals.

Yes, the story of the Good Samaritan, who is prepared to help a stranger in need, does indeed appear in the Bible. It is remarkable that this parable plays an important role in Christian ethics, because the Samaritan is not a Christian. A non-Christian thus serves as the preeminent example of Christian morality.

Not until the liberal tradition, beginning with the Enlightenment of the eighteenth century, and more particularly in the nineteenth century in the work of the philosopher John Stuart Mill (1806–1873), is the individual placed at the center, above the group. A morality that is not individualistic can easily repress individuals. Individualism is a necessary condition for true morality: it ought to proceed from the individual. Morality has to do with how people can live together in the best possible way. In the liberal tradition, in which the point of departure is individual freedom, morality means looking for rules that guarantee that all individuals who live together, or have to get along with each other, possess the largest possible measure of freedom. Some rules are essential given the logic of the situation: as I said, everyone needs to drive on a previously determined side of the road. This “denial of freedom,” namely, requiring all drivers to use the left or the right side, guarantees the freedom of all individuals. But a rule like “red automobiles are prohibited,” or “everyone must drive a Buick” unnecessarily limits that freedom. The first kind of rule, about which side to drive on, is an ethically relevant rule, just as rules and regulations about traffic safety are ethically relevant. The second kind of rule, about color and make of automobile, has no ethical relevance and is therefore unethical. Suppose I dislike red cars or have a financial stake in General Motors, do these reasons entitle me to force such rules on everyone? Yet that is what happens often, in fact too often. There are people who object to nudity, often basing this on religious grounds, and so there many countries that censure cultural expressions such as film and the visual arts with that objection in mind. The liberal position is totally different: as long as others are not interfered with in their freedom, everything is permitted, even things you yourself may not consider agreeable.

A Virtual Museum of Offending Arts and Censorship that illustrates this problem particularly clearly has been in existence since 2008. Displayed in this virtual museum are works of art that have met two criteria: (1) they have given rise to controversy because people have been angered by them or have felt wounded or insulted; (2) there have been demands that they be censored. The offended often call for censorship and, ever more often, they are being listened to. But not everyone needs to think that a piece of art is beautiful or pleasant. Art may be wounding, insulting, or ugly, as long as people have the freedom not to be confronted with it excessively. Museums are open to people who choose to enter them, and as a visitor to a museum you run the risk of being confronted with something you would rather not have seen. In public spaces the issue is a bit more difficult. An enormous poster of a woman in a sexy bikini was displayed in Utrecht’s city center a while ago. Some people, the members of a Christian student group in Utrecht, for example, found this offensive. It was difficult if not impossible to walk through the center of Utrecht without seeing the poster. You could just walk past it and shrug your shoulders, but some people got genuinely angry and did not wish to see such an “indecent” image, at least not in a public space. Are there limits to what may be shown in public? If it had been a really pornographic image, the protests would have been much stronger. In fact, the city would not have granted permission to display the poster. All the same, a right-thinking liberal would have said: so what? If you don’t like it, just look the other way. Yet there is a degree of consensus about what is and is not permitted. In much of the “Western world,” the opinions of religious people tend to deviate from what the majority considers acceptable.

Some liberals are of the opinion that just about anything should be tolerated in a public space. The only limit is that there must be no incitement to or threat of violence. That is absolutely not allowed. If this conception were to dominate, it would mean that in public spaces, on the streets, for example, you could be confronted with all kinds of images that you might find ugly, revolting, or offensive. As well, people might be able to do things in public that you would rather not see, public sexual intercourse, for instance. Most people, including a large number of liberals, would, after consulting each other, want to put some constraints on freedom of expression — but as little as possible.

One big difference of opinion has to do with places where gays can connect with each other. Religious people often consider these people to be depraved and are of the opinion that the authorities should prohibit them from interacting. Liberals are generally of the view that these persons should be able to decide for themselves if they want to have sex with each other in public places, but that the activity should not cause a nuisance to third parties. For example, it is inappropriate for such an area to be placed close to a children’s playground in a public park. Moralists who want to impose their personal views on others, often because of religious conviction, would just as soon limit the freedom of individuals. Liberals would like to expand that freedom as much as possible. In practice attempts are made to create facilities for as great a variety of people as possible, including minorities. In many countries there is a subculture of nudists. In the Netherlands the authorities have set aside areas for nudist recreation on many of the North Sea beaches. In this way people who have an aversion to nakedness are not confronted with it, and people who enjoy walking around in the altogether have the opportunity to do so. The degree to which public provision is made for naturists is, in fact, a simple indicator of the degree to which a country is liberal and feels strongly about promoting individual freedom. The same applies to women’s topless sunbathing. In many countries this is subject to social taboos or even legal prohibition. Liberals say: it’s up to women themselves to decide whether or not they want to wear a bikini top.

A large measure of individual freedom requires citizens to be able to deal with the freedom of others. People with a cultural background that pays little respect to individual freedom may sometimes have problems with the freedom of others. A distressing example is provided by physical attacks on gays by those — in the Netherlands they are often Moroccan youths — who disapprove of homosexuality. You’re free to dislike homosexuality and you’re free to state your opinion publicly, so long as you do not incite others to violence, but you’re not free to molest gays. Another example is the verbal abuse directed by Moroccan youths in the Netherlands against topless sunbathing women. In this way they seek to restrict the freedom of women to determine for themselves how they want to sunbathe.

Philosophy for a Better World is now available online and in bookstores.

If you’d like to win a copy of the book, leave a comment and give us an example of how the Golden Rule could go wrong! Just leave the hashtag #GoldenFail at the end of your comment and I’ll contact one random winner next week!

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.


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