Is There A Perfect Ethical Principle?

Is There A Perfect Ethical Principle? July 8, 2012

As a Christian, I seek to live by the Golden Rule. SMBC has a cartoon which calls into question whether even that principle represents a perfect ethical law (HT Hemant Mehta):

I doubt (although feel free not to correct me) that anyone actually has the fetish mentioned in the cartoon. But I can well imagine someone objecting to the attempt to provide equal access to healthcare, for instance, by saying that they genuinely do not think they or anyone else should get healthcare without being charged large sums of money for it when they do so. It isn’t clear how one could counter their objection on the basis of the Golden Rule.


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  • Dan

    Fairly sure there is a pretty bold line between doing unto others… and doing for others.

    Jesus preached charity, not forced charity.

    • What do you mean by “forced charity”? Is that like when you pay for garbage collection even though others throw out more than you do?

      It seems to me that, on the one hand, in a dictatorship, if there is genuinely forced “charity” then, as Paul said in just such a context, we pay our taxes. On the other hand, if we are in a democracy, then we should vote to see the money of all citizens used to address systemic inequities and injustices that are more effectively addressed through such means than by individuals.

      • Straw Man

        “Forced charity” is a contradiction in terms: if I force you to feed the hungry against your will, then you have in no way acted charitably, because it was not voluntary; but I have in no way acted charitably, because I gave not what was mine, but what was yours–and that by means of compulsion.

        I would ask the question a bit differently than Dan did. You would like to be fed if you were hungry; therefore, the golden rule teaches that you should feed the hungry. So far so good. Does the golden rule teach you to compel others to do so, however? Do you wish it done unto you that, having given what you feel you can afford, for others to decide that you have not given to THEIR satisfaction, and to compel you to give more upon pain of imprisonment?

        More generally, would you desire that others enforce their conception of the golden rule upon you, upon pain of imprisonment? Or would you prefer to be granted the liberty of your conscience–even if your conscience is an imperfect guide, and others’ conception of the golden rule is superior to yours? Would you prefer that they respond with persuasion, or with a mandate enforced with threat of imprisonment?

        • The question seems to me to be an odd one to ask in the context of a democratic society. We all probably pay for something that we personally do not support, but which the majority of people in our country do – whether wars or healthcare or something else. Do you disagree in principle with such taxation? Perhaps we should have an entire society based on charity rather than taxation, with each person giving as they see fit, to support only those endeavors they agree with? I don’t think it would work, but it seems to be where your rhetoric might lead if taken at face value.

          • Straw Man

            But is “democratic society” consistent with the golden rule? A democratic society once democratically appointed a dictator, AND democratically passed genocidal laws. You appear to be arguing that one has no business dissenting from a democratic decision.

            I’m sure you’ll reply that “obviously” one may dissent from a democratically decreed genocide–but if so, then you have opened the door to dissent from other objectionable legislation.

            Relatedly, you seem to be assuming the standard “social contract” theory, that I have somehow agreed to be bound by the decision of the majority. How and when did I agree to this? If I did not, then being bound by the majority is itself something that was imposed on me by force. The standard reply is that I decided to be bound by the majority when I decided not to leave the country and go live in Russia or somewhere. But this is just another way of stating the ultimatum that I must submit or become an exile. When did I agree to be bound by such an ultimatum? It was also imposed on me by force.

            (Note: please don’t deduce from this things that I never said. It is possible for a society to be neither authoritarian nor lawless. Everyone preying on everyone is NOT a logical consequence of anything I have said.)

          • I think that most of us would prefer to have a say in how we are governed than not to. I appreciate very much your point that the Golden Rule is mainly about empathy and not about justifying sadomasichism. 🙂

            As for the question of when those of us born into a particular society embraced its values, it is a good one, but I am not sure that it can or should lead to us doing things differently. Perhaps we could take a Baptist approach, and expect everyone at some point in their mature life to decide for themselves to embrace how our society works. Perhaps it should only be at that age that one can vote and benefit from society’s structures, rather than at a single specific and arbitrary age? But to be honest, even as a Baptist myself, I am not sure that would necessarily be an improvement on the way we curreently do things.

  • CorpuscleSchism
  • I think the problem is that while the Golden Rule provides an excellent guide for the individual in dealing with other individuals, good public policy involves various combinations of individuals and groups.

    I would note that one of the things that drove England to adopt government healthcare was national defense rather than some notion of “doing unto” its citizens. During World War I, the military was greatly hindered by the health problems of potential recruits and the government decided that improving the health of its citizens was vital to the well being of the nation.

    I favor equal access to health care on moral and ethical grounds, but I think that there are political and economic justifications as well.

  • Straw Man

    I’ve made cracks very similar to the one in the comic, precisely to illustrate the point that Jesus was not speaking the language of mathematics OR law. He was speaking English. Interpreted literally, the Golden Rule teaches that a masochist who
    loves to be raped, should therefore beat and rape people. But it’s
    obvious that Jesus never intended it to be applied that way. Rather, he
    intended it to mean that we should treat others as THEY wish to be
    treated, guided by empathy. (Even this is an imprecise statement; since he did not intend us to conclude that we should beat and rape said masochist simply because he enjoys it.)

    The devil is indeed in the details, however. The case of the masochist is obvious, but more ambiguous cases can easily be multiplied. When I speak on the subject, I conclude that the Golden Rule should be called the Golden Rule of Thumb–but nevertheless, it’s an astonishingly good rule of thumb. Many “ambiguous” cases are not ambiguous at all, but boil down to a lack of empathy. Common examples involve cultural norms, for example. In a culture where compliments are taboo, I’ll get into trouble complimenting people–but the Golden Rule applies on the meta level as well. I would like a foreigner to treat me with sensitivity to my culture, so I must do the same.

    Your example of health care is easily disposed of: you may believe that medical care is somehow evil; but that implies only that I shouldn’t give you medical care. It implies nothing about whether I give someone else medical care. As for whether I should compel you to pay for my medical care, the question is whether I would want someone else to impose his morality on me by force–even supposing that his morality is better than mine.

    • jjramsey

      @Straw Man: Actually, Jesus wasn’t speaking English, but Aramaic.

      • Oh my goodness! I am not sure whether I am more astonished that Straw Mam wrote that, or that my brain somehow failed to register the statement and its utter wrongness…

  • Michael Wilson

    The sort of objections raised by the cartoon are easily dismissable because it assumes that you wouldn’t wnat people to take your own prefrences into account. If you really think every body wants to be surprised by a sex maniac dressed as a whale then you should do that if you want to make everyone happy.

  • ScottBailey

    “Ted” Theodore Logan, and Bill S. Preston, Esquire,aka “Wyld Stallyns” like to say “Be excellent to each other.”

    It’s a line from a movie, so, you know, it’s probably perfect!

  • Carl W. Conrad

    I think that George Bernard Shaw said it most succinctly, perhaps in the appendix (“maxims for revolutionaries’) of “Man and Superman”: “Do not do unto others as you would have them do unto you, because tastes differ.”