Ethics and Empathy

Ethics and Empathy September 18, 2015

The purpose of the Golden Rule Steve Douglas

The quote comes from the post “How Golden is the Golden Rule?” on Steve Douglas’ blog Undeception. As was pointed out in discussion here previously, a rigidly literalistic adherence to the Golden Rule might lead one to inflict one’s own preferences and desires on others. But clearly the point of the Golden Rule is about empathy.

Do you agree that it is a hallmark of the teaching of Jesus, and thus should be a hallmark of the Christian faith?

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  • Phil Ledgerwood

    As a person still struggling and growing into empathy, I’d say definitely yes, and if that principle is removed, we end up with some unlikely interpretations of Jesus.

    For instance, when Jesus says, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” he doesn’t mean to treat your neighbor badly if you don’t love yourself, nor is it in the first place an exhortation to love yourself. It is, rather, a call to radical identification with people you’d otherwise have no reason to identify with.

  • The Golden Rule does not seem to undergird this somewhat darker reciprocal statement from Matthew 10:32-33:

    32 Everyone therefore who acknowledges me before others, I also will acknowledge before my Father in heaven; 33 but whoever denies me before others, I also will deny before my Father in heaven.

    This sounds a bit more like “an eye for an eye”.

    • Phil Ledgerwood

      Although Jesus does exactly the opposite with Peter. I think Matthew is just looking for a fight.

      • Gary

        Matt 10,11,12…

        5These twelve Jesus sent forth, and charged them, saying, Go not

        2Now when John heard in the prison the works of the Christ, he sent by his disciples 3and said unto him

        12 At that season Jesus went on the sabbath day through the grainfields; and his disciples were hungry and began to pluck ears and to eat.

        It seems to me rather strange that these sections are cobbled together. Almost sounds like the author of Matthew read Acts and the great commission, although Acts was written after Matthew.

        1st, Jesus tells disciples to go spread the word throughout Israel.

        2nd, reference to John in prison, so it is early in Jesus’s mission.

        3rd, Jesus and the disciples seem to always hang out together, not really going out independently to spread the word.

        So I highly doubt most of this as being historical, but after the fact. Author of Matthew can’t have it both ways. Independent disciples spreading the word, and dependent disciples, hanging out with Jesus all the time. Unless I am missing something.

        • Gary

          Looking at my NRSV commentary, this is part of what is referred to as “the second mission discourse”. That, combined with Bart Ehrman’s book on How Jesus Became God, with the whole “son of God”, “son of man” thing, it appears to me this was more likely a political statement by the author of Matthew, than an actual statement by Jesus.

    • Michael Wilson

      I agree to a degree. I have thought that at times Christianity is harsh on the cowardly, but hey, maybe cowards are as lousy as the abusive. I feel this was invented by someone to discourage Christians from recanting under pressure, not from Jesus himself. But if I was aspiring to be a moral person, and I threw somebody under the bus, would I be truly moral if I thought I should just be forgiven?

      • I don’t see denying Jesus (or denying his divinity, authority, etc.) as morally equivalent to throwing somebody under a bus. This (along with NT warnings of hell) appear to me as scare tactics designed to keep Christians from leaving their faith.

        I suppose that for Christians, Muslims, and some other religions, apostasy is a moral failing. I think it’s pretty clear that the “sin” of apostasy evolved as a threat to keep religions viable, by frightening the faithful.

        • Michael Wilson

          Throwing under a bus is an idiom, not literal. If some one asked if I was cool with you and I said no to make them happy, I would not expect you to do me any favors.

          I don’t think the sin of apostasy evolved to keep people In line. At the initiation of these religions denying the messenger and the message put you on the wrong side of a movement and the message of these religions is that this calling saves, betraying it does not. It seems harsh to me, but maybe I’m not cut out for it.

          • Hi Michael

            Yes, I’m familiar with the idiom of throwing someone under a bus. My use of the idiom was no more literal than yours. It generally refers to sacrificing a friend or ally for selfish reasons. And, as I said, I don’t see apostasy as even remotely morally equivalent to such an action.

        • Michael Wilson

          But still I think my point on empathy and golden rule stand, that is it doesn’t rule out eye for an eye. Just because I know harming others makes someone feel better doesn’t mean I’m obligated to let them find their joy. They don’t beleive in the golden rule but if I do, I would want someone to punish me if I harmed them. The perspective of a villain is not to be my standard

          • I’m not sure what point you’re trying to make. Are you saying that the Golden Rule doesn’t rule out justice? If so, I doubt there are many who would disagree. I think the best forms of justice are those that serve to reform: reforming individuals at best, reforming society at the least. When a criminal is reformed, then one can argue that we have served the criminal’s best interest as well as society’s.

            Depending upon what scriptures are traceable to the original man, Jesus may not have thought much of an “eye for an eye” as a form of justice. Matthew 5:38-48 certainly seems to indicate a different approach.

          • Michael

            Tracing this conversation from your concern for punishment here to Jesus denying apostates before God:

            Are you arguing that the Golden Rule does not rule out the justice of Hell – eternal punishment?

          • Michael Wilson

            That’s a tricky question. I’m inclined to find the idea of eternal punishment unjust since it deprives one of the chance to rehabilitate. But, I think a good case is to be made that what many people in ancient Judaism, including Christians, describe as Hell is the annihilation of a being. In which case repentance is moot as their is no one to repent, and punishment is in a sense not eternal, as you no longer suffer since you don’t exist. In that case it still seems arbitrary that one’s eternal fate is determined by your mind set at death. Really there are a lot variables one could ponder on a hypothetical purely speculative contemplation of the judgement to come.

            In the context of Matthew’s thought process I think he would believe that those that deny Jesus lack the genuine conviction that Jesus is Christ and his teachings true. Of course Peter denied Jesus to, and made his way back to the fold, so I suspect some hyperbole is contained in the expression. Nevertheless it is repeatedly stressed that only absolute dedication to Jesus is acceptable, but then this is tempered with the availability of endless mercy for the contrite. The net effect I think is to keep one constantly striving, since the one who thinks their good enough certainly is not, but the one that doubts can be assured they will be forgiven. Somewhat of a paradox.

            Regarding Jesus, God, and an eye for an eye, I think Matthew’s teaching that the wicked can follow Jesus and be spared shows that he doesn’t think God observes eye for an eye justice eithier, since any one spared will not be divinely punished for their transgressions. That God does destroy those that reject Jesus doesn’t counter that, since in Matthew’s reasoning, no body that really repents their wickedness would reject Jesus. Clearly we can argue otherwise, but that’s another issue. Forgiving people that don’t repent, for God to not resist evil, would in fact mean that God is not good. If God isn’t good, then we really have no obligation to be good eithier. You can try and impose your own good will, but the universe would have other plans. The call to turn the other cheek and not resist evil is dependent on the notion that there are forces beyond our will that can judge and can avenge and we are to submit to them and not assume for our selves the right to judge and avenge sin.

          • Well, I’m glad that you’re inclined to find the idea of eternal punishment unjust, because I find the idea contemptible.

            But I rather think it’s a sad view of goodness that makes it dependent on judgement and vengeance. In some instances (certainly not all), the threat of punishment might curb bad behavior. But there are far better reasons to practice kindness to others that the threat of a vengeful god.

            Maybe you consider your obligation to be good as a obligation to God. I certainly don’t. I consider it an obligation to my fellow humans. And the motivation for this obligation does not come from an archaic threat of vengeance. The greatest joys in life are achieved in relationship with others; that’s the motivation for goodness.

          • Michael Wilson

            Beau, do you believe then that all beings are happier being good than indulging evil? I’m entirely sure myself, or that the wicked would agree with you. But if this is true, then life punishes the evil and rewards the good. And if I identify the cause of existence as a god, then you agree with me in part, THAT god punishes the wicked and rewards the good, its part of the set up for reality. Now, I’m open to the idea that reality ultimately offers no favors to the righteous and all will be erased eventually. If this were proven to me, I probably wouldn’t change my behavior, because I’m the sort of person that feels guilty when I do the wrong thing. But my judgement of some one that doesn’t feel the same way would carry no real meaning. If you find happiness doing wring, who am I to say your feeling of happiness is not worthy like mine? Sure I can feel justified in persecuting you, but I am really just justifying my selfishness, I deprive you of the happiness of exploiting me and others because your actions make me feel bad. If I let you do what you will and I feel bad about your actions, then what is all this talk about goodness bringing joy? If I am happy letting you exercise your will, then I’m saying anyone who doesn’t like being exploited is selfish and less noble than I.
            But, if evil invariably, (or probably*) brings unhappiness then opposition to evil is love for the evil person too.
            *if we all end at death, we could say all get the same reward in the end, so all are freed from the burden of sin. Still we want to be happy now, and if being good is a more sure route to happiness than evil, even if a evil man prospers only a fool would gamble on the lesser chance of reward from evil than the surer result of reward from good.

          • I do, actually, believe that beings tend to be happier when they are actively kind to each other. If that’s what you mean by “being good”, then yes. It’s not that we can’t experience small joys in solitude – the taste of ice cream, reading a delightful book, etc. But I do think that humans are social creatures, and take their greatest joys in relationships. There are a few exceptions. Some sociopaths seem unable to empathize with other humans; but that is surely an anomaly; and I would argue that sociopaths are sadly cut-off from the joys that other humans experience in empathetic relationships.

            Though kindness tends to reward humans with happiness, there is still much that “life” can do to bring us pain that is out of our control – disease, hunger, depression, the death of loved ones. So I do not find it true that “life punishes the evil and rewards the good”. A friend of mine, one of the kindest men I ever knew, died young in a painful, lingering death from pancreatic cancer. I am hopeful that the shared love of his friends and family brought him moments of respite; but I would never simplistically say that “life rewards the good”.

            I seriously doubt that anyone can “find happiness doing wrong” in any meaningful sense. Especially if, by “doing wrong”, you mean doing harm to others. Certainly, people do often find momentary pleasures in “doing wrong” (and there are the anomalous sadists, psychologically damaged like sociopaths), but I am unconvinced that anyone ever becomes happy by harming others.

            I’ve often heard it argued that if Hitler had won WWII, our morality would be different. We would find it acceptable to kill Jews and other social outcasts. I find that notion ridiculous. Hitler and those in the Third Reich who shared the guilt of the holocaust, attempted to rationalize their acts by categorizing Jews as less than human. Even in their twisted rationalizations, they knew that murder was wrong, and had to explain away their inhumanity by redefining humanity itself. But such rationalizations didn’t achieve the result of bringing happiness through wrong-doing. One can see this in the collective guilt experienced by Germans after the war; and more intimately in the faces of Germans who realized the extent of Third Reich cruelty too late. Americans who practiced slavery had to use similar rationalizations for their inhumanity, either by arguing that they were kind to slaves, or by arguing that slaves were less than human.

            You seem to imply in your comment that if we define goodness with the Golden Rule, one might do “good” by allowing someone else to do “evil”, if that evil brings them happiness. That is wrong on at least two levels. First, since wrong-doing entails harming others, one cannot serve the Golden Rule by allowing others to engage in wrong-doing. Second, I do not believe that wrong-doing (harming others) brings happiness at all – only momentary pleasure at best. Saying that one can serve someone’s happiness by letting someone do wrong, is like saying you can bring a drug addict happiness by giving him drugs; surely, we all have a more nuanced understanding of happiness than that!

            Despite the plethora of laughing, comic-book styled villains we see in film and television, I think that there are few people who actually enjoy thinking of themselves as “wicked”. Those that we think of as “wicked” have rationalized the harm they do to others in some way. The 9/11 terrorists had convinced themselves they were serving Allah and striking a blow against an evil nation. Street gangs have often convinced themselves that society (especially the police and other gangs) are determined to oppress them, and they are serving the members of their own in-group. Men who chronically abuse women, in their dark moments, usually harbor notions that women are inferior beings attempting to oppress men. I’m not saying that any of these people are “good at heart” or that their rationalizations are anything other than a thin veneer masking the truth of our common humanity. I am only saying that our struggle against “wickedness” is not a struggle against some invisible enemy (no pinning this on “Satan”). It is a struggle against ideologies and psychological states that dehumanize other people.

          • Michael Wilson

            I agree that we for the most part are geared to be happy when we live in a network of love and trust with those around us. Even the sociopaths tend to be depressed even when they can fulfill their whims, even though love and trust are beyond them. They are truly damned.

            On the good and suffering, I suppose the reward is peace of mind. We all suffer, but I think its better to suffer with peace of mind.

            I think lots of people find joy in doing evil to others. As you say, most people don’t think they are doing wrong and rationalize their actions. Ignorance can shield us from guilt to, but I suppose one that does evil believing they do good, isn’t really an evil person, just an evil actor. But I think human empathy tends to degrade as the connections decrease so that for many the harm imposed on strangers by way of their crime, their business, or ostracism do not impact much on the enjoyment of the spoils despite full knowledge that they were heels.

            I don’t think the golden rule can be interpreted to do evil to make someone else happy. Only that objectively the good and evil are both trying to make themselves happy at the others expense. Yes, I believe true altruism is insanity since it would require someone who does good not because they like to or expect reward, but just for the hell of it. I’ll take impure altruism. But if there is no long term consequence to evil or good I would advise one to not worry about who else is effected, just do what makes you happy. If being a saint makes you happy be a saint, if being a devil makes you happy be a devil. You may say this doesn’t make me a good person, and I accept that criticism, but I don’t feel their is ultimate merit in my goodness, I’m not sure I chose this way of being compationate, I don’t take pride in it, its just how I’m comfortable being, but I wouldn’t want to change that, it may matter after all.

          • I truly don’t believe that people find joy in hurting others. They might find momentary excitement, pleasure, etc. but I don’t think that meaningful joy or happiness is ever really achievable through the intentional harming of others. You are right that distance can decrease our sense of empathy, but the world has been getting steadily smaller and smaller for the last century. The media is creating a world in which we can feel the pain of children in sweatshops on the other side of the world. That is a good development.

            I don’t agree that true altruism is insanity. I think that our species takes joy in altruism. This is clearest in the parental relationship (we give so much of ourselves to our children without expecting anything in return), but those who expand their service to a larger world community can find similar joys.

            I have no idea what you mean when you say, “if there is no long term consequence to evil or good I would advise one to not worry about who else is effected, just do what makes you happy”. Long term consequence has nothing to do with it. Hurting others will damage one’s psyche and make true happiness harder to achieve regardless of whether you are ever “caught” or “punished” externally.

            It’s a pathetic version of morality that is determined by some imagined eternal judgement.

          • Michael Wilson

            Beau, I’m skeptical of the talk about meaningful joy and happiness. It seems hard to quantify. I have known people that hurt others for fun or to acheive a desired end and seem pretty happy and content. I can’t peer into their minds to see if their happiness is meaningfull. I have seen very decent people who are miserable. I think saying that no one finds joy hurting others is wishful thinking.

            On altruism, I perhaps have gone to far. I think the word would be best defined as doing good for no expectation of material gain. A person may do it because doing good makes them feel good or do it begrudgingly because they feel obligated to code that requires it and satisfaction is derived from believing they follow it. Of course doing it to avoid an external punishment wouldn’t count I suppose. Still though, the altruistic person belives they are getting a benefit of some sort along with the person aided.

            Again, I doubt that hurting others damages everyone’s psych to a greater degree than the reward the brute gets for their violence. Not just sadist, but people that think its ok to hood wink marks or use leverage to get an unfair deal.

            I think morality is determined by consequence, and if the end results are all the same, it make sense to stay away from selfish people, but I can hardly judge someone for following their bliss to my loss since I’m doing the same.

          • Well, Michael, I’m equally skeptical of your view that true joy or happiness are achievable through the intentional harming of others.

            In fact, I can state that more strongly. If you think that people can achieve true joy and happiness by harming others, then either you are full of baloney, or you have an extremely feeble and grotesque sense of what real happiness is.

            I do not, for one minute, accept the contention that morality is determined by consequence! Who believes such nonsense? The murderer that escapes is just as guilty as the one who is caught. Morality would be meaningless if we thought otherwise.

            And how pathetic for humanity if the only reason we served each other was to get a reward and escape punishment.

            I’m sorry, Michael, but I find your views of morality and human nature appalling.

          • Michael Wilson

            Beau, the concequence of murder is someone that wanted live had that right taken and those that loved the victim are made to suffer. Punishment may or may not occure.

            I think it is ironic that your basis for morality is entirely mystical and revelatory since you say you don’t believe in God. You have not experienced the life of another yet you feel comfortable asserting that those that don’t conform to your morality must be less happy than you. Is it because if someone did find joy in their wickedness it would take away your happiness from doing good?

          • Michael, there are psychological and relational consequences for murderers whether they are caught by society or not. Good Lord, you don’t even need psychological studies to tell you that (though they certainly will confirm it), just read any tragic literature written in the last 2500 years.

            I have no idea what you mean about my basis of morality. I don’t base my views of morality on mysticism or revelation. What on earth gave you that idea?

            What’s more bizarre to me is that a Christian would believe that happiness is to be found in wickedness. I’m sure that Christianity doesn’t teach this, and secular philosophies going back at least as far as the Nichomachean Ethics have postulated that virtuous behavior is a major factor in personal happiness. Modern psychological studies confirm the high degree of correlation between ethical behavior and happiness. You don’t have to “experience the life of another” to understand basic human nature. If you don’t trust your own experience, try reading a few experts on the subject.

          • Michael Wilson

            High correlation isn’t everyone. I can’t be sure that a Ghangis Khan or Tamerlane would trade place with a saint like you. Human nature is animal nature. We are nice to people around us but always tempted to cheat to get an advantage to survive. And out side the circle of friends, it is no holds barred and little remorse.

            I don’t know if I’m Christian, I like Jesus, but I like Confucious and Crowley to. I’m intellectually promiscuous. If I ever meet Jesus I’ll ask what he thinks.

            But Christinanity does maintain that the wicked find comfort in their crimes, but it is comfort that ends at the grave while the righteous will live on

          • Michael,

            Odd analogies about Ghengis Khan aside, you’re not making any sort of coherent argument here, and you simply choose to ignore what religious leaders and philosophers have said about ethical behavior for thousands of years, and what psychologists say today.

            Do people treat each other terribly at times? Of course they do. But your weird attempt to argue that they achieve happiness in doing so has no basis in reality.

            What biblical text claims that the wicked achieve happiness in doing evil?! Sorry, Michael, but I can’t even tell where you are getting such a notion. It’s neither a Christian claim, nor a secular claim. It’s certainly not a Confucian claim. It appears to be some strange notion of your own.

            Frankly, I don’t understand why anyone would argue that wickedness can bring happiness. Such an idea demeans and contradicts all that humans have been saying about happiness for thousands of years.

          • Michael Wilson

            please look up bullies and happiness. Studies suggest that bullies are among the happiest, least depressed, confident and popular people in school. The benefits follow throughout life. really, any example of a happy evil person disproves your belief that all evil people are unhappy. but maybe they don’t have your mystical real happiness. I’m not surprised all the philosophers say ethical living makes you happy, we want people to believe that, and if your a philosopher, you probably haven’t been doing well in the realm of exerting force over others. Nope, it isn’t the king that’s happiest, its us humble philosophers.

          • Michael, if you want people to take you seriously, you should actually cite the “studies” you are talking about. Let me help you:

            http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2014/05/140512-bullying-health-depression-stress-science/

            Read it. The study measures CRP levels, an indicator of reduced stress with connections to self esteem – not happiness; and the comparison is between bullies and their victims, not between bullies and the general population.

            Moreover, readers are cautioned against over interpreting the data, which is, of course, precisely what you’re doing.

            In fact, if you look at the original study:

            http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/ab.1010/abstract

            you will find that “The results show that children of both primary and post-primary age who were involved in bullying as victims, bullies, or both had significantly lower global self-esteem than did children who had neither bullied nor been bullied.”

            So the data flatly contradicts your premise. The study shows significantly higher self esteem in those who neither bully nor are bullied.

            And you have a huge error in logic as well. One evil happy person doesn’t disprove anything; your premise is that evil can cause happiness – a completely different notion. What was it you said earlier? High correlation isn’t everything? And now you propose that the lowest possible correlation (one) is everything!?

            I really don’t understand you, Michael. Are you recommending that we all become bullies? Would that make you happy?

            Thanks anyway, I’ll take the word of psychologists and philosophers over the unsupported notions of a blog commenter any day.

          • Michael Wilson

            See, http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0191886914006564
            And http://www.nationalpost.com/m/wp/blog.html?b=news.nationalpost.com//health/provocative-new-study-finds-bullies-have-highest-self-esteem-social-status-lowest-rates-of-depression

            Do I recommend bulling? I didn’t have the make up for it my self, but if you can and you want to be happy in this life, it seems like a good stratagy. But in the end this life does not matter much. If their is another life I’m not sure how far bulling will get you.

          • These are self-reporting survey studies of adolescents; the least reliable form of scientific data. The second study doesn’t even deal with happiness, just social status. This certainly isn’t remotely enough to support such a shallow view of human happiness.

            The only study that does deal with happiness is a survey of adolescents. The abstract notes that the vast majority of studies yield the opposite result. The value of a scientific study is ultimately based on the number of citations it generates from experts. How many citations for this one. Zero.

            Michael, I don’t get it. Why is it so important to you that wickedness can bring happiness?

            And I think most folks would disagree with you that this life does not matter much. If they did, the suicide rate should be a lot higher. My life certainly matters to me. It matters to virtually everyone I know. Do you really have such a dismal view of human life?

          • Michael Wilson

            What study have you cited to support your contention that there are no people finding happiness in harming others? The lament of the evil prospering while the good are miserable is common. If I see a person that is unethical, cruel, yet they say they are happy, act happy, don’t betray signs of discontent, I have to conlude their happy despite some philosophers speculation.

            Maybe you think they could be happier if they were like you, but how would you know? I think it is important to dispel peoples false notions because truth is important, bs eventually fails you. My view isn’t dim, I have hope. Most people either just keep themselves immersed in the present, or invent schemes to justify their existance. Pleasure is real and now, and if death is the end there will be no further pondering, so whats the worry if your enjoying your self now?

          • Hi Michael

            Biblical laments generally focus on “prospering” and usually the perspective of the lamenting narrator is rebuked and corrected later in the psalm. This is less important to me, as I’m not a Christian. But if I were, I might point out that Jesus cites a number of “happy” or “blessed” states in his sermon on the mount, and none of them involve harming others.

            There are quite a number of studies showing the positive effects of altruism on happiness and well-being. The entire field of positive psychology works in the interplay of ethical behavior and well-being. Here are a few examples (tip of the iceberg):

            http://link.springer.com/article/10.1207/s15327558ijbm1202_4
            http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0277953608000373
            http://psycnet.apa.org/psycinfo/2009-07757-000
            http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/026040290500598
            http://psycnet.apa.org/journals/gpr/15/2/138/
            http://ajot.aota.org/article.aspx?articleid=1882370&hc_location=ufi
            http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1467-6435.2009.00453.x/full
            http://jah.sagepub.com/content/25/1/159.short

            Michael, truth is important, and I do think that altruism leads to happiness, but I would support and promote this idea even if there were no psychological studies to back up the notion.

            There are social constructs that we follow because they are ideal for society as whole. For example, clearly not every human is “equal” in the sense that some are smarter, stronger, more productive, etc than their peers. But society functions best when we treat all humans as equals under the law. The alternative is the dehumanization of segments of the population on the basis of sex, race, origin or other factors.

            Even if you were right that wickedness leads to happiness (and I certainly don’t think the evidence supports you), why would you promote the harming of some people so that other people attain happiness? Even if you believed it made some people happy, would you really promote a society like a brutal slave plantation, the decimation of indigenous populations like native Americans, or a Third Reich holocaust?

            When you say you have hope – what do you “hope” for? Because if you believe people should pursue the harm of others if it makes them happy, then it sounds like you’ve settled for a pretty hopeless view of the world. And if you really promoted the idea that people should pursue evil for happiness (I somehow don’t really believe this of you), then you would be an immoral person yourself.

          • Michael Wilson

            Do any of these studies argue that ethical behavior always equals personal happiness in proportion to the level of ethical behavior for all beings. My argument, as I have said repeatedly is that it is not universal. I have no doubt that a Certain level of altruism brings happiness for most. But I think there’re exceotions, and I doubt any of those studies suggest no exceptions.

            I do not encourage unethical behavior. I do not like injustice and act against injustice. But in a finite world i would not lie to someone enjoying there evil that they assuredly would like being ethical better. I can only say that I will work to confound their desire because I like them value my happiness more.

          • Sorry, Michael, you’ve lost me. Do I think these studies show “that ethical behavior always equals personal happiness in proportion to the level of ethical behavior for all beings”. That’s an odd new bar to place on the conversation. No, I don’t think that the interplay of happiness and altruism is quite that simplistic – nor that it needs to be.

            Are you saying that you believe that some people (the exceptions?) achieve great happiness by harming others; but that you oppose (confound?) them for the sake of your own happiness?

            Do you only “act against injustice” when it serves you? Or do you also act altruistically against injustice for the sake of others? (I’m betting it’s the latter – you don’t strike me as a selfish person).

            I simply believe from my own experience and the experiences that humans have been describing for thousands of years in literature and philosophy, that happiness and altruism are intrinsically tied to each other; in many philosophies they are ontologically tied to each other (that can even be seen in the sermon on the mount).

            Even if you are right that there are “exceptions” who achieve happiness through wickedness (a contention that I see no reason to believe), that doesn’t change my view of the world in any appreciable way. It would be quite enough to drive altruism, if it brought most people happiness.

          • Michael Wilson

            Beau, I can only conclude you are selective in your study of people’s lives and philosophies to exclude data that conflicts with your rosey world view. I find the evidence of happy evil people abounds and lots of people agree with me.

            If altruism made me feel miserable I might not do it. You might not eithier. The trick of altruism is that you identify with the other and so their happiness makes you happy. So you get pleasure from it. Some get their kick from cocain but I get a kick from you. The underlying message behind the sermon on the mount is that God will intervene and bless the poor and sad and crush the wicked that made them that way, not that being poor and miserable makes you happy

          • Michael, what data am I excluding? Lots of what people agree with you?

            You have yet to show me any abounding evidence of “happy evil people”, whatsoever. One vague, poorly cited study of adolescent Chinese bullies saying they are “happy” on a survey. I am far from impressed. The only two other studies you cite don’t support you. One deals with social status, not happiness, and the other flatly refutes your premise.

            The data showing the benefits of altruism to well-being is far more pervasive and credible. Studies in positive psychology demonstrate undeniable results from advocating altruistic behavior across many different age groups and arenas ranging from schools, to businesses, to nursing homes. Something that religions and philosophies have been advocating for millennia.

            Besides, you said yourself that you “have no doubt that a certain level of altruism brings happiness for most.” You also say,”The trick of altruism is that you identify with the other and so their happiness makes you happy.” Yes! It’s a great “trick”, don’t you think? We call it “empathy”. Kind of a win-win situation?

            So what’s your problem? Exactly what are you advocating?

            Sorry, but anyone looking in on this conversation would have a real problem trying to figure out what, if anything, you stand for.

  • SDGlyph

    Probably repeating from the previous discussion, but I’ve NEVER understood how this simple statement can be so badly misused. I can’t think of a situation where the answer to “How would I want to be treated?” might be “By having the other person ignore my preferences and impose their own ideals on me.” Is it just a complete failure of empathy to be unable to make the jump from “What would I like THEM to do for ME” to “What do I think they would like ME to do for THEM?”

    And yes, I certainly believe it should be a hallmark of Christian faith in action. I take it as a practical guideline; an explanatory answer for “what should ‘love one another’ look like in action?”

    • R Vogel

      I think the stock answer would be that if you knew that the bridge was out and I was hurtling toward my death, I would hope you would stop me by any means necessary. It’s not a particularly good analogy….

  • R Vogel

    ‘a rigidly literalistic adherence to the Golden Rule might lead one to inflict one’s own preferences and desires on others.’

    This is why I find Hillel’s negative formulation of the Golden Rule to be superior. As I once read on Rabbi Blumenthal’s blog, 1000 verses,

    There is always going to be one area where man is still going to be sensitive to right and wrong, there must remain one detail of the spirit which did not entirely succumb to evil. That area is when a person is hurt by others. A person could go through life without any sensitivity towards morality, justice, or a sense of right and wrong – until he or she gets hurt. When a person is hurt, their inner beings magnify every detail of the injustice, of the immorality and of the ungodliness of those that caused them the hurt. When the most evil person on earth is hurt, you will suddenly hear him or her using terms such as: “injustice”, “not fair”, “immoral” – words and concepts that would never otherwise be a part of their vocabulary. The fact is that even the most righteous amongst us are more acutely sensitive to the concepts of right and wrong when they feel the effects of an injustice.

  • There are some Christians who interpret the Golden Rule to mean that, since they appreciate their Christian faith, they should impose it on others. Kim Davis in Kentucky and her manipulating Liberty Counsel attorneys are guilty of this interpretation.

    It might be useful to remember that the Golden Rule long predates Jesus, and was a beautifully worded part of diverse writings such as the Book of Mozi, the Jaina Sutras, the Mahabharata, the Nichomachean Ethics, the works of Mencius, and many other sources.

  • arcseconds

    The obvious error to make with the golden rule is insufficient translation, e.g. Beau’s example of Christians thinking “well, if I wasn’t Christian, I’d sure want someone to make me into one! So that’s what I’ll do.”

    Obviously, this can apply to plenty of other things apart from proselytizing. It covers all sorts of paternalistic things like healthy eating, etc.

    But of course we probably do want to allow for some kind of interference, or at least intolerance, for someone who’s seriously stuffing up their life. It would be paternalistic for a teetotaller to pour my whisky down the drain, even though they could say “well, if I was pouring a devil down my throat all the time, I’d want someone to take that away from me, too!” (and it could even be a demon for them, if they’re an alcoholic). But an alcoholic’s spouse doing the same thing seems justified. Yet the alcoholic in question might be just a unhappy with the idea as I am.

    How are we to distinguish between the two cases? We intuitively want someone to empathize with my desire to keep my whisky, but not with the alcoholic’s desire. Now, to be sure, there are things you can say about this, but I’m pretty sure the golden rule is not doing the work any more.

    There’s another, opposite error that one can make with the golden rule and that’s empathizing too much with people who want things that are harmful. Thinking that we should leave the alcoholic’s whisky alone might be an example, but it’s not entirely unreasonable to say they’re an adult and it’s up to them to manage their addiction, so maybe another example is worthwhile.

    Let’s say I catch the person pouring my whisky down the drain and explain to them that they’re applying the golden rule incorrectly, and they should be putting themselves in my shoes more and realizing I like the stuff and don’t think it’s a problem. Then the next day someone bullies them at work, and they say to themselves “OK, arcseconds says to empathize with people more, and this person clearly wants me to capitulate and become their toady”, so they capitulate and become their toady. Which seems entirely wrong, so the answer to Beau’s problem can’t be just ’empathize more!’

    (The example’s a bit absurd maybe, and empathizing too much is presumably a lot rarer than empathizing too little, but I think this kind of mistake is actually made from time to time)

    And, of course, conservative homophobic Christians can complain that this is precisely what we’re doing when we appeal to the golden rule to argue for marriage equality: we’re empathizing with people we should not be, i.e. people who are doing something wrong.

    So, I dunno, as a slogan maybe it’s OK, but moral decision making requires far more than this.

  • Ellen K.

    I tend to see the Golden Rule as a starting place. It’s generally a good rule of thumb on how to treat strangers and people you don’t know well. But once you get to know someone, it’s more treat them how they would like to be treated. After 22 years of marriage, there are many things where we’ve learned the right way to treat the other, and it’s different from what we’d do following the Golden rule.

    • That is popularly called the Platinum Rule:

      Do unto others as THEY would have you do unto them.

      And I think it’s an improved rule of thumb even when dealing with strangers. It make take a little work to find out how others want to be treated, but I think it would be worth the trouble.

      • Michael Wilson

        I think the platinum rule is unnecessary since we would like people to consider our perspectives so we should consider theirs. The beauty of the golden rule is it ask you to consider others to be as valuable as you, and then ask before you act on them, would you want to be treated this way? It isn’t that complicated.

        • It would be nice if Christians always interpreted the Golden Rule to mean respecting someone else’s perspective, but a long history of violent or enforced proselytization doesn’t seem to reflect that nuance. Unfortunately, for example, accusations that Obama is a muslim (i.e. “evil”) still gets popular play from Christian right.

          As far as beauty is concerned, I prefer this rendering of the Golden Rule:

          “Regard your neighbor’s gain as your gain and your neighbor’s loss as your loss.” (T’ai-Shang Kan-Ying P’ien – 12th century BC)

          • Michael Wilson

            They do, they just don’t follow the golden rule. Forced proselytization comes from the idiotic belief that it benefits the converted. The people doing the converting knew that the others didn’t want to be Christian, didn’t think they needed to be Christian, thought the old gods were awsome, but they believed they knew better. There is no gaurd against stupidity and ignorance. We don’t know we are wrong, if we did we would correct. It is no different than if I say you must vaccinate your kids and educate them. I force it on people that think differently because I’m sure I’m right. If I’m not, I don’t know that. I know the others reasoning, I can empathize with their plight, but I know if I was an irrational moron, I would hope someone would impose good sense on me even if I didn’t appreciate it. Where the Christians went wrong in forcing conversation is beliving that it benefited anyone.

          • In the case of vaccination – the AMA makes it’s recommendations not just based on the individual’s health, but on the health of society as a whole. We would not have eradicated Polio, if parents were given the choice not to vaccinate. We are seeing the fall-out from anti-vaccers today with babies getting measles in communities where older children have not been vaccinated.

          • Michael Wilson

            That’s all good and I support vaccination, but doesn’t matter for the point I made. The people forcing conversion believed it was the best most humane thing to do. Truth isn’t magically revealed to us and people with wrong ideas aren’t willfuly rebelling against reality

          • Oh, I don’t disagree that humans have sometime treated others inhumanely out of sheer ignorance; although the Crusades, the Inquisition and other historical events demonstrate a tendency for violence that far outweighs any perceived “good” from proselytizing.

            You are making my point for me, of course. Humans have historically been so bad at deciding what others want, the Platinum Rule would be far more effective than the Golden Rule.

          • Michael Wilson

            It outweighs the good in your opinion, the inquisitors and crusaders may not share your opinion.

            I’m not sure Jesus promoting the platinum rule over the golden rule would have made much difference on the course of history, their is quite a bit of divergence in Jesus’s teachings and the activities of Christian Europe. But, again, I think the golden rule contains “safe guard” you think it lacks. The platinum rule, which as a fluff statement is inoffensive enough, is flawed if you think about it not only in that we don’t always or even often know what people want, but also, and perhaps your faith in peoples innate goodness prevents you from seeing this, people don’t always know what is good for them and some people want selfish things. A junky wants heroine, not rehab, a horney frat boy wants sex, a racist wants blacks in the back of the bus.

          • I’m not really interested in the inquisitors and crusaders opinions of themselves. I’d be more interested in the opinions their victims have of them. You say the oddest things. Would you trust Hitler’s opinion of himself?

  • John MacDonald

    Jesus didn’t seem to have a lot of empathy for people’s families when he told people to abandon their families to follow him. Further, Jesus didn’t seem to have a lot of empathy toward mothers and fathers when he told their children to hate them. Jesus doesn’t seem very empathetic in these passages:

    1. “Now when Jesus saw a crowd around him, he gave orders to go over to the other side. And a scribe came up and said to him, ‘Teacher, I will follow you wherever you go.’ And Jesus said to him, ‘Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.’ Another of the disciples said to him, ‘Lord, let me first go and bury my father.’ And Jesus said to him, ‘Follow me, and leave the dead to bury their own dead.’” —Matthew 8:18-22

    2. “If anyone comes to Me, and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be My disciple. Whoever does not carry his own cross and come after Me cannot be
    My disciple … So likewise, whoever of you does not forsake all that he has
    cannot be My disciple.” — Luke 14:26-27, 33

    3. “Brother will deliver brother over to death, and the father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death, and you will be hated by all for my name’s sake. But the one who endures to the end will be saved.” —Matthew 10:21-22

    4. “For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter
    against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law. And
    a person’s enemies will be those of his own household. Whoever loves
    father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son
    or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. And whoever does not take
    his cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Whoever finds his life
    will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.”
    —Matthew 10:35-39