Why the Golden Rule is the Crown of Ethics
This post is based on a chapter of an almost-fully-written but unpublished book called The Grand Coherence: A Modern Defense of Christianity, for which I hope to find a publisher. If you’re a publisher reading this, and might have an interest, please contact me! Also, if you know a publisher who might want to publish a book of Christian apologetics, please forward this post to them! In general, all posts on this Substack are completely free and always will be if I have anything to say about it, but donations are encouraged, and I’ll use them to keep writing.
Over in a comment thread at Underthrow, Max Borders and I branched off into a discussion about the Golden Rule. Max wrote:
In any case, I read all manner of things and love to appropriate the best ideas of different traditions. For example, notwithstanding what you refer to as the "jumble" of Jewish teaching -- and I admit Mosaic Law was something of a mess -- remember that Jesus was channeling 1000-2000 years of what Rabbi Hillel the Elder said, purportedly standing on one foot: "That which is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow." Hillel was around about a century before Jesus. The Golden Rule appears in virtually all traditions in some formulation.
To which I responded:
On the Golden Rule/Hillel: Note that there's a difference between the negative "do NOT do unto others as you would NOT have them do unto you" and the positive "DO unto others as you WOULD have them do unto you." The latter is much more ethically ambitious. CS Lewis makes this point. And as far as I know, this audacious, positive form of the Golden Rule, clearly articulated and championed as the center of ethics, is an original achievement of Jesus of Nazareth. That's not a tenet of the Christian faith or anything but it seems to be true as far as I can tell.
To which Max responded:
Right on! More later. A quick note on the GR: I prefer the Hillel variation because it doesn't go too far. There are all sorts of things I'd like others to do unto me that they might not want me to do unto them. While both formulations are imperfect, the former sets moral boundaries while the latter risks making strange presumptions.
It’s obviously a very large topic that merits far more discussion, and since I have a book-chapter-in-progress about the topic handy, I thought I’d post it here to continue the conversation.
Most people know the Golden Rule. "Therefore," Jesus taught, "all things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them: for this is the law and the prophets" (Matthew 7:12). Or again:
“‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” (Matthew 22:37-40)
All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments. That's a very large claim. We should bear in mind both the "love" and the "do" forms, for they reinforce and elucidate each other. The Golden Rule is a mandate for active love. I doubt that many will deny the Golden Rule, at least not until I show them how difficult it is, and thereby give them a reason to look for an exit. The immediate danger, rather, is that because the Golden Rule lends itself to such casual, everyday use, we might underestimate it. But the central place which Jesus gives to the Golden Rule—on it hangs all the law and the prophets—should help us to avoid the trap of treating it as a trivial truism. We should not be surprised that a rule so exalted by Jesus Himself turns out to lead us up into a kind of philosophical perplexity that calls on all our faculties to meet it.
To see what I mean, notice first that the Golden Rule really means, "do unto others as you would have them do unto you if you were in their place." That raises two immediate difficulties. First, how can you know what it would be like to be in their place? And second, if you were in their place, in what sense would you still be you? In other words: what characteristics of yourself should you import into the alternative "you" whose desires you are supposed to imagine, in order to do unto them as you, in their place, would wish? If you were in their place, how would you be different, but also, how would you be the same?
Whether and how we can know that other minds even exist, let alone anything about their experiences, is a hard philosophical problem. Solipsism, the position that denies the existence of minds other than one’s own, is as hard to refute as skepticism, yet as with skepticism, no one believes it. But never mind. We just have to insist, unsatisfying as it feels to do so, that we do know that there are other minds, and something about their experiences, through the faculty of sympathy. Yet it’s difficult to bridge the imaginative gulf between selves, to put oneself in someone else’s place, and discern how to do unto them as you would have them do unto you if you were in their place, especially if the person is very different from you. It's possible to challenge the Golden Rule as impractical, on the grounds that we can't imagine what we would want in the place of others. And when we fail to practice the Golden Rule, that's often because of lack of imagination. Fundamentally, our epistemic right to generalize from our own experience in order to imaginatively enter into the situations of others so as to apply the Golden Rule depends on a belief in some robust human nature that we all share.
I’ve heard it suggested that there’s a “Platinum Rule” which is better than the Golden Rule, namely, do unto others as they would have you do unto them. That simplifies things somewhat. It avoids the problem of importing some hard-to-define part of yourself into their situation. It mitigates the need to define a robust human nature that we all share. Yet Jesus didn’t say that, and I think we can glimpse why if we consider the case of a parent making a child study, when the child would rather play. By the Platinum Rule, the parent would let the child play, since that’s what the child wants. But by the Golden Rule, the parent who hypothetically enters the child’s situation is still somehow himself, and in imagining himself into the child’s place so as to do to the child as he would be done by, he can yet still be himself, with the benefit of the mature perspective that understands the value of knowledge and foresees that studying will contribute more than playing to the child’s long-term happiness. In this way, living by the Golden Rule leads to a richer, fuller kind of love.
Of all ethical notions, the Golden Rule best lends itself, I think, to something close to rational proof. If (a) I am a self, (b) I recognize there are other selves like me, and (c) I make moral claims against others, it seems to follow that they can make moral claims against me, whose validity I am bound to acknowledge. No doubt that argument would require some logical tightening, but it’s fairly lucid and capable of great generality.
Again, the Golden Rule is easy to underestimate. It has so many simple, commonsensical applications, that we might be tricked into thinking that that's its only job. Two examples, property rights and occupational choice, can help us start to glimpse the true reach and radicalism of the Golden Rule.
Most people respect other people’s property rights. Don’t steal from me, and I won’t steal from you. I can live by that principle and feel quite innocent as a man who is poor through no fault of mine starves on my doorstep. That’s troubling. What does the Golden Rule say about it? Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. If I were poor, needy, desperate, surely I would want people to help me out. How much? Well, if I love my neighbor as myself, it’s not clear why I should want myself to be at all better off than he is.
This logic suggests that living by the Golden Rule would lead to spontaneous redistribution of all economic resources, and in fact, many Christian saints have given away all their property to the poor. But the Church has never insisted on that as a general duty of rich Christians, and I think I see why, for it’s actually possible to be rich while living by the Golden Rule. You might justifiably believe you’re good at managing property, so your best way to serve others is to retain control and share the profits, rather than to dissipate your capital. You might not even give to charity. You might share the profits through job creation and innovation and quality products for low prices. A casual observer might not know that you have a service motive rather than a profit motive. But your attitude towards your property would be one of stewardship. And if you became convinced that you weren’t the best manager of so much property, you’d give it away.
Again, consider the question that adults often ask children to make conversation: “What do you want to be when you grow up?” The premise of the question seems to be that life is a menu, all occupations are on the menu, and the child will choose according to preference. But one who lives by the Golden Rule would not choose an occupation that way. Career satisfaction is good for you, but there are many others in the world, and if you love them as yourself, the service that you might do to them is far more important than your own career satisfaction. So occupational choice shouldn’t be guided by what you want but by how you can serve. “What do you want to be when you grow up?” might still be an innocent question if it means, “Surely you want to serve others, so how do you deem that you can be of most service to your fellow human beings, and best practice active love towards them? How do you plan to do unto others, through your occupational choice, as you would have them do unto you if you were in their place?” And I think most young people do have at least some aspiration to be useful and of service to others mixed in with their plans for their futures. But the general attitude of American culture at least to occupational choice is that you can be whatever you want to be, and that's at odds with the Golden Rule, which if taken seriously in this aspect of life, would lean into self-sacrifice and minimize selfish personal fulfillment.
By this time, I hope I have begun to open many readers' eyes to the difficulty of the Golden Rule so much that they doubt they could possibly live by it. The Golden Rule might be a helpful nudge towards achieving such politeness and consideration for others as really serves one's own enlightened self-interest, but if it is really allowed to invade and conquer our whole lives, the conclusions to which it drives us seem intolerable. We just want to be more selfish than that. And who would have enough willpower to suppress our natural selfishness as much as the Golden Rule demands?
To get us out of this impasse, let me approach ethics from another angle, namely, the tradition of the virtues.
Alisdair MacIntyre, in his book After Virtue, has elucidated how modern man became peculiarly confused about ethics because of an abortive attempt, starting in the Enlightenment, to reject tradition in favor of reason. As a result, various theoretical schemas were proposed by moral philosophers, who tried to use them as a foundation for ethics, usually to justify the old rules, for the philosophers were rather conservative in their view of the good society they wanted to uphold, even as they were dangerously innovative as thinkers. But there was never consensus about these new moral philosophies, and MacIntyre shows how none of them are really successful as arguments. So the West fell into a great confusion. Ethics has always been debatable, but this rationalistic subversion of the grounds of ethics is distinctively modern.
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As a way to cut through modern confusions and build ethics on a firmer foundation, MacIntyre looks past the Enlightenment to a lost tradition of the virtues that he traces back as far as Homer and other heroic poets, and in which he identifies Aristotle as the most eminent champion. The tragedy of modern ethics began when Enlightenment rationalism, in its zeal to ground everything on reason, jettisoned the Aristotelian idea of telos, of purposes and ends that inhere in all sorts of things and define their good. The reality to which the Enlightenment made itself willfully blind is that humans have a telos, a peculiar natural flourishing. Ethics should start with an understanding of human telos and an ordering of things towards its fulfillment. But when the Enlightenment first doubted and then forgot about telos, and cultivated an environment of discourse inhospitable to the recovery or rediscovery of it, it deprived ethics of its proper starting point, so that it became unmoored and went adrift, leaving people unable to account for their moral attitudes. Modern moral philosophy attempted to shore up morality by providing a new basis for it, but it failed, and left moral discourse shrill and confused, borrowing what limited consensus it can find from traditions which it lacks the intellectual resources to understand or robustly believe in.
Yet I don't want to endorse MacIntyre too much, because he's a little too subversive, and blinds himself to, or ignores or downplays, some important ethical realities, such as rights, rules, and conscience, in his zeal to outflank modernity. In particular, he wrongly dismisses the concept of natural rights as an erroneous modern innovation. Actually, natural rights are real, as Western man began to see clearly in the Middle Ages, with the roots of the concept going much deeper than that, and everyone’s conscience bears witness to their reality. After Virtue is a masterpiece, yet it is a serious shortcoming of the book that if a reader thought that MacIntyre endorses Aristotle, and Aristotle endorsed slavery, so MacIntyre's philosophy must endorse slavery, nothing in the book would particularly refute this conclusion. Natural rights are the reason why slavery is wrong, and the reason why it was abolished, and in general, moral progress for centuries has consisted largely in increasing recognition of and respect for natural rights. So it's necessary to mingle MacIntyre's wisdom with modern moral progress and the ideas that have underpinned it.
I've thought about how to do that for years, and here's what I've come up with.
Think of ethics as a five-storey mountain, starting with rules and ascending to values, then plans, then virtues, and finally stories.
The first storey consists of rules. Brush your teeth. Say your prayers. Don't steal. Turn off the TV if you're not watching it. Drive on the right side of the road, or the left if you're in Britain. Park within 18 inches of the curb. Say please and thank you. Don't touch other people's cars on the street. Don't steal what's not yours. Help people when they're in desperate need. Share dessert with all present. Don't tell lies. Don't kill anyone, except maybe in self-defense or war. Pay your taxes. Vote. Love your neighbor as yourself. Get a job and do what your boss says. Respect people’s natural rights. And so forth. Sometimes the rules are easy to follow. Sometimes they're very difficult, either because they're hard to remember, or hard to understand and apply, or because they go against very strong desires. A large part of moral development consists in simply learning the rules, remembering the rules, applying the rules, obeying the rules, until it becomes habitual, automatic, second nature.
But on any rule, it can be asked: why? Why should you brush your teeth? Why shouldn't you tell lies? The question might come from mere curiosity, or from serious doubt. It might also be provoked by cases where the rules seem to come into conflict with each other. You are conscripted into an unjust war, and your country's laws require you to kill for no good reason. Your boss orders you to tell a lie. Someone is in desperate need, and the only way you can help them is by stealing. Then again, sometimes you're just not sure how to generalize a rule. Questions like these lead us up to the second storey of the mountain, the level of values. Rules are typically justified and explained by values. Say please and thank you, a rule, for the sake of kindness, a value. Share the dessert, a rule, to give pleasure, a value, and maybe also for the sake of fairness, another value. Drive on the right side of the road, a rule, for the sake of safety, a value.
Of course, about values, as about rules, the question "why?" can be asked. But values tend to be more obvious and self-explanatory than rules. Also, values extend the range of ethics. There are situations in which no definite moral rules are at stake, yet moral values can guide your decisions, as when you’re deciding whether to start a conversation with a stranger, or apply for a new job, or take a walk. No rules are at stake, but values like sociability, pursuit of knowledge, health, money, or service of others can affect your decisions. Meanwhile, some values, if challenged, turn out to be justified by other values. Safety, for example, is a value, but if challenged, it can be justified as avoidance of pain or damage, another value.
Values are still diverse, and may conflict with each other. If we want to do the right thing all the time, we need a way to settle what that is when rules and/or values conflict. We need some scheme to organize, govern, and harmonize all these values and rules to prevent ethics trapping us into contradictory obligations. That brings us to the third storey of the mountain, the level of plans. Plans can be for individuals or for society. But because the conflicting values are often people—the welfare of A vs. the welfare of B—the social tends to take precedence over the individual at this stage. In modern times, utilitarianism is the most persistent and influential template for societal plans of this kind, but it is perennially unsatisfactory. It substitutes true feelings with hollow jargon, and begs many questions, or kicks them back to the questioner. It reduces ethics to an interminable and impossible calculus. And sometimes it seems to open the door to moral justifications for actions that conscience revolts against as horrific crimes, like those of Bolsheviks murdering millions to achieve utopia for the benefit of posterity. Other plans for societies include a characteristically Anglospheric liberalism that pursues economics and utility within a framework of rights-respecting constitutionalism, and biblical Israel as described in the Mosaic law.
Plans can seem like the climax of ethics, bringing everything together, and settling all questions. But they turn out to be a false summit. Have you ever climbed a mountain? If so, you may have encountered a moment, when, toiling up the trail, you look ahead and see some ridge that seems like the top, as high as you can go, with nothing beyond it except the sky. And you muster your strength for one last, exhausting push, looking forward to the spectacular vistas down the other side. But when you get there, you find only a plateau, followed by another rise. So here. For those suffering chaos and violence, a peaceful, well-ordered state of society can seem like perfection. But as people approach that, we find both that it’s always a bit out of reach, and that it doesn’t satisfy the human spirit. You never quite get to utopia, though in theory it seems feasible, and meanwhile, people get bored with it even before it’s achieved. People can get much of what they said they wanted, much satisfaction of their simpler desires, but something is missing. And at the same time, plans keep breaking down and going awry, not because they didn't make sense, but because people spoil them.
Two discoveries arise from this experience.
First, any happy plan of society depends on certain qualities in the people who comprise it for it to work. People need, for example, to have good habits in order to reliably treat one another fairly (justice), to keep working in the face of fear or discomfort (courage), to control their impulses and manage their desires (temperance), to plan and reason out their courses of action (prudence), at least much of the time (though some spontaneity is good, too), to be at least somewhat consistent over time (faith), to believe in and work towards unrealized possibilities (hope), and to have things they enjoy and admire and dedicate themselves to (love). And no master plan of society can inculcate these special individual qualities, which are called the virtues.
But second, virtue is not only a means, it is also an end. Ultimately, people cannot flourish just because of what they have. It has to come from what they are. Courage, justice, temperance and moderation and self-control, prudence and wisdom and insight, love for people and things and ultimately God, faith to hold us steady on life's road and make us consistent people with integrity, and hope to make us aspire and work, and to give our work meaning, don't just make us useful to others, but are the key to true happiness.
The social engineer needs the virtues but doesn't understand them. He has no idea how to produce them. Nor can he offer us anything as valuable and enjoyable as the virtues through any skillful and successful arrangement of society.
We have now come into MacIntyre's stronghold, and I think he is right to focus on it. The virtues are the highest level of ethics about which much generalization is possible. Studying them is crucial to understanding ethical goodness and human telos. Virtue is good habituation. The more we practice it, the easier it becomes. Virtue lasts. When rules are repealed and plans of society pass away, the courage, justice, prudence, self-control, faith, hope and love that were formed through obeying the rules and working for the plans live on. Virtue is thus a bridge from what is transient to what is eternal. Virtues are more important and general than most of the plans and rules that we live by, and more valuable than the other values we live for, like money or pleasure. And yet even virtue turns out to be a false summit, for in our efforts to define and to achieve the virtues, we glimpse an even higher summit, the fifth storey of the mountain, to which we are led on.
For it is in stories that the virtues shine. The ultimate end is to have the story of a life well lived, to be the story of a life well lived, or at any rate, to carry it like a name. Even pagan heroes, who thought men were doomed to become gibbering shades in Hades, knew this, and the great Achilles chose a miserable death in battle by the walls of Troy for the sake of eternal fame, against the alternative of a happy, obscure life back home. But Christians know better, for we have been promised that God will tell us "Well done, thou good and faithful servant," and lead us into paradise, and our stories become threads in the tapestry of the divine happiness forever, and God shall still be delighting in our salvation stories long after the scenes in which they took place, the houses and the cities and the galaxies, are no more. The metaphor of a mountain fails here, for a mountain has a single summit, but ethics has many summits, and lives well lived are glorious in nothing more than their diversity, for every life well lived is like no other. If it were somehow subtracted from the world, the loss would be irreplaceable. Yet as all material objects are made up of the elements in the periodic table, all lives well lived cohere and shine by prudence or reason, temperance or self-control, courage, justice, faith, hope and love.
And also– and here we come round to where we began– all lives well lived are full of the practice of the Golden Rule. A life well lived is a prize that one cannot work for directly, because lives well lived are so different. And you are not the author of your life story. Life is not a menu in a restaurant, where you choose what life you want to order. We act amidst a vast array of circumstances and events that both supply and constrain our opportunities. There is no equality of opportunity. Everyone's opportunities are different. You cannot know in advance your life story, and the glory, if all goes well, that will be revealed in you. What you can work for is the Golden Rule, serving the good of others at every opportunity. The virtues, though valuable in themselves, are not quite ends in themselves, but all-purpose means to all manner of good ends. The Golden Rule gives them their work. And one of the secrets of virtue is that practicing it makes it not only easier but also more enjoyable to practice it. It may seem too difficult for you to practice the Golden Rule now, but if you try hard, you will begin to acquire the virtues, and they will aid you. The Golden Rule, if attended to properly, sets before you a limitless number of tasks in which you can practice the virtues. And the pursuit of virtue is the highest self-interest, for it makes oneself interesting.
I fear that some readers will still find the prospect of living by the Golden Rule all the time too daunting. Can’t we set our moral sights a little lower than that? What if we don’t aspire to be saints and heroes, but just ordinary decent, polite, responsible people? Is it possible to acknowledge the force of the argument for the Golden Rule, and at the same time limit its reach so that it falls short of the radicalism of really regarding others' interests as if they're as important as our own? If others’ moral claims against me must be proportional to my moral claims against them, can I seek to limit my moral claims against others and thereby justify limiting my own moral liabilities?
But your desire to limit your moral liabilities, and your willingness to limit your moral claims on others, is probably a function of privilege. If you were in the desperate position many others find themselves in, you probably wouldn't be able to sustain this stance of trying not to make claims on others. You'd want others to help you. And so if you, in trouble, would wish for help, you'd better stand ready to help others too.
One way to bring home to us our need to take the Golden Rule seriously and accept its authority even when its prescriptions seem very radical is to remember that the ordinary commonsense morality of any given time, which is the sort of thing that people would want to fall back on as an alternative to the Golden Rule, historically always seems to have had in it an element of what later times, which became more enlightened in some respect or other, recognize in retrospect as appalling evil. Looking back over history, there are so many people who kept slaves, or fought in and glorified unjust wars of conquest, or flattered tyrants, and yet were ordinary decent people by the standards of the times. Karl Marx attacked the English bourgeoisie of the mid-19th century, who had been on the right side of most recent wars, and who to their great credit no longer kept slaves or allowed slavery anywhere in their empire, for neglecting and exploiting the miserable English poor. He had a point, even if he didn’t have a solution. Those exploiting bourgeoisie thought they were ordinary decent people. So, doubtless, did the Athenians who killed Socrates, and the Pharisees and Roman soldiers who killed Jesus, and the Germans in the early 1930s who voted for Hitler as the only way, many thought, to save their country from bloody communist revolution, and the Southerners who upheld segregation to protect white society as they knew it from infiltration by a black element they found sinister and threatening. Doubtless our descendants, too, will look back on us and be horrified by some of our moral blind spots.
And yet there were always some dissenters, some who did not practice slavery, or vote to kill Socrates, or support Nazism or segregation, or fight in or cheer for the unjust wars. Some people held aloof from, or struggled against, the evil practices of their times. That’s who to aspire to be. And in every case, one could have discovered the righteous path, as against the assumptions of the majority, by striving to practice the Golden Rule. Resolve to do unto the slave, the poor, the foreign “enemy,” the Jew, and all your fellow human beings, as you would do unto them, and you will be able to discern, when the time comes, where the moral peril lies, and keep your hands free from slavery, bloodshed, exploitation and pitiless indifference, scorn and hate. That’s how to rise above an evil world and find the moral path.
Second, on the other hand, the maintenance of such civilization as we possess sometimes demands, and may demand at any moment, deeds of extraordinary virtue for which the everyday practice of basic morality doesn't prepare us, yet which it turns out that society always expected of us, and had to expect of us, in certain desperate contingencies. Courage is an obvious example. If your country were invaded, would you fight for it, even if it meant dying? If everyone’s answer were "no," the first invader would conquer it, though you might last a long time on an undeserved reputation for being willing to fight. Likewise, if you could avoid taxes by paying a bribe, would you? What if you were in desperate financial straits? Or suppose a tyrant were to usurp control of your country. Would you stand up and defy him in the name of justice, truth and freedom—or submit meekly and say whatever flattering words kept you safe? What if you were working in finance during a bubble? Would you try to blow the whistle on it? Or would you keep selling inflated assets to suckers, making a quick, easy buck while fueling the frenzy that’s destined to crash and bring economic devastation? If you were a young academic on the make, would you publish a paper that you knew was shallow and misleading, but was likely to get cited enough to win you tenure? What if you were a judge who sees that correct application of the law in a particular case will be unpopular or offend a powerful politician? The integrity of all our institutions depends on people doing the right thing in all these cases of unusual temptation.
What good there is in the heritage of civilization depends on people who did the right thing in cases like these in the past, and thereby established norms and institutions that sustain a better civilization than we had before and than we may have in future. Are you worthy of that civilization? When the situations arise in which society expects us and depends on us to do deeds of extraordinary virtue, it regards those who fail as contemptible cowards or traitors or crooks. Here again, the Golden Rule stands ready, if we heed it, to keep us honest and brave, refusing to surrender when our beloved fellow citizens are counting us to fight, refusing to take bribes when our fellow citizens are counting on us to uphold the law, refusing to profit off financial Ponzi schemes that we know will ruin the people we’re selling to and end in a calamitous crash, refusing to flatter tyrants when their victims need someone to rise to their defense. If we’ve set our sights on ordinary morality only, and chosen to say no to the higher vocation of the Golden Rule, then we’ll probably fail when society needs us to do something extraordinary.
So let’s refuse to listen to the siren song of compromise, of keeping our moral ambitions limited and comfortable, and resolve to rise to the challenge of the Golden Rule.