I just want to preface this article with some clarification as this is a critique of the golden rule and really just my opinion, if you feel like you want to contribute, then please comment down below.

The golden rule

“Treat others as you would like to be treated.“ you may know it as The Golden Rule. Most will attribute this phrase to Jesus of Nazareth but it’s a little-known fact that the earliest traces of it lie in the ancient Egyptian empire at the least 2000 years before it is claimed to have been uttered by the exalted evangelist. The original is a more primitive form of the golden rule “Do to the doer to make him do.” and then the concept later turned up again as “That which you hate to be done to you, do not do to another.”. The rule seems good at face value, but this is only because we make the assumption that treating others in the way we want, is what they want.

This phrase isn’t so much of a rule to follow as an observation of our behaviour as we often expect that any action we perform for others is reciprocated back to us under normal circumstances.

However, it’s a helpful reminder that we can very often make assumptions of one another when interacting. We know our own wants and desires, but we’ll never fully understand another person’s, so we are forced to make these pre-suppositions. It seems fair to guess that what I find painful you will find painful too, and it’s only from interacting further that we both might discover otherwise.

Some of the issues

The problem in making these assumptions is that we are often horrified at what others consider to be pleasurable or grotesque be them small or large. This issue can bring hours of frustration and ruin to the political landscape as people are often shocked to find out what others truly believe.

Typically when forming our opinions we try and weigh up what we think is best for ourselves from what we enjoy and without stimulation from opposing ideas may be drawn to the conclusion that this is objective. Opinions of evil tend to form as a result of actions against us or others; ergo we use suffering to infer incorrect actions. These ideas work remarkably well in most situations and have lead to a relatively universal agreement on what is right and wrong (I say “relatively” because it doesn’t always work). For example, the majority of us can accept that murder or theft is immoral because in practice we know that we wouldn’t desire those things to affect us and by extension others around us. Whether we declare some rule as objectively moral or not is irrelevant, as the reason we can agree on these fundamental things, is that we have an understanding as to whether they are true or not based on individual experience.

How empathy hinders the golden rule

So why do we always seem to disagree on divisive topics such as nuclear energy or the death penalty? What it often appears to be is a disagreement on how much of a threat to ourselves the subject is or that we have an empathetical personal bias. Some see the death penalty as payment for the suffering of others whereas others might prefer that we attempt to rehabilitate as we would like to be given a second chance ourselves. The golden rule can be interpreted two ways in this situation as reciprocation can be either negative or positive depending on interpretation. Absurdities like this arise all over the place when using the golden rule as we can sympathise with either the call to justice or the person on death row. It’s at this point that I’d like to point out that in order to progress we have to pick sides.

Empathy can sometimes be a terrible guide for rules as it can lead to bias i.e. we tend to feel more empathy for certain individuals over others.

Crime can be justified or not depending on the bias that we show towards certain individuals whether it’s warranted or not. A different balance of empathy in the case of a theft could say that the overall suffering will be less if we own that object over someone else.

The best example of this is probably the heroism of robin hood, while people can acknowledge he is a thief, most would not call him a villain even though he quite plainly did bad things. No matter how rich the people robin hood stole from, he still took from people. If we were in the shoes of the rich people, I’m sure we’d dislike having our guards murdered, or our money stolen. However, some may justify the wrong deeds by looking at the improvement of the lives of the poor or the way that the rich people acquired their wealth. The problem of the golden rule in this scenario is that you can empathise with either side to produce different results.

How it can corrupt

The golden rule is also subject to a lack of definition of the term “others” and therefore you can exclude certain groups from the reciprocation given in the rule. This technique is utilised by xenophobic preachers and political extremists be them left or right-wing. The idea that “I’m better than you; Therefore your opinion or your group doesn’t matter.” Is a logical fallacy that will most commonly be fruitless to counter as this follows with the idea of “I’m superior so have nothing to learn”. I find this funny as usually this mindset is backed up with circular reasoning at worst or flimsy evidence at best and is propped up by the zeitgeist of the time or group they live in.

Typically the trend of this fallacy starts at superiority then slowly trends to persecution by; Superiority, Isolation, Caricature and finally Persecution. It’s too easy to catch yourself doing this and thankfully isn’t impossible to counteract if you can spot these fallacies. This logical error can start to lead to a group mentality where the suffering of outsiders doesn’t matter as much as the suffering of the insiders so, therefore, you are less likely to empathise with them under the golden rule.

In conclusion, I feel the vagueness of the golden rule to be typical of any system struggling to capture large amounts of laws for humanity in one phrase. In our attempts to summarise or generalise we inevitably will find edge cases and exceptions even though it is only natural for us to do so.

Title image CC BY-SA 3.0Nick Youngson