The Golden Rule is insufficient

3 October 2008 by Mike Gogulski
Posted in philosophy | 25 Comments »

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The Golden Rule is often stated in terms such as “do unto others as you would have them do unto you”.

I submit that this “rule” is insufficient as a basis for any sort of universal ethic.

Among other possible objections, there is the belief voiced by a friend of mine a short time ago as we discussed anarchism as opposed to other political philosophies:

I want to be taxed to provide essential services for other people. I want this because I know that I, like others, am greedy, and would not otherwise contribute to their well-being. This is especially important with respect to the well-being of others incapable of providing for themselves.

My attempts to liken taxation to robbery were futile, yielding nothing at all to my argument that taxation is robbery. My interlocutor insists that it is moral for some people to do the taxing, in order that all (or especially the poor) might be looked after.

The Golden Rule is a poor ethic to apply when your morality legitimizes violations of yourself. Until you are possessed of a morality which regards other people as ends in themselves, rather than means to be exploited for whatever grand goal the day demands, using the Golden Rule as your ethical yardstick admits all manner of horrors.

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  1. 25 Responses to “The Golden Rule is insufficient”

  2. By on 3 October 2008

    Why are people so stupid?

    Do people think that the public sector is full of special humans who are looking out for everyone out of the goodness of their hearts?

  3. By Kent McManigal on 3 October 2008

    Let that person be taxed to death if that is what their masochistic heart desires. Just don’t let them volunteer ME to be stolen from.

  4. By Mike Gogulski on 3 October 2008

    Kent: Unfortunately the reasoning continues along the lines of: “Since others are like me, they ought to be taxed too, and doing so is thus legitimate.”

    Seems insane from where I sit, but there’s obviously a different set of fundamental values in play here.

  5. By Mr. Johnson on 3 October 2008

    This assumes that government should be enforcing morality instead of simply protecting our liberty. It shouldn’t be illegal to act immorally as long as the immoral actions don’t infringe on others rights, which robbery certainly does.

  6. By Seth on 3 October 2008

    Try asking them if they personally support the use of violence against *you* in order to collect those taxes. Remind them that you are being threatened with prison or death. Do they support you being thrown to the ground with a knee crushing your neck? Do they support you being clubbed, tasered, pepper sprayed, shot in the face or having your chest pumped full of bullets, should you decide to resist *effectively*? (that is to say, with a gun of your own).

  7. By Mike Gogulski on 3 October 2008

    Seth: tried that. *dodge* *avoid* *duck* *change subject*

  8. By Seth on 4 October 2008

    Always kind of pathetic to see the ham-fisted mental evasions at work. Sometime I feel like the earth is populated with so many people whose minds have been broken by govt and religion that it feels like an open-air insane asylum.

  9. By PR on 5 October 2008

    Actually, the original version is the better one:

    “What is hateful to you, do not do to any man.”

    This is from Rabbi Hillel, in the early 1st Century

  10. By Mike Gogulski on 5 October 2008

    PR: That formulation, to me, suffers the same flaw in that it tells us nothing about what ought not be done, merely that anything one might permit done to oneself is permissible to do to others. The rule lacks a foundation. If it were combined with the libertarian non-aggression or zero-aggression principle, then it becomes a restatement of the principle of equal liberty.

  11. By PR on 5 October 2008

    Hi Mike,

    Well, I said it was better, not perfect. 🙂

    But I really do like the foundation of self-reference. If I wouldn’t like you to do X to me, I won’t do it to anyone else. That’s a REALLY good foundation for human conduct, and it leads, directly, to the non-aggression principle you mention.

    Even more importantly, when beginning from self-reference, that non-aggression principle is built upon reason, not upon obedience or allegiance.

    In other words, rational conclusions gained from self-reference provide a MUCH better foundation than believing the same thing because it is “a libertarian principle,” or even a “tested principle.”

    Makes sense?

  12. By Mike Gogulski on 5 October 2008

    I agree that starting from self-reference, or self-ownership, is valuable. It’s also a useful argumentation tactic when challenging statism and other forms of oppression.

    I myself don’t really have a solid philosophical underpinning for the non-aggression principle, though. I have seen natural rights, religious, utilitarian, contractarian and consequentialist justifications for it, and I embrace it whole-heartedly, but I don’t find any of the justifications to be compellingly convincing. I am optimistic, though, in the sense that I believe the non-aggression principle to be intuitively inferrable in the personal philosophies of large numbers of people, though many of them unfortunately add qualifications and exceptions to it that obscure its central nature and its implications. If those qualifications and exceptions could be discarded, I believe, that intuitive desire to be left alone would combine gloriously with the Golden Rule and lead to a more harmonious society.

  13. By PR on 5 October 2008

    Agreed, amigo. Non-aggression seems to be innate, and it is the right thing.

    Rock on!

  14. By Kent McManigal on 5 October 2008

    Even very young children understand that initiating force is wrong. That is why they say “He started it!”

  15. By Mike Gogulski on 6 October 2008

    Nice insight, Kent. Would that more parents treated such incidents between children as an opportunity to investigate, determine causes and educate, rather than punishing both children involved in the fight for “crimes against domestic order”.

  16. By Vache Folle on 6 October 2008

    The Golden Rule has to be interpreted in the light of the other directives of Jesus. We are to love God with all our capacities and to love others as we love ourselves. I reckon this additional context provides the necessary underpinning, ie a notion of humans as ends in themselves, for the Rule to be effective.

    I don’t know if nonaggression is innate and that we have struggle and undergo training to make ourselves into aggressors. I have faith, however, that humans can be transformed into non-initiators and lovers of their conspecifics.

  17. By Mike Gogulski on 7 October 2008

    I share the optimism, Mr. Crazy Cow, though I don’t base it on any sort of religious belief. I also think there is a certain degree of innate aggression which either served us well through pre-conscious pre-history, or at least is unworthy of condemnation since doing so would be to negate our own existence. But it is this lack of the underpinning I’m really decrying here. I see people employing the Golden Rule as justification for undesirable things whether they are religious or not, and quite often when they don’t share the values you and I do, even when those values arise from differing schools of thought. I don’t know how you’ve squared anarchism with Christianity yourself, but it strikes me as difficult to arrive at the position “humans are ends in themselves” when the biblical teaching — particularly the old testament material — portrays our conspecifics as mere playthings for God’s whims and this whims of His earthly favorites so often. Nice to have your comment here, by the way!

  18. By Protogoth on 8 October 2008

    The Inverse Golden Rule is a much better ethical formulation:

    “Do not do unto others that which they would not want done unto them.”

  19. By Philip on 8 October 2008

    That’s just a weasel cop-out. Would he want to be taxed if he objected to taxation? Of course not.

  20. By brmerrick on 8 October 2008

    I agree with Philip. I think Mike’s friend is copping out with his explanation of The Golden Rule. By Mike’s friend’s reasoning, “If I’m in a library and I feel like being loud, I should permit others to be loud at the library.” That reasoning is faulty. That means rapists could use The Golden Rule to give an excuse for rape. “If I were a woman, I’d want to have rough sex with me.”

    Mike’s friend has forgotten what The Golden Rule is all about. First, he must put himself in another’s shoes. Having money taken by violent force is something that most people find hurtful. It makes one feel violated, betrayed. It can also make one fearful. After understanding where the other person is coming from, then you apply The Golden Rule.

    If Mike’s friend wants help with his greed, then tell him to ask the government to take his money AND ONLY HIS. Then he can spread the message about how good it feels to be legally required to hand his money over to the government, just as we are selling people the message of anarchy.

  21. By Steven on 8 October 2008

    Just be thankful your neighbour was not suicidal or into pain fetish.

    The Golden rule should be revised to; do unto others as you would have done unto you AND as they would have done unto them.

  22. By Mike Gogulski on 26 October 2008

    brmerrick: Long overdue, but thanks very much for this insight.

  23. By Daniel Shorthouse on 6 September 2009

    Would you have others initiate force against you?

    No; that is impossible. If a person wished to have others “initiate force” against him, then it would be by his consent – in which case it is not, ethically speaking, force at all. He would, then, only wish not to have other people compel him to abandon his fetish for subordination, which again demonstrates a preference for non-aggression.

    Even those who willingly pay taxes would prefer not to have their choice TO pay taxes removed from them; and most, given the choice to cease such payment without negative consequences.

    So the Golden Rule is quite sufficient to constitute a universal ethic, when it is applied categorically instead of restricted to specific cases. Properly understood, it is a restatement of the non-aggression principle.

  24. By Daniel Shorthouse on 6 September 2009

    Er… that is, “most, given the choice to cease such payment without negative consequences, would do so”.

  25. By Tony on 27 March 2010

    This may sound childish and I hope it is received in such a manner, at least heart to heart.

    I have studied religions and various versions of the bible and I beleive after much study that bible teaching does offer a natural conclusion and way of life to be practiced, if you break it down to the most important lesson.

    It is difficult to explain in short but when questioned by the gurus of his day about the greatest commandment, Christ merely summarized the ten commandments, the 1st -4th by saying love God with all your heart mind and soul and 5-10th with, love your neighbor as yourself.

    For those who see no wisdom in a God I would say, it sets the stage to understand that we as people don’t have all the answers and mostly there is only one God and we are not it.

    My job or debt I owe to others with this in mind, is to not try to lord over others because I am not the lord, my debt I owe is to love others by practicing love, remembering love in action is not feelings, love is doing the commandments towards others. Not to murder, not to steal not to lie, etc, this is love in practice, i di say practice because no one can be perfect, to me as close to a perfect heart we can have is one that is earnestly trying to do love and learning from life’s mistakes as we go and asking forgiveness of others when we do screw up.

    Another beautiful part to this is, I can apply this love even to those I don’t like, even if they don’t apply love towards me, it is the way to love even my enemies, by not returning hatred.

    Spreading the love of God to me means to whatever level I practice love towards others, these rules of accountability are natural and etched on our hearts, no one has to define stealing when it happens to us or others, generally, if we are not hardened to it, or had our innocence to feel these things erased from our hearts, we recognize the pain of it.

    That is also why I beleive Christ spent so much time using children as an example and saying, unless we can become as one of them, in no way can we see the kingdom of heaven, he also said the kingdom of heaven is within.

    What does it mean when people say God is love or things like spreading god’s love, or the holy ‘Spirit’ I would say his spirit is known and re-created through those practicing love.

    When I lie to others or a spouse for example, the pain that produces is in my mind and heart what I would consider a sin, because it is a sin against her very nature or the natural pain it produced in her and myself for doing it to her.

    This applies to all aspects of breaking these simple rules against each other, using them creates feelings of love or hatred whgen they are broken. Simple psychology in a world gone mad.

    It is the God/love in us or lack of, that re-creates a heaven or hell in our lives and world.

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