Growing up, we all learned the Golden Rule (all of us, that is, except Peter Pan): “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”
According to Wikipedia (January 27, 2015) the Golden Rule is an “ethic of reciprocity”:
- One should treat others as one would like others to treat oneself
- One should not treat others in ways that one would not like to be treated
“This concept describes a reciprocal, or two-way, relationship between one’s self and others that involves both sides equally and in a mutual fashion.”
A version of the Golden Rule is found in most cultures, religions and ethical systems. For example, Confucius said, “Never impose on others what you would not choose for yourself.”
We are usually taught this rule in contrast to an imagined alternative ethic of selfishness, which goes something like this: I want to benefit myself and I set out to do so ‘by any means necessary’. I have no regard for how my behavior will impact others and I am not at all concerned with how others may behave toward me.
Society’s assumption is that, acting out of this ethic of selfishness, I will behave badly. Perhaps I’ll punch my playmate in the nose and steal his toys; and perhaps I do just exactly that. Then some authority figure, usually a parent, comes along and points out that I should be treating my playmate the way I would like my playmate to treat me. Since I would not want him to mistreat me (unless I was a masochist), I should not mistreat him. The Golden Rule appears to place strict limits on my ability to benefit myself.
But it isn’t like that at all! I do not mistreat my friend because of an imaginary ethic of selfishness. I do so because I am stupid – well, if not stupid, then how about ignorant…or inexperienced? Punching my friend in the nose and taking his toys, is not the best way for me to benefit myself; it probably doesn’t benefit me at all. But being a child, I understandably have not figured that out yet. (Now if I’m still punching my friends and stealing their property as an adult, well, that’s somewhat less ‘understandable’.)
The so-called ethic of selfishness simply does not add up. Ultimately, I can’t benefit myself entirely at the expense of others and I cannot completely disregard the way others treat me. My ability to get the goods that I desire likely depends at least in part on the ability of others to get the goods that they desire; and my ability to get the goods that I desire will certainly depend in part on how others behave toward me.
I may be pursuing my own well-being but I am not doing so in a vacuum. Therefore, if I am to maximize my own good, I must take into consideration the goods realized by others and the potential behavior of others toward me. The alternative ethic of selfishness is nothing but a relic of moral dualism, the myth of good vs. evil. As Augustine and Aquinas taught and as we shall see later on in this essay, all behavior is motivated by a desire for good, however misunderstood and misapplied that desire may be.
So then, what is the Golden Rule, really? On one level, it is a strategic option from Game Theory. To the extent that everyone has common values, everyone would be most likely to realize those values if they practiced the Golden Rule, assuming at least that everyone else practices it as well.
Therefore, the Golden Rule is often considered an unspoken contract underlying human society per se. As a utilitarian strategy for delivering the greatest good to the greatest number, it makes sense.
On another level, the Golden Rule is a moral imperative. We follow it, not to optimize our own good, perhaps not even to optimize the good of another or the good of society as a whole. We follow it simply because it is right. Confucius’ formulation (above) shows off this aspect nicely.
As an ethical principle, the Golden Rule functions as a sort of moral razor. I confront another (the baseline condition of all morality); how am I to behave? I have innumerable options. How can I possibly evaluate all these options in real time and settle on a single optimal act?
Some ethical systems address this challenge with a code of laws. They attempt to deliver a specific moral imperative for every possible situation. The Pentateuch (first 5 books of the Old Testament), for example, lays out the 611 commandments of the Written Torah, designed to cover every nook and cranny of the ethical landscape.
There are problems with this approach, however. First, everyone must learn all 611 precepts by heart…no mean feat in itself. Second, they must internalize some sort of index that enables them to select and apply the right precept to each and every real life moral dilemma. Finally, there is no way that any number of moral precepts, not even 611, could adequately address each and every possible circumstance, especially as circumstances and behavioral options evolve over time.
The Golden Rule offers an alternative approach. If our positions were reversed, how would I want the person across from me to behave toward me? This reversal of focus immediately collapses the moral wave function: 611 possible behaviors, each with its own defined probability of relevance, suddenly become one actual behavior, 100% relevant. We all know what we’d like for ourselves (or at least we think we do). We’re much less certain what we want for another or what another wants for herself.
It’s like turning a telescope around and looking through ‘the wrong end’; or like a vertical arrow, traveling full circle around a Mobius Strip and undergoing a reversal of orientation in the process.
Perhaps the Golden Rule has something to teach us about quantum mechanics. A coherent ethical system decoheres when the perspective is reversed. Perhaps the apparent dichotomy between the classical world and the quantum world isn’t a matter of scale after all. Perhaps it’s a function of the perspective of the observer.
With the help of the Golden Rule, we are now able move from codified law, the Written Torah, to natural law, the Oral Torah. Where it’s applicable, the Golden Rule lets us make complex ethical decisions instantaneously and almost infallibly.
Christians place great store by the Golden Rule and rightly so. In its traditional formulation, it appears twice in Judeo-Christian scripture, both times as an aphorism from the mouth of Jesus himself:
“Whatever you desire that men may do to you, so you do also to them.” (Mt.7:12)
“As you desire that men may do to you, you also do likewise to them.” (Lk.6:31)
But in both cases, these aphorisms occur as part of a collection of aphorisms, not strongly connected to any surrounding text or to any particular situational context. There is another, superficially similar teaching found in Judeo-Christian scripture that occurs a total of 7 times, once in the Old Testament:
“You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” (Lv. 19:18, Mk. 22:40, Mt. 22:40, Lk. 10:27b, Rm. 13:9, Gal. 5:14, Jas. 2:8) In every case where this teaching appears, it is in a very specific context and it is strongly linked to the surrounding text.
Wikipedia considers this to be nothing more than an alternative rendering of the Golden Rule, but its distinct formulation and its prominence in Judeo-Christian scripture suggest otherwise. The New Testament presents this teaching as one part of the “Great Commandment”:
“Hear, O Israel! The Lord your God is Lord alone! You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength…(and) You shall love your neighbor as yourself. There is no other commandment greater than these.” (Mk. 12:29-31)
Matthew adds, “The whole law and the prophets depend on these two commandments.” (Mt. 22:40)
Luke goes on to explain love of neighbor using the famous parable of the Good Samaritan. (Lk. 10:30-36)
Paul goes further still: “For the whole law is fulfilled in one statement, namely, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself’.” (Ga. 5:14)
Earlier, we said that the Written Torah (Pentateuch) consisted of 611 commandments; actually it’s 613. The Great Commandment appears in the Old Testament as two distinct commandments but these two commandments are considered by most scholars to be a summation of the other 611. So we really have 613 commandments in all, 611 specific commandments and two summary commandments.
That is why Matthew says, “The whole law and the prophets depend on these two commandments;” and why Paul says, “…the one who loves another had fulfilled the law…love in the fulfillment of the law.” (Rm. 13:9) The Great Commandment collapses 611 moral potentia into a single moral act.
Even so, is Wikipedia right? Is the Great Commandment simply an alternative formulation of the Golden Rule? “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” vs. “Love your neighbor as yourself”. Is there really any difference?
All the difference in the world! The Golden Rule is variously a strategic option from Game Theory, an unspoken element in the social compact and an ethical norm. The Great Commandment, on the other hand, is an ontology!
Later, we shall see that the Golden Rule is a corollary of the Great Commandment but it is the Great Commandment itself that tells us something surprising and critically important about the world we live in.
“Love your neighbor as yourself.” Most often, we’re inclined to hear this as “Love your neighbor the same way you love yourself.” But as with the ethic of selfishness, this common sense interpretation doesn’t hold up.
First, there is something unseemly about it. It is one thing to say, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” but the notion that self-love should actually be the ethical cornerstone does not seem at all consistent with the Judeo-Christian message. What happens, for example, to “Greater love has no man than this: that he lay down his life for his friends”? (Jn. 15:13)
Second, this doesn’t account for the very real ethic of ascetic self–sacrifice. Mother Theresa was not at all concerned with love of self; but she was passionate in her love for others. Finally, consider the unfortunate person who utterly lacks self-love. Is he exempt from the Great commandment? Of course not; something else must be intended here.
The problem lies with our understanding of the word “as” (os in Greek). It does not mean “like”: Love your neighbor like yourself. Os is derived from the definite article (‘that’ or ‘this’). A closer, albeit clumsy, translation would be: “Love your neighbor that is yourself.”
With this simple discovery, we crack the code of Judeo-Christian scripture. Traditional ontologies consider God, Self and Other as mutually transcendent categories. The Great Commandment conflates (not equates!) these absolutes into distinct terms of a single (dare I say Trinitarian?) process.
The Great Commandment suggests that in loving God, we love our neighbor and in loving our neighbor we love ourselves; it suggests that in loving our neighbor, we love God and in loving God, we also love ourselves. We love God and neighbor first and through that love we love ourselves as well.
New Testament renderings of the Great Commandment make this clear. Matthew writes:
“(A scholar of the law) tested him (Jesus) by asking: ‘Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?’ He (Jesus) said to him, ‘You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and the first commandment. The second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’”
Is Matthew suggesting that the first and second parts of the Great Commandment are actually saying the same thing, albeit in different ways? Is love of God and love of neighbor actually one and the same?
Paul thought so: “For the whole law is fulfilled in one statement, namely, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself’.” (Ga. 5:14)
We love ourselves, not as Narcissus did when he saw his reflection in the pool, but as we are reflected in God and in our neighbor. Narcissus sees his reflection in an inert medium; there is still only Narcissus. The reflection is an illusion of sorts.
We can only really see ourselves as we are reflected in other beings that share with us a common ‘image and likeness’ and a common ontological status. My reflection in God and my reflection in my neighbor are real. These reflections and I share the same ontological status.
Again, one thinks of Peter Pan. Ordinary shadows are projections, like Narcissus’ reflection. Pan’s shadow, however, is independent of him. A recurrent theme throughout Peter’s adventures concerns his efforts to be reunited with this shadow.
When we love God, we also love ourselves reflected in God. When we love our neighbor, we also love ourselves reflected in that neighbor. And when we love ourselves, we love God and our neighbor reflected in us. That’s what the Great Commandment really means.
What are the ethical implications of such an ontology? However I act toward my neighbor, I act the same way toward myself (since my neighbor is myself). Unlike the Golden Rule, the Great Commandment does not rely on the cooperation of another. There is no mention of another’s agency here; the mutual, contractual aspect is entirely missing.
Like Europeans before Columbus et al., we imagine that we live in a flat world. Our actions seem to propagate in just one direction, away from us and toward others. But that is an illusion! We’re only seeing half the picture. Actions travel in two directions simultaneously. They radiate outward, toward others, and inward, toward ourselves. What we do to others, we automatically and simultaneously do to ourselves. We are all linked together in a radically recursive web.
The Great Commandment does not replace the Golden Rule, nor does it contradict it. The Golden Rule is still valid in its own domain: it is a good personal strategy, it is sound social policy, and it is a useful moral imperative.
It turns out in fact that the Golden Rule can be logically deduced from the Great Commandment. “Love your neighbor as yourself” leads to “Do as you would have done to you” which in turn leads to “Do unto others as you would have them to do unto you”. The Golden Rule is consistent with the Great Commandment, in fact it is a logical consequence of the Great Commandment, but it is certainly not synonymous with the Great Commandment.
The great French Existentialist, Jean-Paul Sartre took this argument in a different direction. In Existentialism as a Humanism, he wrote:
“When we say that man chooses for himself…we also mean that in choosing for himself he chooses for all men. For in effect, of all the actions a man may take in order to create himself as he wills to be, there is not one which is not creative, at the same time, of an image of man such as he believes he ought to be. To choose between this or that is at the same time to affirm the value of that which is chosen; for we are unable ever to choose the worse. What we choose is always the better; and nothing can be better for us unless it is better for all.”
This might be called the Commutative Law of Ethics. In essence, Sartre has reversed the Golden Rule but in doing so he has shown that the behavioral implications are identical either way. Sartre’s formulation is not at all concerned with the welfare of the Other. He is focused on the behavior each man chooses for himself. That behavior is motivated by each man’s desire to maximize his or her own good. But by choosing a certain behavior, a man affirms a set of values entailed in that behavior and thereby sets up those values as an “image” for others to imitate.
Setting up an image is not the purpose of human action but it is its unavoidable consequence. I act the way I do because I think it is the best option for me. In doing so, I offer my choice to others as a proposal for them, confident that any other man in similar circumstances would (or at least should) make the same choice. Therefore, how I act is how I hope and expect others will act. To the extent that my actions involve ‘doing unto others’, those actions are most certainly ‘as I would have others do unto me’.
Sartre’s surprising corollary brings us back to the Great Commandment. When I choose to act, I act upon myself (the focus of my choice), upon others (a necessary consequence of my choice) and ‘upon’ God in the sense that I affirm certain absolute values. In affirming those values, I appear to usurp God’s role…but there’s a catch: I cannot affirm values other than the values God affirms since we are both constrained by an absolute inability ‘ever to choose the worse’.
How is it then that I am different from God, that I make mistakes, sin, even do evil? How is it my ways are not God’s ways? This goes back to a point we made toward the beginning of this essay: even if I know by heart the 611 precepts of the Written Torah, I may not apply them ‘properly’ in real life situations. Even if I affirm all of God’s values, I may affirm the wrong value in the wrong situation. That does not taint the value but it does taint the behavior.
For example, moral rectitude is a virtue but there are situations where compassion, also a virtue, would be the better choice. Pleasure is a value but there are times when it would better be deferred in service of a higher purpose.
God and I affirm the same values. We share the same understanding of the ‘good’. However, God always affirms the right values under the right circumstances in the right combinations and proportions; I do not. We call God’s world “Heaven” or “Paradise” for obvious reasons.
Hugh Everett’s Many Worlds Interpretation of Quantum Mechanics suggests that there is a unique universe that corresponds to every possible quantum choice and every possible combination of choices. In that case, one (and only one) of those unique universes is the Kingdom of Heaven.
When I affirm God’s values, I affirm that ‘God is Lord alone’ and I ‘love the Lord my God with all my heart, with all my soul, with all my mind, and with all my strength’ because choosing my actions (and affirming God’s values in the process) is precisely what I am: “Nothing beside remains!” (Shelley, Ozymandias)
Now we are in a position to understand John 14:15 – 21: “If you love me you will keep my commandments…Whoever has my commandments and observes them is the one who loves me.” Read that as “If you love me you will affirm my values…Whoever has my values and affirms them is the one who loves me.”
The Golden Rule emerges from this consideration as a marvelous, but extremely limited application of a much more general ontological principle: my actions, whether motivated by concern for self, neighbor or God, will be optimal so long as I act in good faith, always choosing the better of any two options. My actions, whether directed toward God, my neighbor or myself, will always affect all three, equally and identically. That’s the fundamental ontological law that underlies human society and ethics.