Reflections on Ethics 99
No Morality in the Golden Rule
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In his book Religion Explained, Pascal Boyer writes (p175):
...it is extremely difficult to elicit general moral principles in many places in the world. For instance, the Fang find the explicit principle "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you" so vague and and general that it is virtually meaningless. But these people are certainly not immoral, far from it. They constantly talk about this action being right and that one wrong, as is true of every human group.
The golden rule vague? The golden rule virtually meaningless? I'm in agreement with the Fang on this. The golden rule certainly does not provide moral guidance. It is at best a guide for making an extremely subjective decision.
Suppose - this is going to be difficult for many of our readers, but bear with me - suppose you are a devout Christian, attending a church service and listening to a fiery sermon about the torments of Hell that non-believers are going to suffer. And you leave that service all fired up with the evangelistic spirit thinking that the golden rule makes it your responsibility to bring your disbelieving friends to Christ. After all, if you were not a Christian, you would want a friend to convert you and save you from Hell. Fortunately, Wednesday night you are due to have dinner with Sam and family - disbelievers all. You vow to bring them Christ's message. It is what a friend should do.
Then on Monday night, you get a visit from two Mormon missionaries bringing you their message. Tuesday night, it is the turn of the Jehovah's witnesses to knock on your door. Then on Wednesday, because the weather, is fine you choose to walk over to Sam's house.
But your route takes you past the Scientologists' local office and passing by, you are pressingly offered a free personality test. Further along your route, it's the Hari Krishna hangout and brochures and tapes are offered by dancing fools as you pass by. Going through the park, you encounter a couple of end-of-the-world preachers predicting an immediate Apocalypse and a street imam waving a Koran and quoting Muhammad. Once out of the park, you pass by a cemetery, and as your luck would have it, the Phelps Family Fanatics are picketing a funeral.
You reach Sam's house, exhausted with all the attempts to convert you. You've had your fill. You want to hear no more. And applying the golden rule, you say to Sam - "Let's not talk about religion tonight." Sam smiles and replies "No politics either."
The point is - the golden rule has given you no specific direction at all. Your original intention was framed by your state of mind coming out of church, and your actual decision at Sam's house was framed by your experiences after church. In the end, the golden rule failed to provide absolute infallible guidance to lead you to a correct decision.
Bernard Shaw had several things to say about the golden rule. The most apt to my point here is:
Do not do unto others as you would that they should do unto you. Their tastes may not be the same.
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