The Golden Rule is Bunk!

I was originally going to post this on Mr. Blue Sky’s thread, “What is the upper limit before stealing becomes a sin?” (I hope I remembered the title correctly), but after some consideration, decided that it probably merited a thread of its own. As Mr. Blue Sky noted in the aforementioned thread of his, all religions have rules against stealing, but most people do it anyway (and don’t seem to have a problem with it). Well, what I’d like to argue in this thread is that, despite how much everyone seems to gush about the Golden Rule (henceforth to be abbreviated to GR), and go on (pretty much ad nauseam) about what a cornerstone of morality it is, everyone violates it (on a pretty much daily basis), and in ways that are considered acceptable to probably the vast majority of humanity. Firstly, to clarify the subject under discussion, the GR is, of course, that guiding principle of conduct which states “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” (or some similarly-worded version thereof). (This rule is probably most often associated in our society with Christianity, which is actually rather ironic given that that religion’s deity probably committed the biggest violation of it of all time by creating Hell. Yes, I’m sure God would have liked it had Satan condemned him to neverending pain and torment. Yeah right!) Sounds pretty straightforward, right? WRONG! Here are some of the more-or-less socially acceptable ways in which the GR is violated.

Whenever you eat something, or kill some form of plant or animal life for any reason whatsoever: With the exceptions of fruit (which, in most (if not all) cases, is designed to be eaten: being, as it is in its many and varied forms, a rather elaborate and clever seed dispersal mechanism) and an inert mineral like salt (which nobody eats on its own anyway), all food for human consumption is provided by plant and animal lifeforms which would undoubtedly rather not be used for that purpose. (Vegetarians may claim the moral high ground here, but really, how do we know that plants are really as insensate as people assume that they are, and therefore do not find the experience of being uprooted, cooked and eaten a singularly traumatic one?) Some might protest that the GR only applies to our dealings with other human beings, but I see nothing in the way that it is usually worded which suggests that this is the case. Besides, I’m sure that the GR has often been invoked to condemn cruelty to animals. After all, whenever a particularly outrageous example of this makes the news, there always seems to be lots of outraged souls suggesting that the perpetrator be subjected to the same ill-treatment which they meted out to their victim(s) to see how much they like it!

Whenever you succeed in any sort of competitive activity: For example:

  1. Business - one thing that never ceases to fascinate me is some of the downright nasty behaviour that is considered completely acceptable in the name of making a profit. Even if we condemn the more extreme examples of this, the fact remains that all business activities involve winners and losers, and no-one wants to be one of the latter. For example, suppose you and I own rival businesses. If I manage, through a slicker sales campaign or by offering better service than you, to secure clients who would otherwise have done business with you (or, even worse, I “steal” your existing clients), you LOSE! You derive no benefit whatsoever from my good fortune, and I would be considered a complete moron to share my profits with you. And if I run my business so much better than yours that I force yours to close down, you LOSE EVEN MORE! Would I like the same thing to happen to me? Of course I fucking well wouldn’t (I’d be a pretty lousy businessman if I would)! I am therefore acting in clear violation of the GR, but no-one (save, perhaps, a Marxist or someone of similar political bent) is going to condemn me for it! MUHAHAHAHAHAHAHA! (Sorry, I just couldn’t help myself there. :slight_smile: )

  2. Sport - Anyone who doubts that succeeding in a sporting competition violates the GR need only look at the devastation on the faces of the losing side (or athletes), their fans, coach etc to be persuaded otherwise. I swear that the only way you could cause some of them a comparable level of pain would be by killing a close family member.

  3. Politics - No political party, of course, likes to be relegated to the role of Opposition, yet, when elections come around, there can only be one winner. Not only would defeating your political opponents in an election violate the GR, but many of the decidedly ugly tactics that politicians use during the lead-up to elections do so as well (and I won’t even go into some of the things that political parties do to stay in power, even in democracies!). To be fair, many people find the behaviour of politicians repellent, but I’m sure that most political analysts would dismiss the idea that you could gain power and keep it by being nice.

  4. War - Perhaps the most extreme competitive activity practiced by humans. Not only does winning a war violate the GR (particularly if victory is followed by such unpleasantries for the losing side as war crimes trials, the enforcement of crippling reparations etc), but the myriad acts that are committed on the battlefield to ensure victory obviously do so as well. Indeed, there are some weapons whose main value lies not so much in their ability to kill large numbers of people (itself a flagrant violation of the GR), but in their sheer nastiness: in the fact that they do unto others what no person with any shred of sanity in his head would wish to have done to himself. And it’s an unfortunate truism of war that the most effective weapons also tend to be the most indiscriminate, while the winning side tends to be the most ruthless.

And there are many other competitive activities you can probably think of as well which illustrate my point eg winning an argument (particularly if you do so in a manner that completely destroys your opponent), making a groundbreaking scientific discovery before rival researchers do etc.

Whenever you punish someone for some misdeed: Pretty much self-explanatory. Indeed, if a punishment isn’t inherently unpleasant (ie violates the GR), it isn’t a punishment and therefore has no value as such.

Whenever you reject someone’s romantic advances: Let’s face it. Having your love for someone else go unrequited SUCKS BIG TIME, no matter how nicely the other person tries to let you know that they’re just not interested in you. Yet would those who cite the GR as that principle which should guide all our actions suggest that, in order to avoid violating it, we should reciprocate the affections of everyone who fancies us? What if they’re unsuitable? What if we just don’t like them (what if, in fact, they make us physically nauseous)? What if they have the word STALKER stamped all over them? What if we’re already taken?

Whenever you make a difficult decision in response to some dilemma: The trouble with dilemmas, of course, is that, no matter what decision you make in response to them, at least one person is going to get hurt (they wouldn’t be dilemmas otherwise). So, even if you want to follow the GR, there’s going to be at least one poor sap who ends up having done unto him something that you wouldn’t want to have done unto you. So which person do you pick to be that poor sap, particularly if whoever it ends up being suffers no less unpleasant a fate than any of the others you could have chosen instead? For example, suppose you’re faced with what seems to be a not uncommon medical dilemma nowadays: that of conjoined twins who must be separated if one of them is to have a chance at life. If you don’t do anything, they’ll both die; if you save one, the other will die. If you choose to save one, which one? What if they both have an equal chance of surviving; how do you choose which one to save (and, since the outcome is likely to be the same either way, does it even matter)? Flip a coin? It may sound like a callous way to decide the matter, but it’s probably no more so than making what will probably be an arbitary decision if you give the matter a bit more consideration (and if it forces you to make a decision, rather than put that decision off until it’s too late, it’s good in that respect). I know I’m veering a little off-topic here, but my point is, in situations like the one I’ve just described, the GR is more or less USELESS as a guide to what you should do.

Another, somewhat less serious, way to see the shortcomings of the GR is to imagine how you would really like others to treat you. Be honest here! If you’re anything like me, you’d ideally like others to be pretty much your personal slaves, catering to your every selfish desire and whim 24/7. But does that mean you’re going to start being everyone else’s personal slave? I… DON’T… THINK… SO!

So, after all this, my point is, given that there are so many ways in which we can violate the GR (probably without even realizing it), and given that life as we know it would probably be impossible if we attempted to follow that rule all the time, how do we decide when to follow it and when not to? Is it, in fact, a lot like the old spelling rule “I before E except after C”: a rule that’s quoted all the time and made to sound really authoritative as a consequence, but which has so many exceptions that it’s actually not nearly as useful a guide as people would have you believe? I’d be interested to hear people’s thoughts. Be warned, however! Answers such as “it doesn’t matter when it’s sport [or any of the other examples I’ve mentioned]” will be regarded by the OP as nothing more than feeble attempts to evade the question, and dismissed accordingly. Have fun!

The “Golden Rule” (do unto others…") is a paraphrase from Leviticus “love your neighbor as yourself.”

Speaking from the Jewish POV, please keep in mind that not all the commandments are absolutes. For example:

One is commanded to honor one’s parents. Yet, the Shulchan Aruch lists off several examples of cases where one is not required to listen to one’s parents.

One is commanded not to kill. Yet, there are circumstances where killing is permitted or even required.

One is commanded not to steal. Yet, I can (according to Jewish law) steal something to save someone’s life.

One is commanded to observe the Sabbath. Yet, there are times (even when lives were not at stake) that one was permitted to perform otherwise ordinarily prohibited labor on the Sabbath.

The examples that you gave are rather poor ones.

Judaism teaches that animals were put here for our use and pleasure. Of course one must be humane in the way that they are treated, but one is certainly permitted to eat animals. One’s neighbor does not include one’s animal. My cow is not my neighbor.

One is required to earn a living. Sure, I have a job. Does that mean that someone else could have this job? Maybe. But that doesn’t mean that I am required to give up my livelihood. Nor am I required to sign over my house to a homeless family.

When people play sports (except hockey :slight_smile: ) there is the understanding that one player/team will be the winner and the other will be the loser. There is nothing wrong with playing one’s hardest to win.

Same as Sports

War, of course, should be the last resort. However, there are times that war is permitted and justified. You think it was morally wrong to declare war on Japan on Dec 8, 1941?

We are commanded, both on an individual level and a societal level to punish people who violate our rules. I punish my children when they do wrong as a means of teaching them to do right. Just because something is momentarily unpleasant doesn’t mean it isn’t good and right. Would you also not have me give my children unpleasant tasting medicine if they needed it?

Rejecting romantic advances

No one likes rejection. Yet, accepting a romantic advance that you know well in advance will not lead anywhere is a sure recipie for disaster. I am not required to give up the search for my soulmate just because someone else has decided that I am their soulmate.

In short, you’re viewing the GR as an absolute, yet there are very few rules that are indeed absolutes in life.

Zev Steinhardt

Allow me to be the first (unless someone else punches in before me, as is likely) to point out that your interpretation of the Golden Rule isn’t the same as that of most people. “Do Unto Others as You Would Have Them Do Unto You” is intended to be a quick and happy guide to ethical behavior, not an injunction that no one should ever win or place someone else at a disadvantage. In my book, someone can beat me at racquetball, if he’s better than I am, or luckier, or whatever. By the same token, I could beat him or her, given the same factors. This doesn’t violate the gR. But if they do so by cutting off my legs, they have clearly violated the spirit of the GR. Making a boorish display of winning is a lesser violation. As long as that person, in winning (or in trying to win) treats me as he/she would like to be treated, realistically, then the GR is satisfied.

The vision you present is like the one in that Kurt Vonnegut story where they force everyone to be “equal” by burdening the talented until everyone is equally uncomfortable and incapable.

If you want to avoid any sense of hurt, and if any disappointment qualifies as an injury, you might want to contemplate Buddhism.

This isn’t even an attempt at a full answer, but in sports, for example, the competitors willingly enter into a tacit contract, overriding the GR, consisting of something along the lines of “I’ll try to beat you, you’ll try to beat me, we’ll play fair; may the best player win and may the loser not feel sore”. So in a sense, you ARE ‘doing as you would be done by’ because you expect your opponent to play to win, the same as yourself.

Other exceptions are harder to deal with.

More thoughts along the same lines; a contract (espcially an explicit one) trumps the GR becuase the GR is what you’d be supposed to do when you don’t know the exact wishes of the other party and you’re forced to fudge; perhaps it would be better said: “If you don’t know how others would have you treat them, then treat them as you would yourself like to be treated”. But even this is implied in the ordinary version because if you know how someone wishes to be treated and treat them otherwise, then you’re ignoring their wishes (something you wouldn’t like done to yourself).

If the Golden Rule is bunk, blame Confucius. Meanwhile, the moral imperative Jesus gives is “Be perfect”.

Also, just because the numerous instances of it not being followed don’t devalue it as a piece of sound advice, any more than, say, ‘For the sake of your own safety, don’t do anything unbelievably and stupidly dangerous’ is devalued, as a piece of sound advice, by the antics of the Darwin Award nominees.

Ignore the words ‘just because’ in the above post. :o

If treating other people as you would like to be treated does not make any sense to you as a moral standard, what moral standard DOES make sense to you?

The REAL Golden Rule is “he who has the gold makes the rules.” Any doubts to its validity? :slight_smile:

I’ve always agreed with G. B. Shaw, who said, “Do not do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Their tastes may be different.”

I doubt seriously whether you understand the GR at all.

In the first place, it is meant to be a guide for moral interactions between humans. Your complaint that a carrot would rather not be eaten is irrelevant.

Secondly, it isn’t necessarily true that for every business that succeeds one must fail. Do you truly believe this? The GR says nothing about winning and losing; rather, it tells us how we should behave. If you are in business, you should engage in fair business practices. The same holds true for your sports analogy. Play fair, don’t cheat, respect your opponent.

The GR speaks to individuals, not governments. How much punishment do you meet out on a daily basis? Even so, a moral agent would argue that he should be punished if he transgresses. Do you not expect to be held accountable for your actions?

The romantic advances argument is incoherent. The GR holds that we should be honest with each other. If I am not interested in you it follows from the GR that I should say so, rather than lead you on.

Unless you are a masochist in which case a charge of assault could be the result.

That’s wonderful. I’ve had animals try to eat me before. That is the natural order, a cycle of life and death.

Business, Sport, Politics
Well, yes, sometimes it is necessary to compete with others. The point here is to treat them fairly. I expect to lose in many of these types of encounters, but I hope that my opponent or competitor acts honorably, so I do as well.

I believe in war as the absolute last resort, but sometimes it is necessary. If I were committing genocide, I would wish that someone would come stop me, as well. I would also conduct the war as if it were taking place in my hometown.

No one wants punishment, but sometimes we deserve it.

Rejecting romantic advances
I expect some peopel to reject me, just as I would reject some people. However, I will treat them honestly and kindly.

Sometimes we have to do distasteful things. The GR (and its variants) teach us that we can do these things carefully, as we would have distasteful things done to us.