In the best known form, the Golden Rule reads: Do unto others as you would have others do unto you.
The Golden Rule has been around forever. All religions have a version. All ethical philosophers have offered a version. In one form or another it belongs to every set of ethical precepts.
This means, first, that it has been intelligible to large numbers of people over long periods of time. It means, second, that it must be reasonably effective.
People do not cling to rules that they do not understand and that do not work for them.
Thus, the Golden Rule deserves some respect. If it doesn’t make sense to you, you have probably misunderstood it.
It is perfectly reasonable for the New York Times resident “ethicist” to offer a few thoughts about the Golden Rule. Chuck Klosterman, as he is also known, writes an excellent column for the Sunday Times magazine.
One would expect that he would have some minimal understanding of the Golden Rule. If so, one is going to be severely disappointed.
This week Klosterman denounced the foundation of nearly all ethical systems as a “durable platitude,” “a collection of words that sound vaguely profound.”
When it comes to serious thinking about serious subjects Klosterman is in way over his head. He should limit himself to handing out platitudinous advice.
Klosterman’s column naturally begins with a reader’s query about the Golden Rule:
However I feel that in our diverse, modern world, it is less than ideal. By assuming other people should be treated the way I want to be treated, it imposes my preferences and values on those around me. Wouldn’t a better rule be “One should treat others as they want to be treated”
Obviously, he is using a dumbed-down version of the Rule. Perhaps he has some allergy to the Biblical version. Apparently, he is taking, “would have others do unto you” as equivalent to “want to be treated” but the two are not quite the same.
The letter writer is correct to say that the rule tells you to express a preference, but expressing a preference is not at all the same as imposing anything on anyone else.
As they say at the bridge table, the rule is invitational, not forcing. It invites others to act in a certain way. It does not force them to do anything at all.
If you miss that you have missed the whole point of the Golden Rule. It is not an auspicious start.
The Rule offers you a way to show others how you would like to be treated, while still leaving them the freedom to do so or not to do so. Ethically speaking, it’s a lot better than forcing people to do what you tell them to do.
So, the letter writer has eliminated freedom, especially the part that implies respecting the freedom of others.
To understand the Rule it is useful to place it in context. In Matthew 5, 38-39 Jesus said:
Ye have heard that it hath been said, An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth: But I say unto you, That ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also.
The Golden Rule replaces and supercedes the law of the talion: an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. The law of the talion says that you should do unto others as others do unto you. It says that when someone offends you, you should reciprocate in kind.
By turning the other cheek you are not doing to the other person what he did to you. You are showing how you prefer to be treated. It offers you a way to avoid entering into a round of insults and invective.
Obviously, this version of the Rule is also subject to interpretation. It might be suggesting that when someone offends you, you should first take it as inadvertent and unintentional.
Yet, there comes a time when you run out of cheeks. At that, point self-defense might be called for. But that does not mean that the self-defense should be of exactly the same kind as the original offense. The Rule suggests that one ought not to emulate the example of an offensive assailant.
In fairness, we do not expect that people who write letters to the New York Times have any expertise in Biblical exegesis. We do not expect it from New York Times reporters either, but we do expect that they have thought more deeply on the subject.
Here, we are going to be disappointed. Klosterman offers his own thought:
… the problem is with the core supposition that any two people (regardless of similarity) will want the same thing. Your proposed solution seems better on the surface, but it has a different glitch — it hinges on the necessity of knowing (or asking) exactly what someone else desires, which defeats the utility of the concept. The espoused strength of the Golden Rule is that you shouldn’t need to confer with anyone else before you act, because you would be automatically placing yourself in the boots of others.
To his discredit, Klosterman has misread the concept more egregiously than the letter writer. The Rule says nothing what anyone wants or desires. Its wording is clear: it’s about what you do and what you would like others to do.
It’s about action, not desire. Actions are overt gestures. Desires are, at best states of mind. You might very well want to strike your assailant with equal force in exactly the same way. The rule tell you not to do as you desire.
Since the Rule involves showing another person how you would prefer that he act toward you, it does not require that you know anything about what the other person wants. In fact, it offers him an opportunity to improve his bad behavior. If he is angry, acting kindly toward him might show him a better way.
The Golden Rules has nothing to do with mind reading and has nothing to say about empathy. When someone injures you, the rule does not tell you to feel what he feels or to try, like a therapist, to figure out what he wants. It shows a way to try to turn a potential conflict into a harmonious relationship. It tells you to maintain your own dignity when those around you are abandoning theirs.
Klosterman compounds his error by pointing out something that is either blindingly obvious or completely absurd:
Beyond the most fundamental level, I don’t believe people want the same things.
Again, so what? The Rule says nothing about what anyone wants. Let's say that your opponent wants to engage you in a fight. If you follow the rule you will be ignoring his desire and showing him a better way. It does not mean that he wants to enter into a better relationship. If he does not, that is his prerogative. It is yours to cease all intercourse with him.
As for whether two people ever want the same thing, it depends on your ability to conceptualize desire. If you believe that it’s about taste, it implies that you should not be forcing your guests chocolate chip ice cream just because you want to eat it yourself. Dare I say that it trivializes the Golden Rule and empties it of its ethical meaning.
Precepts for good behavior are not really about your taste in muffins, so we should specify that we all prefer to be treated with respect and courtesy. You might say that these are not “things,” but, then again, what is a thing?
We would all, I imagine, prefer to be greeted with an open hand of friendship and not with an aggressive fist. For that reason we extend a hand of friendship to people when we meet them. We are inviting them to return the gesture.
In that context the notion that we are imposing anything on anyone becomes nonsensical.
In defiance of the principle that tells us, when you are in a hole stop digging, Klosterman takes it a step further:
The rule states that people should treat others the way they would want to be treated. So how do we want to be treated? Well, I certainly want to be treated in a manner that accounts for the possibility that other people can’t predict what I want. I want to be treated in a manner that does not assume all people are the same, and I never want anyone else to automatically impose their preferences upon my life (even if they believe their personal preferences are morally sound). These policies are central to how I want to be treated by others. And if this is the way I wish to be treated, it should be — according to the Golden Rule — how I treat everyone else. I should factor in my inability to read minds.
To be fair, he has a brief moment of clarity where he sees that it’s not about how other people want to be treated but how I would have others treat me.
But, then he descends into a muddle. He suggests that he does not really know how he wants to be treated. He says that he wants to be mysterious and that he does not want other people to know how he wants to be treated. He does not want others to impose their preferences.
Apparently, Klosterman does not want to be treated as though he were just like everyone else. But, doesn't everyone want to be treated with respect and doesn't everyone do what he can to ensure that other people know his preference. If this is true, then perhaps Klosterman wants to assert his uniqueness by preferring to be treated with disrespect. Does he believe that some human beings wanted to be treated with disrespect? If they do, should be comply?
On the face of it Klosterman’s idea promotes radical individuality along with amorality. Explain to me how he got to become “the ethicist?”
To continue his descent into confusion, Klosterman reduces the Golden Rule to this:
It provides a solution only if you can directly ask the other person precisely how they want to be treated — and if that option is available, you don’t really need an overriding axiom to guide your behavior.
One hates becoming repetitious but Klosterman seems to be under the illusion that the Rule requires that we ask other people how they want to be treated. Nothing about the Rules suggests it.
The Rule is clear and unambiguous. It says that by treating people well you are showing them that you prefer to be treated well by them. It does not tell them how they must behave toward us. It does not force them to do anything at all.
Surely, most of us are likely to befriend people who have befriended us. We are inclined to reciprocate good deeds and to trust those who have shown themselves to be trustworthy.
In the moral universe of the New York Times “ethicist” the Golden Rule gets reduced to an effort to impose your will and your taste on others. It sounds like Klosterman has been spending too much time reading the New York Times.