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Does the Golden Rule Have Flaws?

“How do I want to be treated?”  
From that introspective question I gain initial insight that others have feelings. I have the ability to transport myself into the feelings of others. I can smile at their joy and cry because of their pain.
I’ve just described Empathy. Empathy is a desire within us to treat others as we want to be treated. Empathy is more than a feeling. It can be practiced, creating a feedback loop of positive reciprocity.
To be good at Empathy we use a famous principle — the Golden Rule.
It’s “golden” because it’s a nearly universal ethic, celebrated in nearly all religions and secular philosophies. It serves as a minimum, uniting principle – a common value.
Most Americans know the Golden Rule from the words of Jesus Christ: “So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you…” And in this specific, theological setting it’s “golden” because it “…sums up the Law and the Prophets.” [Matthew 7:12 (NIV)] But the Golden Rule precedes Jesus. It can be found in the ancient writings of the Egyptians, Hebrews, and Greeks, centuries before Christ. Confucius also taught several versions of the rule.
The variety of ways it can be expressed is fascinating. I’m especially fond of two Jewish sources:

  • In the “allegory of long spoons” Rabbi Haim of Romshishok demonstrates that heaven is a place of consideration for others, while hell is the same place absent regard for “the other.”
  • The famous Rabbi Hillel, who lived in the generation immediately before Jesus, said: “That which is despicable to you, do not do to your fellow.” 

The variance between Hillel and Jesus shows that language is imperfect.

  • Good deeds could be neglected by someone observant of Hillel’s prescription.
  • A masochist might argue that he can hurt others following Jesus’ version.

Rather than focus on the linguistic imperfections of either version, it is far better to recognize that Hillel and Jesus are both describing different aspects of the same principle.
In other words, there is no “golden” way to express the Golden Rule! Each variation captures something different. If we trade pith for precision, we can fuse the Hillel and Jesus versions…

Imagine how others want to be treated; then treat them that way.
Imagine how others don’t want to be treated; then avoid treating them that way.

Though words fail us, even schoolchildren can grasp the Golden Rule’s implications. On the playground, we want them to at least abide by Hillel’s version, from which we can see the striking similarity with the Zero Aggression Principle (ZAP)

  • Hillel: That which is despicable to you, do not do to your fellow.
  • ZAP: No one should initiate force against others or delegate doing so to politicians

But we also try to teach our kids Empathy. We tell them to make their playmates happy. That way, others will treat them better. They’ll have more friends. Most kids learn to practice Empathy. If juveniles can do this, then why can’t we expect the same from mature adults?
Could the Golden Rule be a universal or consensus social value to which all authority is held accountable?
I believe…

  • The Golden Rule should be the gold standard for leadership.
  • The Golden Rule is, by far, the most effective tool we have to preserve ourselves, build relationships, and achieve our dreams. But we’ve forsaken it under politically-induced duress.
  • Our (societal) failure to make the Golden Rule a central value has led to the death and destruction wrought (mostly) by The State.

True freedom – your liberty – can only exist in an empathetic atmosphere. We must see our neighbor as just like our self. Or, as William Alan White put it…

“Liberty is the only thing you can’t have unless you give it to others.”

The more you practice the Golden Rule, the freer you become.
Adam Smith understood the Golden Rule. Starting with Smith, free market economists have taught us the virtues of specialization and the division of labor. We all become far richer by serving one another!
Smith also identified that we have “moral sentiments” for each other. In other words…
You and I possess Empathy.
Say the words “self-interest” and many will hear “selfish.” Smith, however, suggested that even “ruffians” have a self-interest in the welfare of others.
We care for others. Smith said this caring springs from our imagination. We can’t possibly enter the body of another and feel what they actually feel. But we can imagine how they feel. When we do, we are prone to identify with those feelings, and we are often moved to action because of it.
We have enough experience to recognize that Smith is explaining something real in us.
Even so, we are still prone to doubt that enough other people feel like we do. Our empathetic imagination seems to fail us precisely when it comes to seeing Empathy in others. We seem inclined to believe that others are not as empathetic as we are. But science is showing us otherwise.
For example, Dr. Stephen G. Post has cataloged the profound effects of charitable giving and volunteerism. His research has shown that not only do acts of kindness benefit the recipient, but they also benefit the giver. These acts…

  • Noticeably elevate happiness.
  • Decrease depression and reduce stress.
  • Provide a sustained “rush” of joy, longer in length than purchasing a prized item.
  • Improve health and increase life span.

In addition, Paul Arnstein of Boston College found that when chronic pain sufferers volunteered to help others with similar conditions, they saw their own pain and depression levels decrease.
In other words, “Doing good deeds is good for you.”
In a national TV interview with John Stossel, Post reaffirmed that giving makes the giver feel good. But hands-on, direct service to others feels even better and lasts longer. Volunteering is better for you than writing a check.
In other words, the more you empathize, and the more you live by the Golden Rule, the better off you are. Therefore the Golden Rule is realistic, for you, even if there are some people who are not as empathetic as you are.
Further, when Golden Rule Empathy is employed, it repairs social ills far better than any coercive system of central planning does. The failures of the central-planning State, when not tragic, are the fodder of late night comedians. Thus, this Empathy is a realistic basis for a social system, especially compared to The Leviathan State.
But the Golden Rule confers a final benefit that makes it more efficient than our current political system. You can begin building relationships, even communities, with others who share your values. Communities almost always have governments of some kind. Sometimes they have presidents and treasurers. Other times they are more informally governed. But each of us can arrange for our security, happiness, and prosperity by choosing our associations carefully. In this way, we can make ourselves much freer – without the need to win a majority vote.
Politics is a confrontational model – war by other means. What if, instead, you followed the counsel of Harry Browne? “If you don’t want people to lie to you, don’t lie to them. If you don’t want people to steal from you, don’t steal from them.”
Can it be that simple? Chances are YOU don’t lie and steal. Instead, you extend courtesy and respect. You do this every day with people you love. But you also do it with strangers, right? You practice the Golden Rule, and you’re not alone.
It may prove impossible to find the perfect wording for moral principles like the Golden Rule and the Zero Aggression Principle. But we all seem to understand these ideas quite well, in spite of their linguistic flaws. They are both commonly understood and practiced, except by governments.
We hope you decide to adopt and share the concepts described in this article. You can do that right now using Facebook, Twitter, and Google+.
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———-
This article is excerpted from Jim Babka’s forthcoming book, The Golden Rule Society. Babka is the Co-Founder of the Zero Aggression Project. He’s also the President of DownsizeDC.org. Reprinting is encouraged, without editing and with proper attribution and links intact.

Show Comments 28

 

  1. I have no arguments with anything in this article, except that it doesn’t tackle the problem of criminal justice. Yes, we’re all served by employing empathy and following the golden rule. These are genetically baked into us as a social species specifically to make society possible. But what about those who don’t follow the golden rule? Inevitably, some people will take advantage of courtesy and respect to steal, rape, and murder. Those people must be brought to justice in order for society to endure. Lack of justice forces everyone to rescind the golden rule and instead employ caution and hostility first as a defense. Only with a robust criminal justice system is a golden rule society possible. And such a system requires force to be employed against those accused of a crime in order to stand trial. We temper that force with a strict delineation of the rights of the accused, including the benefit of doubt. But force must be employed nonetheless, and of particular note, it is force applied against the innocent, by definition, because of the benefit of the doubt. All suspects are innocent until proven guilty. But to be proven guilty or exonerated, they must stand trial, even against their will. I don’t know if you would hold this as a flaw against the golden rule, but certainly the zero aggression principle should be modified to the zero aggression except in the pursuit of justice principle. That is, after all, why governments were ever instituted in the first place. And while governments are the traditional means of using force to achieve justice, it could also be done with a free market, e.g. bounty hunters, private courts, etc., working within a rights-based legal structure. But force does have to be used to bring suspects before a jury to judge the evidence.

  2. I greatly appreciated Jim’s mention of the Rabbis Hillel and Haim of Roshishok, they were alluding to Leviticus 19:18, which Jesus quotes directly. Chapter 19 discusses the requirement to be holy, as God is holy, then leads into provision for the poor, stealing, lying and cheating, and just judgments. The command is actually repeated twice in Leviticus 19, both in 19:18 and 19:34, in respect to both your ‘brother’ (one of the same country) and the neighbor, (a foreigner).
    Your pieces are always thought-provoking, one of my all time favorites was the ‘Would Jesus Have Booed the Golden Rule’. Do you have any thoughts concerning the Health Care Mandate being forced on both businesses and individuals?

    1. Jim Babka Post
      Author

      Penni B, Thanks for your comments, re: Leviticus. The Golden Rule piece you mention is the direct predecessor of the article you’ve read here. And it influenced the entire course of events that resulted in the Zero Aggression Project.
      My immediate relevant thought about the mandate is that it violates the Zero Aggression Principle — Don’t tread on anyone. And my team and I have had a lot to say about the mandate, on a policy basis, over at DownsizeDC.org.

      1. The whole issue of Obama care is coercion and hypocrisy: coercion in that everyone has to comply as an individual, and hypocrisy in that Congress had the gall to exempt themselves and their staff. Obama is not guiltless in the hypocrisy charge either, since he is essentially rewriting the law by delaying the business mandate, but not the individual mandate.
        Jesus had plenty to say in Matthew about such hypocrisy.

  3. Excellent outline of the necessity of non-aggression. However, I do think the Golden Rule has flaws, at least when it is stated as it was above:
    “So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you…”
    According to this, if I enjoyed having snowballs thrown at my head, then I should do it to others too. This goes for any self destructive action an individual may enjoy upon themselves, but that others would not enjoy. I understand the narrative of the article completely, but am answering the title directly.
    Short answer, yes the Golden Rule “So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you…” does have flaws.

    1. Jim Babka Post
      Author

      Well, since that was addressed, literally and fully, in the article, I’m not sure what remedy you seek. Thanks for participating and interacting.

      1. I seek clarity and brevity. The answer to the question is Yes, and you never directly answered it. You did answer it in a round about way, leading to a yes, but you left out the yes part of the yes answer to your yes or no question. Like I said, I enjoyed the article, I just wanted to supply a TL;DR answer.

        1. The example I use is sexual contact. Some people like to initiate sexual contact, and some of those also like having sexual contact initiated with them, so they are following both Hillel and the Golden Rule whether YOU like it or not.

  4. It sounds to me that you guys want a gospel without the Gospel. It doesn’t work, and never has. I’ve already written one novel about that, and I’m completing a second one–in addition to four non-fiction books, beginning in the 1970’s.
    Everett Wilson

    1. Jim Babka Post
      Author

      Well, we’re not a theology site, so there’s only so far I’m willing to engage this argument, in public forum.
      But I’m unsure why you don’t trust Godly principles to work? If the Bible says, “Don’t steal,” and non-believers practice that rule, is not everyone, including you, better off? Similarly, if the Bible says, “Do good to others,” and non-believers do that, is not everyone, including you, better off? Are Godly principles diminished in value because people of other faiths, or lacking faith choose to live by them?

      1. I agree Jim, let us not bifurcate the simplicity of the liberty movement with any issues, including faith.
        Each of us can gain so much if we work together on the things which we agree, and focus less on the things which we don’t. Ultimately, “without the Gospel” is a subjective claim like so many other personal issues. Just like there are there are over 41,000 Christian denominations who don’t agree on many topics, and many of them say the other denominations are wrong and “without the Gospel”, there are thousands of liberty groups who don’t agree on many topics, and many of them say the other groups are wrong.
        Keep liberty simple, non-aggression to others. People of any culture, with or without faith, can agree on that.
        Let us all unite on non-aggression.

      2. But I’m unsure why you don’t trust Godly principles to work?
        It is obvious that this is not a theology site, so maybe you don’t know the turf well enough to talk about it. I think you do, actually, but are controversialists by choice. Of course I trust Godly principles to work, but we cannot dictate the terms: “Forever, O Lord, your word is settled in heaven.” I’m the one who believes the Golden Rule as stated by Jesus is the Word of God, to be taken as definitive on its own terms. It is not a debatable proposition. It is a summary of the Law, not of the Gospel.
        So I will take a controversialist shot before dropping out of the conversation. It is an oldie but a goodie: “My catechism can lick your dogma any day.”

        1. A major problem is that not everyone defines “Godly principles” as the same thing, or even “God” as the same thing. Some define “Godly principles” as being faithful and willing to obey your “God”, even to the point of murdering your child (Abraham and Isaac), while others say its most important to “love thy neighbor”.
          Here is my opinion: what matters is non-aggression. All faiths that are love based agree on this. However, if a faith DOES advocate non-aggression, such as suggesting the starting of holy wars, it is NOT welcome in the liberty movement. Otherwise, all are welcome.

        2. You drop out of the conversation with that? I hold to the catechism as well! The law is not against the gospel, on the contrary, when we understand the law as it should be understood, we understand our need for the gospel! (Galatians 4)

          1. Avatar

            I’m not sure why you replied to me. You didn’t respond to any of my points. Lets apply the theory of non-aggression to real life by asking a direct yes or no question. Lets say you are Abraham. God has commanded you to murder your son. Will you murder your son for your God?

          2. Avatar

            The Comment concerning dropping out of the conversation was not ment for you,Stephen, but for Everett Wilson. (Sorry, Stephen for the confusion) As to your question about Abraham, God in the end chose to stop the sacrifice. In the culture of the day, gods were worshiped who could require basically anything to affirm your allegiance. It may be that God was proving to those cultures that you could be proven faithful with out such sacrifice. As to the direct question, No. I would question whether God was speaking to me in the first place, since this would violate the ‘You shall not murder’ principle from the law of Moses, and other New Testament principles.
            As to the non-aggression principle, people took agreements far more seriously in those days. If you made an agreement to live peacefully with a father, it was assumed to apply to his sons as well. If you then chose to take the son’s property, it would not have been considered an aggressive act to claim it back. l

      3. i have to agree here, Jim, and frankly, the Scripture itself affirms that when unbelievers apply the principles of Scripture, they are ‘a law for themselves’ in spite of not having the Scripture as their ‘guide’. (Romans 2: 14 – 15). Yes, the recognition that God exists, we have offended His justice and holiness and Jesus , as God’s son, came to restore that relationship by paying the penalty of His own free will and rose from the dead to fulfill the Scriptures is the gospel. Yes, we should preach the gospel. that did not stop Paul from joining with the Pharisees (many of whom were not believers) when there was a common cause; the defense of the doctrine of the resurrection of the dead. (Acts 23:6)

  5. As an ethicist by hobby, and a libertarian for decades, I’ve done a lot of thinking and have come up with an interesting model which I think would solve these problems. People find controversy as to whether morals are absolute or relative. There’s a tiny core that’s absolute; the rest is relative and varies by culture, religion, etc. By the way the absolute core in my opinion could be said to be the kernel of God’s Law for how we should relate to each other (how we should relate to God is clearly not the business of gov’t).
    The absolute core, which I call Universal Common Law to distinguish it from customary English Common Law, is the 3 principles:
    1. The Non-Aggression Principle: Do not initiate force or fraud against anyone else’s person or property.
    2. The Equal Rights Principle: No “divine right of kings”, no special classes; we all have equal inherent rights.
    3. The Individual Sovereignty Principle:
    A. Everyone has the right to do anything which does not violate either principle 1 or 2.
    B. Only individuals have inherent rights. Individuals create organizations (including gov’t) and endow them with secondary rights and privileges, not the other way around.
    America was obviously founded on this core, even if it wasn’t stated that way before. For that matter, the civil portion of the 10 Commandments and similar rules from most religions are all based on this Universal Common Law, the core which is the essence of the civil portion of God’s Law. Thus, the core is more fundamental than religion, than the 10 Commandments, than gov’t, than anything man-made. Those who say America was based on “Christian Principles” are partly right but it would be more accurate to say that America was based on the same portion of God’s Law that “Christian Principles” (and many others) were based on.
    God’s Law of course is pure and abstract and has nothing to do with religion, which is an attempt to understand God’s Law but a poor subset of it at best and a horrendous distortion (subject to manipulation) at worst. A theocracy is an abomination because it’s gov’t based on some particular religion, even if it purports to be non-denominational. The Universal Core is a workable basis of morality independent of any religious context; that is, it works in any religious context as well as any secular context. That’s part of why it’s universal.
    Gned the Gnome, Founder and Chief Justice
    Common Law Institute
    (web site not back up yet)

    1. We don’t need #2 or #3. NAP(ZAP) is all I require my neighbors to follow. I don’t care if they are curmudgeons or psychopaths inside their own minds, all I care about is will they follow the Moral Principle or won’t they.

  6. Right Zack, in a sense, but #2 is needed to fully support #1, in that if it was held that #2 is void and there are different classes/castes in society, some of which are superior to others in terms of rights, then the upper classes would be free to violate the #1 rights of the lower classes. Plus, I’ve seen/heard some attempts to define #1 in terms of #2, iow your right to swing your fist ends at the tip of my nose (although I’d add some personal space). I think that this more evolved version (which I call Universal Common Law) clarifies the situation, and puts each of the different elements of the Golden Rule (a poorly phrased mix of #1 and #2) under its proper heading.

    1. As I said, “NAP(ZAP) is all I require my neighbors to follow.” Did I forget to say “ALL of my neighbors”?
      The Golden Rule of course sucks; it requires me to be Proactive. Hillel makes more sense. I’m satisfied with my neighbors just not starting trouble; I do not demand good works, only no bad works.
      All that is necessary for Good to prevail is for evil men to do nothing.

  7. I am not trying to hurt anyone’s feeling. I am just being completely honest about my feelings on the topic.
    This ‘golden rule’ is a tool to try and get those with diminished morals and/or values up to par with an acceptable idea of society. People who understand the true meaning of good will do not need this rule, and I will argue that it is even damaging to them.
    Allow me to explain.
    “Do unto others as you would have them do to you”. This is an action a person performs, with the understanding that you receive a reward. The reward being ‘nice treatment from others’ in return for ‘treating them nicely’.
    True good will towards fellow humans is not dependent on a reward, and asks for no reward. You simply do what is right because it is the right thing to do.
    Teaching people to be nice for a reward only serves to undermine the idea of Good Will and actually teaches people to be selfish by teaching them to expect a reward for making the right choice.
    The golden rule is actually an insult, if you want to go there, towards people who already understand Good Will.

    1. Jim Babka Post
      Author

      Feelings are not hurt. Everyone is entitled to their own opinion on such matters. But I think your view overlooks the fact that, while most people believe in the Golden Rule in theory, they abandon it at several junctures. They suspect that it is dangerously weak in nature, where life is nasty, brutish, and short. We are arguing that empathy and reciprocity work together and are rewarded in a way that demonstrates the Golden Rule is eminently practical.

  8. Whether people throw it out when it is convenient or not, is not my point. That is a whole other issue that you are free to discuss. Imho, the value should not even be present to be thrown out.
    My point is, when followed, it actually undermines the nature of Good Will. It teaches the flawed value of ‘good behavior for reward’. When such a basic value is so tainted and jaded, it is impossible to believe that is does not corrupt every other way people act; on a base level.
    I see the golden rule as stone age technology. If humanity wants to raise to another level, then it has to raise to another level of mentality first in order to do so. People have to start doing things because it is the right thing to do, period. Not for a reward.

    1. Jim Babka Post
      Author

      Kris, You may be right, but I doubt it. That is, humans have evolved on questions of empathy, so perhaps that’s where this goes, eventually — and I just cannot see it.
      But what you describe sounds a lot like altruism. Altruism is as likely to exist as unicorns do. Everyone acts for what they believe will make them the most happy out of the available choices they can see. And one of the ways they know they’re doing good is the feedback of their own conscience, which very much seeks to be pleased and punishes us when it’s not.
      Moreover, I don’t need someone to share my values or my motivations, so long as they practice Zero Aggression.

      1. I would think that if you practiced Zero Aggression, you would not be blatantly calling others wrong about an opinion they have.
        That is what you just did, and you can use words to make it seem not so. But you did.
        This idea was the group effort of an entire class and it’s Ethics Professor. Are you saying that you think the opinion of 30+ people is wrong?
        You constantly just ignore what I’ve said, and then repeat what you are trying to preach.
        Go ahead, think you are the only one that is right. I won’t be continuing a convo with you if you cannot open your mind to another’s ideas.

        1. Jim Babka Post
          Author

          Kris, Does respect for another require blind agreement with their views? If so, then why don’t you agree with me? I mean…
          Gosh, I look back through my comments and find phrases like, “You may be right…” I think I’ve been very respectful. I just don’t agree with you. It happens to be on a matter, to which, I’ve devoted a great deal of research and thought already.
          Ideas are debatable. Expressed disagreement is not even close to aggression. I don’t understand why you’re upset.

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