The Golden Rule

Doing research for Charming Lies, I asked this question on Tumblr:

“What are the limitations of the golden rule?”

I got some very interesting answers.

Matthew Sheean said:

It’s worth noting that this is not simply a matter of religion, but also of the State, which is to say that the basis of all law is that you should not act to compromise the right of another as that would undermine the same right in you. I realize that is a bit of an enlightenment spin on the maxim, but it strikes me as a good reading of it on its face. At any rate, we would not be free of such a divine law, at least as a necessary concept, as there must be something that the laws that we give to ourselves have to commend them. They must pass the test of reason, whether or not they are consistent in themselves. Reason stands over the laws and judges between them whether they are good laws or not (of course, we are not always good at reasoning). One simple test is that proposed in the “Golden Rule”, and that is to ask whether or not I can do something without undermining the conditions for my doing it.


Here’s a scenario:

I am a omnivorous heterosexual man, and I would enjoy having beautiful naked women feed me sweet-and-sour duck. Surely I should do unto others, right? However, a monk who has taken a vow of chastity and vegetarianism (that’s a thing, right?) would not enjoy being provocatively force-fed animal flesh. I could  torture the poor monk without violating the letter of the Golden Rule.

Skywhaler said

The way I see it, treat others as you would like to be treated /if you were in their shoes/. So, like take into consideration their beliefs and practices and stuff.


If the Golden Rule simply means “put yourself in another’s shoes” that doesn’t help it escape the absurdities present in the scenario Dan sketches. I hope that makes sense as it is.

So, yea, one way to go would be to just say that these examples show that the Golden Rule is self-defeating, or at least pretty quickly an impractical principle because of how different everyone’s idea of how they’d like to be treated is.

But, it seems pretty clear to me that this is a very very uncharitable way to treat the principle. I’d just reiterate what I said above, which is that a stronger (and kinda Kantian) way of putting it would be to say, “Don’t do anything that would undermine the conditions for doing it.

While the omnivore in your example, could say that he was only doing to others as he would like done to him, and that he even had an obligation to do that. We could point out that he was interpreting the principle in a very shallow and self-serving way. If he thinks about it, he can’t force another person to do something simply because it is what he would want, because that would logically entail that they could do the same to him (say, for example, that if the monk has sufficient political authority, he would be justified in locking the omnivore up and going all Clockwork Orange on him). This isn’t to say that if he did this to the monk there could, in some other world, be bad consequences for him instead of the monk, but rather that there is a very basic logical contradiction in his action.

We still don’t know whether or not the omnivore of the monk’s outlook on life is morally superior, either, and I think it would be important to ask whether the Golden Rule or a more rigorous variation of it could serve as a tool for judging between the two (though, I must admit I find the word “moral” problematic). I’d say, just using the specifics of this example, the omnivore’s use of women would also violate this principle and, ergo, that the principle, with the more modern gloss, does allow us to say at least a little bit about whether or not the omnivore or the monk behaves in a more internally consistent manner with respect to the specifics of the example (which are just that the monk is chaste and vegetarian and that the omnivore likes having beautiful naked women feed him meat).


I think there’s some merit to what skywhaler said. A big part of morality is imagining yourself in the position of another person (complete with personal likes and dislikes that may be different from your own). “I shouldn’t force a vegetarian to eat meat in the same way I wouldn’t want a vegetarian to force me to eat only vegetables.” But then I might respond. “But I wouldn’t mind eating only vegetables that much.” I would mind it, though, if someone force-fed me whale or chimpanzee meat, or something else I find morally repugnant. A lot of civilization is learning how to map other people’s interests onto your own.

I’m glad you brought up moral superiority here, because I argue, a system of objective morality would negate the whole principle of the Golden Rule. What if I think omnivory is morally superior to vegetarianism? In that case it doesn’t matter whether the monk finds being force-fed meat unpleasant. It’s for his own good. Yes, I know that if I were a vegetarian, I wouldn’t like being force-fed meat, but I am sure I would want to do the morally superior thing and learn to love meat. But does that mean that there is no objective (or at least universal) morality? Or that there shouldn’t be?


I heartily agree that Skywhaler’s comment has merit, and I should have said as much. I am merely skeptical that it amends the Golden Rule in such a way as to make it “work”. “Put yourself in their shoes” is a good principle to consider in addition to the Golden Rule, but the Golden Rule, I take it, is more about acting authentically, to not do anything that you wouldn’t allow to be done to yourself.

I think the omnivore example got away from me, too. We’re assuming that the omnivore doesn’t know that he’s torturing the monk, so there’s a lot of problems that arise in that situation that make it perhaps too complex an example for the purposes of this discussion. Additionally, that I think omnivory is superior to vegetarianism would not entail that I should be able to force-feed someone meat. Whether or not it is good to eat meat and whether or not one should be force-fed meat are two different questions, and it is difficult to see what the Golden Rule tells us about the first whereas it is clear what it tells us about the second.

In your second remark, it seems to me that the Golden Rule is still being applied, e.g. “I know that if I were a vegetarian, I wouldn’t like being force-fed meat, but I am sure I would want to do the morally superior thing and learn to love meat”
Or, more abstractly: For any objectively good thing, I should love that thing. If there is such a thing that I do not love, I should want to be corrected. If another person does not love such a thing, I should endeavor to correct them.

It seems to me that the Golden Rule is still operative there. Furthermore, the Golden Rule is prescribing something objective of the actions of a will. That’s to say that if it is a valid principle it entails that whatever action violates it is universally condemnable. For example, rape would always violate the Golden Rule. Suppose someone, for some strange reason, wanted to be raped. It cannot be said that rape is desired without robbing rape of its actual meaning (something like “I promise to break this promise”). So, rape, by definition, is a sexual encounter that is not what one would want done to him/herself. Per the Golden Rule, rape is objectively wrong.


The Golden Rule is an excellent example of objective morality. And although you can willfully misinterpret it (I wanted a Transformer action figure for Christmas, so guess what I got YOU?), or be too ignorant to map others’ preferences onto yourself (What’s the big deal with the N word? It doesn’t bother ME), if you honestly and with full knowledge try to apply it, the result should be moral behavior…except when it contradicts other moral rules that we get from…where?


I was reading through this again and realized that I was thinking of ‘put yourself in their shoes’ in a more literal manner than what the GR requires, so I want to affirm and acquiesce to your correctness in saying that it is simply an expression of the Golden Rule itself. I think I was hung up on the technicality that it would be a matter of imagining myself in the other role, rather than imagining myself as that person in particular. My skepticism remained, however, because imagining myself in the other’s shoes might still lead to me endorsing an act that they would not based on what I think I should want if I were them (and both of us have said as much in different ways).

“Even if the bride and groom and their parents want the marriage to take place, they SHOULDN’T, and if I were an uneducated barbarian who wanted such a thing, I would want someone to correct my behavior” (so the logic might go).

The GR is the formula whereby we understand what is normative for action based on a fundamental account of the world. Moral disagreement is inevitably a disagreement about Nature, and such disagreements have to be settled before the Golden Rule can be applied.

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