Duty to Others and the Golden Rule

by Josephson Institute on February 15, 2011

Ethics is essentially concerned with our moral obligations to other people. This does not mean that self-respect and self esteem are not valid goals of personal development, or that the pursuit of self-interest and personal happiness is unethical. It does mean, however, that ethics requires us to recognize a duty beyond self-interest and accept the responsibility to treat others in a moral manner. It also means that an ethical person is willing to exercise self-restraint and self-sacrifice in deference to the interests and needs of others. This, after all, is the basis of one of the oldest and most powerful formulations of moral duty, the Golden Rule.

The most famous statement of the rule, at least in western civilization, is derived from the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 7:12), popularized as “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” Yet this simple moral maxim, sometimes called the rule of reciprocity because it is based on the idea of mutuality of interest, has roots in many other cultures.

We can start with Confucius who in about 500 B.C. said, “What you do not want done to yourself, do not do to others.”

Some hundred years later in a different part of the world, Aristotle advanced the same essential message: “We should behave to our friends as we wish our friends to behave to us.”

In one of the Hindu holy books from about 150 B.C., the Mahabharata says, “Do nothing to thy neighbor which thou wouldst not have him do to thee.”

Islamic writ referred to as the Traditions says “No one of you is a believer until he loves for his brother what he loves for himself.”

Buddhist thoughts expressed in the Udanavarga prescribe: “Hurt not others with that which pains thyself.”

And in the Jewish literature, the Apocrypha puts it simply: “And what you hate, do not do to anyone.”

As American philosopher Marcus Singer points out in his essay on the Golden Rule in The Encyclopedia of Philosophy:

The golden rule, in one version or another, has a prominent place in all major religions and most minor ones. . . . There are no historical traces which could explain this. . . . The nearly universal acceptance of the golden rule and its promulgation by persons of considerable intelligence, though otherwise of divergent outlooks, would therefore seem to provide some evidence for the claim that it is a fundamental ethical truth.

Despite nuances, all versions seem to announce the same moral principle: Ethics is about the way we treat other people. If we don’t want to be lied to, we shouldn’t lie to others; if we want to be treated fairly, we should treat others fairly; if we want others to be kind to us, we should be kind to others.

It is important to stress that the Golden Rule is not a rule of investment: “do unto others so they will do unto to you.” I have heard a mother invoke her daughter share based purely in terms of self-interest: “Sally, if you share your toys with the other children, they will share their toys with you.” There is nothing inherently wrong with this guideline. After all, there can be real advantages to living the Golden Rule — self-esteem, an honorable reputation, trust, loyalty, and friends. But stressing the cause-effect relationship between honorable conduct and reciprocal treatment by others can be dangerous. If, in effect, the only reason Sally considers sharing is so others will share with her, what happens if Sally is not interested in the other kids’ toys or if she runs into selfish children who do not share? If Sally is trained to think of the Golden Rule in self-centered rather than others-centered terms she is likely to become fundamentally selfish, using kindness and other positive behaviors primarily as means of getting what she wants. That is not the message of the Golden Rule.

When I taught trial techniques in law school I had to confront a popular belief among practitioners that if the other side plays “hard ball” you should play hard ball. If your opponent breaks commitments, conceals relevant evidence by trickery and evasion, treats witnesses rudely, or lies, you are entitled to defend yourself with similar conduct and, in giving your client the best representation, you may be obligated to do so. This modified version of the Golden Rule — “Do unto others as they have done unto you” — means that our personal standards of propriety can be flexible, that our morality in any particular situation is determined by the least principled person we deal with. The erosion of the moral essence of the Golden Rule seemed complete but then I ran into the next evolutionary step. If, by prior conduct or reputation, you know the other side has engaged in tricks or questionable conduct, you may “Do unto others before they do unto you.”

Properly understood, the Golden Rule imposes on each of us an independent, enduring moral obligation to help and be kind to others even if they ignore their similar obligations to us. Despite the temptations, it is not ethical to lie to a liar nor to cheat a cheater.

The Golden Rule, therefore, demands consistency and a willingness to treat others better than they treat us — which means the willingness to be a victim at least from time to time. People who are honest, fair, and caring to everyone should not expect everyone to be honest, fair and caring to them. In fact, human nature and human conditions being what they are, it is safe to assume that a certain people will deliberately take advantage of the nobly inclined. To some, this means that the Golden Rule is for suckers.

At its heart, the Golden Rule is about more than how we treat others. It’s about how we choose to live our lives and what we choose to make of ourselves. One of my heroes, Booker T. Washington realized how important it was to the preservation of his character to resist the provocations that entice us to be less than we can be. “I shall allow no man,” he said, “to belittle my soul by making me hate him.”

Would you rather be the person who bought the Brooklyn Bridge or the person who sold it? In other words, in a world of hard choices would you rather be a victim or a villain? It seems to me, it is better to go through life knowing that others will occasionally use your virtue against you than to adopt the floating standard of morality that makes you no better than the worst person you deal with.

Ultimately, we are not what we want to be, we are what we do. That’s a hard message for many of us who grew up believing in the practical value of “don’t mess with me” and “Don’t get mad, get even.” In business, politics, and even personal relationships it is often an advantage to evoke the kind of fear-induced respect sought by every street hood. Whether it is called “get back,” revenge, retaliation, or justice, the instinct to respond in kind is in direct conflict with the Golden Rule. It is easy to believe that a guy with a “turn the other cheek” tattoo on his arm is not likely to survive, let alone succeed, in a world where predatory conduct prevails.

Yet there can be no doubt that thousands of years of cross-cultural, secular, and religious wisdom about the good life comes down to this insight: When we are at our best, we are honest to people who lie to us, we are fair to those who cheat, and kind to those who would be cruel.

Still the question persists, can one follow the Golden Rule and survive? Absolutely. Sure you will occasionally be taken advantage of, but even if you choose a more combative approach you probably will be outsmarted or outmaneuvered just as often by someone who plays hardball better than you do. And what do you become in the process? Like the coward who dies a thousand deaths, the pessimist consumed with fear of being exploited or abused suffers in almost every transaction, even when dealing with honorable people. As Lily Tomlin put it: “The problem with the rat race is that even if you win you’re still a rat.”

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