The Golden Rule

“In the golden rule of Jesus of Nazareth, we read the complete spirit of the ethics of utility.
‘T0 do as you would be done by,’ and ‘to love your neighbour as yourself,’
constitute the ideal perfection of utilitarian morality.!

John Stuart Mill

The golden rule is a philosophical and religious guideline, lying at the heart of the world’s religions. It is clearly necessary that the majority of people abide by it to a significant degree in order for a society, and indeed the world, to function in a liberal and democratic fashion.

But what about those who do not apply it, who get a ‘free ride’ on the back of those who do – think of thieves, frausters, tax evaders, or even those who will not have children vaccinated against life-threatening diseases that are almost eradicated. daniel_klein_every_timeThis and many other interesting philosophical questions is raised in Daniel Klein’s 2015 book Every Time I Find the Meaning of Life They Change It. I doubt this could be called a serious philosophical work, but it certainly provides an entertaining tour through some of the issues that philosophers have considered over the centuries, starting with the Ancient Greeks and up to the modern day.

Klein covers the thinking of modern American psychologist/philosopher Joshua Greene on the golden rule. We have two fundamentally different ways of making moral decisions – fast and instinctive and slow and deliberative [right brain/left brain]. In fast instinctive mode we automatically apply inborn altruism (golden rule) to our family and tribe; in slow and deliberative mode we apply it to everybody (greatest good of the greatest number – logical). It is suggested we try to get the two modes to talk to each other. Of course, this is similar to the the left-right brain reconciliation aimed at in Iain MacGilchrist’s book The Master and His Emissary.

To me, this question is one of values and levels of consciousness. As we reach levels where empathy and compassion become fully conscious drivers, we will all perhaps achieve behaviours more consonant with the golden rule. We are not rule-based computers.

Do read Daniel Klein’s book for an entertaining tour of philosophical ideas.

6 thoughts on “The Golden Rule

    • Yes. Moral questions are often not at all straightforward; we are maybe as moral as our current state of development and character allow us to be.


  1. Aye. Extremely complex. For example, I genuinely feel that indentured servitude is required within a moral society – that people need to be slaves of the state before being citizens of it.

    Even if that was irrefutably proven as the best, and only, method for a moral society, the majority of people would dismisses the idea out of hand. Should those people be allowed freedom, or enslaved until they’ve earned their place?


    • Morality is not computable. It appears that you seek to define a system for a moral society. How can this work – who is trustable as the morality enabler?


  2. Assuming there is a set of “set consistent, noncontradicting” universal laws, then there can be objectively correct moral laws. If those universal laws don’t exist, then our best option is to form a most-qualified committee to determine those laws – that committee being backed by numerous branches of study.

    Or, I suppose, we could just keep winging it. It’s been working pretty well.


  3. Any committee will produce a set of laws within the current majority paradigm, hardly universal. I doubt it will be consistent and without paradox – it’s the nature of the beast. It could be a bit like Moses’ tablets – rules to be broken.
    Better I think, to concentrate on growth processes that will facilitate the individual to discover their own inner moral compass. That’s a bit more positive than just ‘winging it’, which as you say does not turn out too badly (in the West).


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