In Defense of the Golden Rule
Christ’s summary ethical principle, stated in Matthew 7:12, is often called the “golden rule”: “Therefore, whatever you want men to do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets.” We have demonstrated that Christ’s principle is unique—distinct in principle and fruit from the ethics of utilitarianism and other human systems of conduct—and also that it is superior to any other moral principle (Jackson, 1996). Consider the following account of an attack upon the rule, and a response, by Wayne Jackson:
Some, like Dan Barker (a former Pentecostal preacher who converted to atheism), have suggested that the golden rule should be characterized as “bronze”…. Barker argued that if one were a masochist, the golden rule would justify his beating up on someone else (1992, pp. 347-348). His argument assumes that it is rational to be a masochist! Others, not quite so much of the fringe element, have suggested that the golden rule might at least be improved: “Do unto others as they would have you do unto them.” Such a view, however, is fatally flawed, and even someone who is as ethically confused as Joseph Fletcher (the famed situation ethicist) has acknowledged such (1966, p. 117). The weak may want you to supply them with drugs, or indulge them with illicit sex, etc., but such a response would not be the right thing to do. If I am thinking sensibly, I do not want others to accommodate my ignorance and weakness (1996, emp. and parenthetical items in orig.).
This response to Barker and other critics rightly suggests that the golden rule cannot be manipulated to encourage an action that one perceives as evil prior to applying the rule. On this point, we have defended the golden rule previously.
However, others have suggested that Immanuel Kant’s ethical principle, summarized in his “categorical imperative” does a better job of tracking our moral intuitions than Christ’s rule. The categorical imperative has three formulations, which Kant thinks are equivalent to one another:
- “Act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law.”
- “Act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of another, always at the same time as an end and never simply as a means.”
- “[One’s acts—CC] ought to harmonize with a possible kingdom of ends as a kingdom of nature” (1994, pp. 30,42).
Each formulation, according to Kant, is equivalent to the others (p. 41). It is not necessary to develop a full understanding of the categorical imperative here (for more information, see Copleston, 1994, 6:308-348). Of concern here is the alleged superiority of the categorical imperative to the golden rule. The argument goes like this (adapted from Pecorino, 2000):
- Kant’s rule, as traditionally interpreted, tells us to act as we would want all other people to act toward all other people, and atrocities would be disallowed.
- The golden rule tells us to act toward others as we would have them act toward us.
- The golden rule would allow us to do terrible things to others, as long as it is what we wish they would do to us (e.g., masochistic desires could be fulfilled in accordance with the rule).
- Therefore, Kant’s principle is superior to the golden rule.
In order to dispute the conclusion (4), we must show that either (1) or (3) is false. I will dispute both, in order to demonstrate that the golden rule is superior to the categorical imperative.
THE CATEGORICAL IMPERATIVE AND ATROCITIES
There is doubt concerning whether the categorical imperative is equipped to forbid terrible actions. John Stuart Mill, for example, writes:
But when [Kant—CC] begins to deduce from this precept any of the actual duties of morality, he fails, almost grotesquely, to show that there would be any contradiction, any logical (not to say physical) impossibility, in the adoption by all rational beings of the most outrageously immoral rules of conduct. All he shows is that the consequences of their universal adoption would be such as no one would choose to incur (2001, p. 4; parenthetical item in orig.).
Mill thinks that, even though Kant would have wished to prevent atrocities, his categorical imperative does not do the job.
To assess Mill’s claim, consider an application of the universal-law formulation to an act like masochism or suicide. In this case, Kant uses the universal-law formulation to assert that a person has a duty to avoid harming oneself because the maxim of self-love that is necessary for suicide “cannot possibly hold as a universal law of nature and is, consequently, wholly opposed to the supreme principle of all duty” (1994, p. 31). Let us suppose that Mill views license to commit suicide as one of those “outrageously immoral rules of conduct” (he does think suicide is at least wrong; see Mill, 2003, p. 163). Mill’s objection (above) does indeed contradict Kant’s position here. Kant eschews a world in which everyone feels free to commit suicide, but there is no evident contradiction in such a world, as there is in the world where everyone makes promises they do not intend to keep. The universal-law formulation of the imperative clearly forbids the lying promise, because if everyone lied, it would no longer be effective to lie, and so there is a contradiction in the very conception of such a scenario.
However, it would seem just as easy to harm oneself in a “perturbed social world” where everyone commits suicide as in the world we actually inhabit (the Kantian “perturbed social world is the imagined world wherein the proposed principle of action is universalized according to the categorical imperative; see Rawls, 1999, p. 501). Humanity might destroy itself in such a circumstance, but that result is not equivalent to a contradiction in conception. Mill is correct, based on the first interpretation of his argument, that Kant’s rule allows for atrocities (Kantians would disagree, maintaining that Kant is consistent at least on some interpretation, and I will briefly address this objection before concluding).
Since Mill’s objection is justified in the case of the first formulation (but not in the second or third), then it is not the case that the other formulations are merely new statements of the first formulation, as Kant asserts (p. 41). Robert Johnson observes about the supposed unity of the formulations: “Perhaps Kant thought this, but it is not very plausible: That I should always treat Humanity as an end in itself, for instance, does not seem to mean the same thing as that I should act only on maxims that are consistent with themselves as universal laws of nature” (2008).
One Kantian response to my position would be that I am unfairly manipulating the definition of Mill’s “outrageously immoral” tag. However, if this objection is valid, then suicide is not outrageously immoral, and Kant clearly thinks that it is (pp. 82-85). Johnson mentions another possible Kantian solution: “if the formulas are not equivalent in meaning, they are nevertheless logically interderivable and hence equivalent in sense” (2008). However, it is much more difficult to establish that three separate ethical claims are “equivalent in sense” when they do not yield the same practical results, than it is to agree with Mill that something is wrong with Kant’s model. It is not at all clear that the categorical imperative disallows the kind of actions the permission for which are, allegedly, the downfall of the golden rule. If the golden rule disallows such atrocities, then its superiority to the imperative will have been maintained.
THE GOLDEN RULE AND ATROCITIES
The golden rule certainly does not allow for what are generally considered moral atrocities. Consider two essential principles.
1. The golden rule presupposes natural care for one’s own person. Objections such as Pecorino’s presuppose that the golden rule liberates a person to decide how to treat oneself. The golden rule simply is not designed to determine how one should treat oneself. However, when describing or promoting general ethical guidelines that are based squarely upon the very principle that people act out of self-interest, it is necessary to assume a typical level of self-interest; otherwise the point is unintelligible.
Paul made precisely this assumption in his epistle to the Ephesians: “So husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies; he who loves his wife loves himself. For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as the Lord does the church” (5:28-29). Paul’s implication is that no rational person is interested in destroying his own body (this is not to say that a person must be unwilling to suffer physically or emotionally for a good cause, or to promote longer life to the neglect of all other considerations; cf. Acts 4:1-20; Revelation 2:10). Jesus obviously was speaking from this perspective when He announced the golden rule.
Yet, someone might wonder whether Jesus took into account the possibility that someone might apply the golden rule to promote atrocities (or, for that matter, whether Paul accounted for cases such as spouse battery or self-mutilation). To answer this question, consider the following.
2. The golden rule must not be separated from the overall context of biblical ethics. We, along with scores of ethicists, have allowed Kant to contextualize his principle in order to explain and defend its implications. Why should we not allow biblical ethics the same privilege? Christ Himself made it clear that the golden rule reflected a large body of doctrine (i.e., “the Law and the Prophets”; see Jackson, 1996; Lyons, 2009).
Moreover, as we interpret Christ’s statement, we must remember that it is part of a larger, verbal presentation to people who presumably did not have self-destruction on their minds. After all, in the very same presentation that includes the golden rule, the Lord made the following statements, all of which promote respectful, loving treatment of self and others:
- “Or what man is there among you who, if his son asks for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will he give him a serpent?” (Matthew 7:9-10).
- “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy…. Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God” (5:7,9).
- “Blessed are you when they revile and persecute you, and say all kinds of evil against you falsely for My sake” (5:11).
- “You are the salt of the earth; but if the salt loses its flavor, how shall it be seasoned…. You are the light of the world. A city that is set on a hill cannot be hidden…. Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven.”
- “You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘Do not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ But I tell you that anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment” (5:21-22).
- “You have heard that it was said, ‘Do not commit adultery.’ But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (5:27-28).
- “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven” (5:43-45).
These passages from Christ’s sermon do not include many other scriptures that corroborate and enlarge upon His teaching in this sermon. Such texts include Pauline injunctions that coincide with the golden rule and disallow sins such as battery (e.g., 1 Corinthians 7:3-4; Galatians 5:13, 22; 6:10; Ephesians 4:3, etc.).
It is utterly impossible that, at the announcement of the golden rule, Christ’s audience took the golden rule as an endorsement of moral atrocities. Rather, members of the audience would have understood the golden rule as a practical tool to help a person with common-sense intuitions to decide how to treat others, in light of what Jesus previously said in the sermon. There is no reason we should interpret the rule differently.
On the other hand, Kant’s categorical imperative may reasonably be shown to allow moral atrocities. Therefore, the golden rule is better than Kant’s rule. May we strive to implement Christian moral principles in our lives, no matter what may be fashionable in the field of modern or contemporary ethics.
Copleston, Frederick (1994), A History of Philosophy (New York: Doubleday).
Jackson, Wayne (1996), “Three Rules of Human Conduct,” [On-line], URL: https://apologeticspress.org/articles/231.
Johnson, Robert (2008), “Kant’s Moral Philosophy,” Stanford University, [On-line], URL: http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/kant-moral/.
Kant, Immanuel (1994 reprint), Ethical Philosophy (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett), second edition.
Lyons, Eric (2009), “‘This Is the Law and the Prophets’,” [On-line], URL: https://apologeticspress.org/articles/1655.
Mill, John Stuart (2001 reprint), Utilitarianism (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett).
Mill, John Stuart (2003 reprint), On Liberty (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press).
Pecorino, Philip A. (2000), “Categorical Imperative,” [On-line], URL: http://www2.sunysuffolk.edu/pecorip/scccweb/INTRO_TEXT/Chapter%208%20Ethics/ Categorical_Imperative.htm.
Rawls, John (1999), Collected Papers (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press).
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