In a cartoon strip by Scott Adams, the boss says, “We can make this a great place to work by following the golden rule. Treat others as you would want them to treat you.”
Dilbert replies, “That’s dumb.”
Boss: “It’s not dumb.”
Dilbert: “Let’s test your rule. Would you like it if someone gave you a hundred dollars?”
Dilbert: “Okay. So give me a hundred dollars. Or else forever live as a hypocrite who doesn’t follow his own dumb rule.” (Fellow employees: “Snork.”)
Boss: “I hate your engineering guts!!”
Dilbert: “At least you’re making sense now.”
In my research, I have seen dozens of cheap shots at the golden rule, some of them popular, some of them clever, some sincere, all of them missing the life in the golden rule—its movement through different levels of meaning. In response to criticism, some reject the rule in favor of some other moral principle. Some reformulate the rule so as to avoid the objection. My approach is to see what I can learn in response to the criticism and use this understanding to help me interpret the golden rule as a principle that implicitly contains great breadth and depth within it.
The golden rule used to be popular and decently understood, but no longer. Many young people if asked, do not know the golden rule; if given a statement of it and asked what it means, few of them can give an answer in the ballpark. Some say, “What goes around comes around.” But the karma principle offers a generalization about what happens in social interaction or cosmic response to what a person does.
But many people cherish the golden rule as a down-to-earth, one-sentence summary of morality. Many take it as their rule of living and follow it in lives that are a credit to the Creator.
The golden rule has at least three levels of meaning.
The golden rule of sympathy and consideration: “Treat others with consideration for their feelings, as you want others to treat you with consideration for your feelings.”
The golden rule of reason: “Treat others in accord with moral reason, as you want others to treat you.”
The spiritual golden rule: “Treat others as brothers and sisters, sons and daughters of God, as you want others to treat you.”
Those who criticize the rule take it literally but do not ask how it should properly be interpreted. In their use of their intelligence, they put down the planet’s most widespread moral teaching. But it is easy to criticize, hard to answer.
Sometimes a proper interpretation of the golden rule does in fact lead the agent to give the recipient a hundred dollars. It is not hard to think of a situation in which that is a morally excellent thing to do.
But there are situations in which giving someone a hundred dollars would not be a reasonable expectation, or quite inappropriate, or impossible, or definitely wrong.
In order to apply the golden rule we need to think about how we have been well-treated by others. This includes thinking about different ways in which persons have been generous to us. Sometimes people could have gratified our immediate desires but have wisely done something else that proved to be in our long-term best interest. Sometimes people helped us greatly without giving us any money.
It takes moral reason to examine the situation. If I have an opportunity to give another person a hundred dollars, I need to work toward an understanding of the facts and sympathy and consideration for all persons directly and indirectly affected. Then, using my best thinking, I ask, “If the roles were reversed, how do I now judge, using my best thinking, that I should be treated?”
The ideals of reason are high; ethical decisions can be hard, and at the limit, the we can learn from social scientists, philosophers, and scholars of law. The fullness of ethics includes insights from critics and proponents of the golden rule. In practice, we of course must do our ethical reflection in the time reasonably available.
Sometimes it is not clear what moral reason calls for. And sometimes, even if we know what we ought to do, we need inner transformation to find the loving motivation to treat others beautifully. For both these reasons, we need prayer to the One who is the author of moral principle, who does know, and can transform our motivation.
I love it that Jesus chose to take and uplift this humble teaching, seemingly vulnerable to sophistry, but majestic in its upward sweep from empathy and reason to the heights of spiritual level of living with others.
The golden rule is the principle of the practice of the family of God.
If you would like to pursue the golden rule more, I have written The Golden Rule; I also draw your attention to Harry Gensler, The Golden Rule and Ethics, Martin Bauschke, Die Goldene Regel, and Olivier du Roy, La regle d’or.
The cartoon appeared in the Chicago Tribune on December 9, 2012.
Photo credit: http://m.eet.com/media/1177654/scott-adams-03.jpg