If the first level of morally active living to treat others with consideration for their feelings, as you want others to do to you, the next level is rule of reason. Treat others in accord with reason, as you want others to do to you. This level of the golden rule can be more challenging, partly because sometimes we do not want to be treated with reason. We want the sympathy; we want to feel good. But some of the people who have treated us well challenged us constructively. They loved us, respected us enough, had enough faith in us to tell us what we did not want to hear.
Once we open the door to reason, there is no end to the ideas and considerations that may be brought to bear on some moral decision or other. In order to simplify things, I’m going to consider ethical theories that are commonly studied in Introduction to Ethics courses, theories that continue to have impact today.
The golden rule is a searchlight, not a map: no principle can be expected by itself to resolve everything; in that sense, any universal moral principle may seem vague. But the golden rule has stimulated some philosophers to formulate its intellectual implications in a more sharply defined way, as can be seen in two major modern ethical theories. Immanuel Kant may have developed his universal moral principle (“the categorical imperative”) partly to give intellectual precision to the golden rule (he actually criticized the golden rule and substituted his own principle for serious thinkers). Kant unfolded his interpretation of moral law into a very wide-ranging principle. His principle requires, first, that we act only according to specific maxims that we could will to be universal law (roughly, this is the test, “What if everyone did that?”). His principle requires, second, that we treat each person, including ourselves, not merely as a means, but as an end. His third explanation of this principle includes respect for the humanity in us all, which implies that we each have equal and awesome dignity. Thus, if we are to practice the golden rule excellently, we need profound self-respect. His third version also includes the thought that we should act autonomously on principles that could function in an advanced civilization—or, I would say, principles that could help evolve that civilization.
John Stuart Mill
Another influential modern ethical theory associated with the golden rule is utilitarianism. One of its founders was John Stuart Mill, who advocated acting for the good of the whole. This theory, despite its problems, contains insights that enrich the interpretation of the golden rule. In fact, Mill saw the golden rule as expressing the heart of his theory. “As between his own happiness and that of others, utilitarianism requires him to be as strictly impartial as a disinterested [nonpartisan] and benevolent spectator. In the golden rule of Jesus of Nazareth, we read the complete spirit of the ethics of utility. To do as one would be done by, and to love one’s neighbor as oneself, constitute the ideal perfection of utilitarian morality.” Utilitarianism realizes that sometimes what seems right between two persons must be adjusted to take into account the interests of the group.
A strength of utilitarianism is its attempt to consider all beings directly or indirectly affected by an action; and utilitarianism thereby provides a bridge from a moral principle of one-to-one relationships to ethics applied to social systems. Society should support family life as well as individual self-realization; economic life should include the service motive as well as the profit motive; political life should pursue the good of the planet as well as the interests of the nation.
Kant and Mill recognized a key component of moral intelligence: we should look not only at the particulars of the situation and decision, but also what those particulars indicate about the meaning of the action. The morally responsible person reasons in general terms, thinks about the type of situation, and describes the action and motive in terms that could apply to countless other cases. Here’s a generalized action description: Whenever I am tempted to make a deceptive promise in order to borrow money (situation type), I will refuse to do so (action stated in general terms) on grounds of principle (motive stated in general terms).
Mill described the process of making a responsible exception to the moral rule of telling the truth. Not only do I need to realize the tremendous importance of truth-telling; I also need to define the precise kind of situation in which an exception is justified (for example, if telling the truth would bring great harm to those affected directly and indirectly by the action). If I do not make the exception precise, I leave things fuzzy and may start making unjustified exceptions and thereby corrupt my character and contribute to social decline as people are less able to trust what is said to them.
Note that virtues, too, are expressed in general terms that pertain to situation types. Courage pertains to situations that are threatening (and there may be variants of courage pertaining to specific types of threats). We take our moral life to the next level by reflecting on these meanings.
Emotional sympathy and moral reason, despite their essential contributions, do not solve every moral problem. We can be well attuned emotionally and well informed, but sometimes our best thinking does not find the answer, and spontaneously we reach out for higher wisdom. Or we know what we should do, but how to do it is beyond us. These situations call for the golden rule on a spiritual level of interpretation.