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- Jonathan Lockwood Huie (jlh @sail7.com)

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Saturday, August 13, 2011

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The Golden Rule is Not Always Golden


The following is adapted from my writings in Simply An Inspired Life - a book I co-authored in 2009 with my good friend Mary Anne Radmacher. Consider getting your own copy from Amazon or your local bookseller.

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I invite you to suspend your judgments for five minutes, and adopt a "Beginner Mind" as you read the following. My intention is to incite you to think - really think - about your values. Whatever you conclude after reading this is good - just focus on being open and thinking consciously, rather than just reacting with: "But my parents, priest, teachers, family, friends, neighbors, government officials say..."

"Be like me" is not a Golden Rule

The so-called Golden Rule occurs in many forms, and in multiple cultures. The version in Matthew 7:12 "So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you." is reasonably representative. The Golden Rule has been praised as virtually the basis of morality and saintliness, so how could any responsible person even suggest that it is NOT "golden?"

Start with some examples: Things I would like others to do for me include feeding me if I'm hungry, treating my ailments if I'm sick (probably), and providing a warm and dry place for me to sleep if I'm cold and wet. These are (probably) all things that others would want me to do for them. I would also like others to serve me a rare steak, hold the onions on my salad, and use real butter on my baked potato. Taken literally, the Golden Rule dictates that I should serve my vegetarian friend a rare steak, and my dieting friend lots of butter.

Given the trivial nature of this first example, you may be tempted to respond: "You're being too literal. The Golden Rule really asks that we treat others as they want to be treated." Hmmm... If that's what the Golden Rule meant, why didn't it just say so? - and it doesn't - in any of its occurrences.

Next example: For me, "treating my ailments if I'm sick," would definitely include providing me with blood transfusions if I were severely anemic or had lost a lot of blood in a car accident. If I applied the Golden Rule to my neighbor's similar condition, I would rush him to the hospital for a transfusion, and donate my own blood. Suppose, however, that my neighbor has a deeply held religious injunction against blood transfusions. Hmmm...

The killer (literally) example comes when my neighbor's one year old daughter gets severe anemia. Ooops... No way out. You probably have a very good answer for this dilemma, but I guarantee that whatever your answer is, it will reflect your own history and personal beliefs. You may believe that the Golden Rule charges you to allow your neighbor his religious freedom - as you would want him to allow you your freedom. Or, you may believe that the Golden Rule charges you to attempt to provide the one year old with the "superior" medical care that you would want others to provide for you. In either case, there is no absolute, "natural," or "God-given" moral answer to this dilemma.

However well intentioned, a literal interpretation of the Golden Rule can be more harmful than helpful, and has led to much personal misery as well as to some of the world's greatest tragedies. If I believe that my religion is the only one that can get you to "heaven," then the Golden Rule says that I must convert you, whatever it takes - right? Remember the Crusades as one example among many.

Almost any sect, cult, or religion will legislate
its creed into law
if it acquires the political power.
- Robert A. Heinlein


Like me, you probably first react to the Heinlein quote by focusing on the word "almost," and thinking that those "other people" would corrupt the political process with their parochial beliefs, but you would never do that. Think again! The Heinlein quote should have the "almost" removed entirely!

My own reaction was that I would never advocate laws that favor one spiritual belief system over another - after all, I'm a strong supporter of the First Amendment ("Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof."). But then I look deeper into myself...

As you may have observed from my comments above, my personal belief system requires that I advocate laws that children are "entitled to modern medical care - with or without the consent of their parents." To me that doesn't feel like "legislate its creed into law," it feels, to me, like being loving, human, and humane - and who could object. Well... as you saw above, absolutely everyone with a different spiritual creed from mine would object vigorously.

But I'm right and they're wrong. Really?? That's the whole point. Everyone believes that their beliefs are the right ones - that is why they are called "beliefs."

Exercise: Take a few minutes to write your feelings and thoughts. Are you angry? Upset? How do you feel about the preceding? How do you now feel about the Golden Rule?

If a literal interpretation of the Golden Rule isn't a reasonable bedrock for morality, what is? I offer two possibilities for you to consider. The cynical view is that there simply is no morality. The humanitarian view is that compassion is the bedrock of morality. We can have compassion for both the anemic toddler and for her parent.

The following quote represents my own beliefs about morality, the meaning of life, and the dilemma of interpreting the Golden Rule too literally.

Universal compassion is the only guarantee of morality.
- Arthur Schopenhauer

1 comment:

Aneesh Karthik said...

thank you JLH, I have been thinking of this point for long time and this article really helped me.. thank you for enlightening me. :)

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