Doing Unto Others: Misunderstanding the Golden Rule

Though it is highly controversial to publicly point to Christ’s teaching on things like divorce when indicating how we ought to live, “the golden rule” seems fair game for conservative & liberal, Christian & secularist alike.  In a sense, this is hardly surprising.  The golden rule can and has been espoused apart from Christ’s instruction, and it’s a common element of many ethical systems.  At the same time, however, it is amazing that such a ubiquitous ethical concept is so frequently misunderstood–a fact that might also contribute to it’s uncontroversial nature.

J. Budziszewski pegged the problem perfectly in The Revenge of Conscience.  There are any number of people who attempt to understand “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” as though it actually said, “Do unto others as they would have you do unto them.”  The former teaches us to treat others well by hijacking what comes far more naturally to us–treating ourselves well.  The latter, however, is simply a mechanism for relinquishing all responsibility for our behavior onto the desires of another.  It matters not whether what we do is right, only whether it makes somebody else happy.  Of course, the practical reality of competing desires among different people means we decide on our own which desires we actually submit to.  Unsurprisingly, our choices are usually self-serving.  In the end, “Do unto others as they would have you do unto them” is merely license to do whatever we want as long as we have an accomplice.  Should we support legalized abortion?  Well, millions of women want them, so I guess we’d better.  Should I care for my sick grandfather?  Well, he says he doesn’t want to be a bother and I don’t want to be bothered, so I guess I’d better not.  Is it okay to fornicate with my girlfriend?  Well, we both want to, so I guess it’s fine.  Misunderstood this way, the golden rule becomes a convenient justification for nearly any course of action at all, and a useful tool to advance nearly any ideology.

It’s an easy mistake to make because so many of us presume utilitarianism to be the proper basis for ethics–the greatest pleasure for the greatest number of people.  In such a framework, “what you would have them do unto you” merely means “what you want.”  And if you want others to do what you want, then the golden rule means you should, in turn, do what they want.  The problem is that even a cursory reading of Christ’s teachings surrounding the golden rule preclude this.  In the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7), which contains the golden rule, Jesus spends far more time teaching how to judge what is good.  He condemns lust & divorce, tells us how we should fast and pray, tells us not to worry about food & clothing, and so forth.  In short, he tells us all about what we ought to want.  How then can we take the golden rule to mean acceding to wants of others which may or may not have any basis in how we ought to want?  At the end of the day, Jesus and his disciples were most certainly not utilitarians.

We all desire both good things and bad things–often at the same time.  Our good judgment helps us to avoid sinful indulgence by discerning the difference.  Indeed, many of Christ’s teachings instruct us on how to make such judgments well.  When we misunderstand the golden rule, we don’t just try to put ourselves in another person’s circumstances–we try to put ourselves in their mind, character, and preferences to such an extent that we are not putting ourselves anywhere at all.  This is not what we are called to do.  The golden rule is intended to improve our judgment on how to treat others, not replace that judgment with a poll of what they want.  And so, because we would not have others indulge us in our sins, we should not indulge others in theirs, even if that’s what they want.  Because we would have our needs met before our wants, we should help meet the needs of others.  It’s an unfortunate condition to want what’s bad for us.  But because that is our condition much of the time, we must seek do good to others as well as we can–not just cater to their wants.

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