Café Wrap-Up: The Golden Rule

Is the “Golden Rule” sufficient when examining all questions of morality?

This question covered at the most recent Socrates Café led us to consider application of The Golden Rule toward the moral questions that we each encounter on a daily basis. Taken from The Bible, the well known Golden Rule is the idea that one should “In everything, do to others as you would have them do to you.”

Philosophy professor Clancy Martin in his lecture series Moral Decision Making: How to Approach Everyday Ethics said that this concept “appears not just in the New Testament but in slightly different formulations in a variety of ancient traditions.” He cites:

Book Cover Analects of Confucius

The Udanavarga of Buddhist tradition “Hurt not others in ways that you yourself would find hurtful,” and

The Analects of Confucius “Do not do to others what you would not like yourself, then there would be no resentment against you either in the family, or in the state.”

This whole concept seems simple to apply to everyday moral questions, but does applying The Golden Rule to any moral question stand up under further scrutiny?

Well, yes.

And no.

One café participant suggested that The Golden Rule is a form of reciprocity which proposes that if I treat you in a way which maximizes my happiness, then you ought to treat me similarly and by extension your happiness increases. The Wikipedia definition seems to agree. The participant elaborated further saying that it also follows that if I continue to treat you the way I want to be treated, but that you essentially use me to the point at which a reciprocal arrangement no longer exists, then I could choose to withdraw your access to my friendship.

This idea was rebutted with another person’s interpretation of The Golden Rule. Her belief is that it only states that the former treat others in a certain way, but that no reciprocity is implied or expected. Still, with respect to the concept of reciprocity, we pondered another’s suggestion to instead “do to others as they would like done to them.”

The one who proposed this idea further explained (and I’m paraphrasing here) the following. Suppose I am a person who prefers to be alone when I need de-stress. You on the other hand are one who just wants to be hugged or who prefers to enjoy time with friends in order to experience the same result. Using this interpretation I should, when you are stressed, be sure to invite you to my party, or give you a big hug.

However, there is a danger here. This presumes, as still another person pointed out, that I know best what you need for yourself, even more so than you do, and by acting accordingly I remove your autonomy.

Applying The Golden Rule to Everyday Situations

Is it okay to lie?

Apply the rule by asking, “Do I like being lied to?”

Sometimes (if it suits my best interest or helps me to learn), but not if it is used to manipulate me or is in any way hurtful.

What if you catch a co-worker taking home office supplies? Morally speaking, should you be the whistleblower or approach the co-worker about the issue?

If the roles were reversed, would you want to be talked to about this by me or by your boss and maybe lose your job as a result? Applied here, the principle seems to dictate that you should approach the co-worker to tell her, “Here’s what I saw you doing, and it’s wrong.” If after this, the co-worker continues to steal company supplies, she should at least not be surprised if you take the issue to management.

But is this really just being a tattletale or a whistleblower? If everyone steals the office supplies, will the company be able to sustain its business? What if it’s not office supplies, but the co-worker is writing checks to himself drawn from company funds? Do we have degrees to which we choose whether or when to apply The Golden Rule?

What about giving to the poor? Would I appreciate the help if I were down on my luck? If an opportunity to help someone in need presents itself and you apply The Golden Rule, then morally you would be obligated to assist.

While we may not have found the answer to our original question, we certainly came up with more questions and cause for thought about an important idea. This often happens, and that’s okay. That’s what a democracy is about.

At each meetup of the Socrates Café we choose a single question to examine from those submitted by our patrons. You’ll find it fun an engaging. You can register here.