I wanted to share a few difficulties that I encountered while examining a reductio ad absurdum of the Golden Rule that is part of the article “Morality versus Slogans,” written by Dr. Bernard Gert, renowned Professor of Intellectual and Moral Philosophy at Dartmouth College. The article may be found at: http://aristotle.tamu.edu/~rasmith/Courses/251/gert-paper.html
Dr. Gert begins his article by saying that he is not going to say anything that everyone doesn’t already know. It is my understanding that he begins many of his lectures this way. I found it disconcerting that he should begin with a rhetorical device usually employed to disarm one’s audience and impose upon them an artificial mindset designed to make them believe that what is about to be said is incontrovertibly the truth. When he continued by saying that his positive views about morality were so ordinary that he expected everyone to agree with everything he has to say, and furthermore wonders why he even bothers to say it, I could not help but think that this must be the philosophical equivalent of saying, “Behold!, I have nothing in my hands, and nothing up my sleeves.”
He then begins his argument by saying that most people claim that they think the Golden Rule, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” (1) is a good principle by which to live. I must admit that I happen to be one of those people. Dr. Gert then asks that we consider the following case:
“I am sleeping in my bedroom in Hanover, New Hampshire–a little town, and I don’t lock my doors. Tonight that seems to be a mistake because I am awakened by a noise downstairs. I go out of the bedroom and look down over the balcony and there is a burglar frantically trying to find something of value and stuffing various items into a bag. I see him but he doesn’t see or hear me. I go back in my room where I have a telephone and I am about to call the police. All of a sudden I think of the Golden Rule. Should I hang up the phone and go to bed? That’s what the Golden Rule says to do, doesn’t it? There is no question at all that if I were a burglar I certainly wouldn’t want anyone to call the police on me! Therefore if I act according to the Golden Rule I should not call the police on this burglar. That’s what the Golden Rule tells us. You might object that the burglar himself is not following the Golden Rule. He would not want me to rob his house, so he is not following the Golden Rule. That is correct, but the Golden Rule does not say “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you unless they have done unto you what they would not want done unto them.” So the Golden Rule seems to tell you not to report the burglar. “Oh come on” you say, “there is something wrong with that interpretation.” But I have simply given the Golden Rule a straightforward reading and on that reading it really is a silly rule.”
But the fact is that Dr. Gert has not given the Golden Rule a straightforward reading. Rather he has given a superficial reading of it and in the balance an incorrect one. He seems to be reading it as “Do unto others that which they would have you do to them” or perhaps “Do unto others as you would want them to do unto you, if you were them instead of you.”
It seems to me that the Golden Rule assumes prima facie virtuousness on the part of the person employing it, or else why would they even consider employing the Golden Rule in the first place? The virtue thus employed would be justice, perhaps as Plato defines it. In the case of the burglar breaking into my home, I realize that by his criminal act he must be in desperate straights, must not be thinking rationally, and furthermore is doing his soul (for the moment let us read this as the soul again as Plato would define it) serious damage. Of course I do not know this about him for a fact, but I reason that if I were doing such a thing as this man I would be in such a state as I have described. Therefore by applying the Golden Rule correctly I can see that the best thing for this man is to be apprehended without harm to his physical person, so that he may be restored to his right mind and his soul to a state of virtue. So, I dial 911.
Dr. Gert posits that the only reason that people still think that the Golden Rule is any good is that they haven’t really thought about it at all. I might agree that the average person does not think about these things, but it seems to me that if they did, they should be able to come up with a better argument than Dr.Gert has.
The good doctor offers us another example, this time of an encyclopedia salesman coming to our door. Dr. Gert says that by employing the Golden Rule you would necessarily have to buy a set of encyclopedias and that once the word got out every salesman in town would be at your door expecting the same benevolence. Further proof is offered in the form a personal testimonial by Dr. Girt who allows that he himself used to sell encyclopedias, and therefore knows that there is no question of what encyclopedia salesmen want.
But I must take a different view. Putting myself in the occupation of a salesperson, and assuming that I had the requisite virtue to cause me want to employ the Golden rule, I would not want to sell anyone anything that they did not actually need or could not reasonably afford. Of course I would want to make a living and certainly would want people to treat me in a polite manner and listen to what I had to say, if they were in the market, and would not be unnecessarily inconvenienced by giving me a few moments of their time. Having tried my hand at sales at various times, I discovered that it was almost impossible to sell certain items while retaining my personal integrity. In the article “Truth in the Marketplace” (2) by Burton M. Leiser, the selling of encyclopedias is associated with certain deceptive advertising techniques likely resulting in the type of dilemma I describe above. However, Dr. Gert does not mention as having personally experienced this difficulty while he was selling them.
Dr. Gert concludes that after consideration, everyone realizes that the Golden Rule is not really a very good guide to conduct and sometimes seems to require conduct that everybody admits is not required or conduct that is clearly wrong. I would think that it would be quite a feat among philosophers let alone among hoi polloi to get everyone to agree on anything. But this is certainly not the case regarding the Golden Rule. In fact I think that after serious consideration, given a close reading of the Golden Rule and a presupposition that the person desiring to employ it would have at least some prima fascia virtue to be willing to employ it, a very large number of erudite thinkers would conclude that it is a very good guide to conduct indeed.
A fellow cohort of mine called my attention to a portion of an essay on the Golden Rule by Harry J. Gensler. He says:
“The golden rule is best seen as a consistency principle…It only prescribes consistency that our actions(toward another) not be out of harmony with our desires (toward a reversed-situation action). It tests our moral coherence. If we violate the golden rule, then we’re violating the spirit of fairness and concern for people that lies at the heart of morality.” (3)
This reminded me of something Robin Waterfield had said in the introduction of her translation of Gorgias:
“The truth which Socrates searches for by means of the elenchus is the kind of truth that accompanies consistency…Consistency is close to being the mark of a set of true beliefs; it is at least rationally compelling.”(4)
Perhaps the Golden Rule offers a similar test in that if our actions toward an individual are at least consistent with how we might wish to be treated, then they might have a greater chance of also being moral.
Dr Gert concludes the section on by arguing that the Golden rule only illustrates the obvious. He says that while it has limited uses for instructing children in basic behavior it otherwise only correctly describes the obvious.
“If you are wondering whether to kill somebody, you don’t need that Golden Rule to tell you, “I wouldn’t want to be killed, therefore I shouldn’t kill him.” You knew it was wrong to kill him before you applied the Golden Rule.”
It is comforting to know that apparently everyone that Dr. Girt is acquainted with considers these matters a foregone conclusion. However, the rest of know for a certainty that everyone does not immediately recognize that it is wrong to beat up their fellow man and rob them, or even to take their life. The prisons are full of those who did not make this supposedly obvious connection in time and might have done so had they been more properly schooled in the principle of the Golden Rule.
The poet writes, “O would some power the giftie gie us to see ourselves as others see us.” (5) This is perhaps the mirror image of the Golden Rule. “Let me see myself as others see me, so that I might learn how to be gracious before them.” The Golden rule may be thus extrapolated as saying, “Let me deal with others with the same compassion, understanding, and forgiveness that I myself am so desperately in need of.” It is I think the first and most important moral lesson that every child should be taught and that every adult should remember.
Dr. Gert goes on to lambaste the Ten Commandments and the Categorical Imperative in his article. Perhaps I will post a further commentary on those sections, but for now I am sure that someone in this forum will be kind enough to employ the Golden Rule and assist me by putting forth some view about these issues that I may as yet have failed to consider.
1. Matt 7:12
2. Ethical Issues in Professional Life / edited by Joan C. Callahan. New York: Oxford University Press, 1988, p. 164.
3. The Blackwell encyclopedic dictionary of business ethics [electronic resource] / edited by Patricia H. Werhane and R. Edward Freeman. Malden, Mass: Blackwell, 1998. p. 304.
4. Gorgias / Translated by Robin Waterfield. Oxford University Press, USA; New Ed edition (November 19, 1998) p. xxx.
5. Robert Burns. Scottish national poet (1759 – 1796). Poem “To a Louse” – Verse 8.