Golden Rule Not Much of an Ethical Tenet

The local Gannett rag, the Kalamazoo Gazette, ran a rather disjointed article in its April 22, 2006, profiling a local religious professor who apparently believes that the solution to the world’s problems is the Golden Rule. Now the paper might be distorting the professor’s views, but regardless, the Golden Rule isn’t much of a basis for transcending differing views of morality. In fact, the Golden Rule can be downright pernicious.

According to the Kalamazoo Gazette,

A foundation of the world’s great religions, the rule in its Christian form, Siebert says, states, “In everything, do to others as you would have them do to you.”

In its Jewish form, it is, “Do not do to others what you would not want them to do to you.” In the Islamic form, it is, “No one of you is a believer until he desires for his brother that which he desires for himself.”

“The Golden Rule embraces not only the whole Hebrew law and the prophets, but also the New Testament and the Koran,” Siebert said before leaving Kalamazoo.

In addition, Siebert says, even atheists and agnostics and those who call themselves humanists can agree that this rule should “be accepted as the foundation of a global ethos.”

Especially now in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorists attacks and ongoing conflicts in the Middle East, it is more urgent than ever that the rule be taken more seriously, Siebert says.

Well, this is one atheist who doesn’t see the point in having the Golden Rule accepted as “the foundation of a global ethos.”

The problem with the Golden Rule is that it is entirely possible for people to advocate heinous moral acts so long as that they too are willing to be subject to such barbarities.

For example, consider the protests by Muslim hardliners in Afghanistan after a man who converted from Islam to Christianity was set free from prison rather than executed. So long as the protesters who wanted to see the man executed are willing to say, “if I became an apostate it would be okay to kill me”, then killing a man simply because he converted from one religion to another is completely consistent with the Golden Rule.

Certainly most religions have never seen the Golden Rule as limiting their behavior. It certainly didn’t stop the genocide against the Canaanites described in Joshua, nor the wholesale infanticide described in Exodus 11 and 12.

Apparently even the otherwise-totalitarian George Bernard Shaw could see through the flaws in the Golden Rule, famously saying,

Do not do unto others as you expect they should do unto you. Their tastes may not be the same.

The University of Chicago’s Alan Gewirth brought a more philosophical attack on the Golden Rule arguing that it made justice impossible. From Gewirth’s obituary,

Gewirth’s point about the Golden Rule was straightforward: it makes justice impossible. “If you always ‘do unto others as you would have them do unto you,’ a thief might say to the judge,  ‘you wouldn’t want to go to prison. How can you send me to prison?'” Gewirth’s replacement for this rule is based on a principle that, he argued, was more universal.

Gewirth’s work is linked by the search for this supreme moral principle: it began with early work on Descartes’ “Cogito,” including a major article that is still in print and discussed; a middle phase with a book on the natural law and political philosophy of Marsilius of Padua and a translation of his work, both still in print and considered definitive; and finally developed into the ethical rationalism for which he is best known. In his work on Marsilius there is already a careful attention to human need, which Gewirth developed into his supreme principle of morality, the Principle of Generic Consistency (PGC), according to which all agents have inalienable rights to the capacities and facilities they need in order to be able to act with a real chance of success.

Thus Gewirth’s own golden rule: “Agents must act in accord with the generic rights of others as well as their own.” His defense of this principle “that it is impossible to deny the principle without contradicting yourself, because agents contradict that they are agents if they deny the PGC or act contrary to it” echoes Des Cartes’ idea that one cannot deny one’s existence because this very denial implies one’s existence. Gewirth’s further argument, originating in Marsilius, that self-interest and community good are not opposed but mutually supportive, was expressed in his book The Community of Rights, 1996. A new book, Human Rights and Global Justice, unfinished at his death, extends his examination of these principles to the current world context. His work found unities between reason and love, and between the self and the other, the central theme of his last completed work, Self-Fulfillment, 1998; and an optimism about the human capacity to overcome evil that is not based on religious faith. “Yet,” added Professor Beyleveld, “his philosophy is not one of naive expectation. It is a philosophy of hope that places the onus on the human capacity and duty to take responsibility for one’s actions.”

Of course even then all we’re left with are generic rights that don’t do much to solve any but the most basic of moral problems. The Golden Rule or The Principle of Generic Consistency each do little to reconcile individuals or societies that have widely divergent moral viewpoints. They make nice bumper stickers, but that’s about it.


Alan Gewirth, 1912-2004, rational ethicist who challenged Golden Rule. Press Release, University of Chicago, May 17, 2004.

Universal ethical tenet transcends sectarian, secular cultures, WMU professor argues. Kalamazoo Gazette, Chris Meehan, April 22, 2006.