The Golden Rule Is Still Not Much of a Moral Principle

Charter for Compassion is yet another group of people who for some reason think the Golden Rule (“do unto others as you would have them do unto you” or similar nonsense) should be made the basis for some sort of global morality,

By recognizing that the Golden Rule is fundamental to all world religions, the Charter for Compassion can inspire people to think differently about religion. This Charter is being created in a collaborative project by people from all over the world. It will be completed in 2009. Use this site to offer language you’d like to see included. Or inspire others by sharing your own story of compassion.

Give me a break.

As I’ve said before, the problem with the Golden Rule is that it is simply a check against hypocrisy. Beyond that, however, it is entirely compatible with a long laundry list of immoral acts. There is nothing in the Golden Rule, for example, that would render the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks wrong.

It doesn’t even seem like the organizers of this effort have really thought about the Golden Rule beyond some sort of wishy washy feel good nonsense,

. . . the Golden Rule is our prime duty and cannot be limited to our own political, religious or ethnic group.

Huh? Clearly those religious traditions that the Charter for Compassion cites saw nothing wrong with limiting the Golden Rule to apply only to a relatively circumscribed group of people (i.e., “those who agree with us”). One could adhere to the Golden Rule while slaughtering the non-believers down the street with nary a contradiction.

Consider a call to action such as, “Infidels should be murdered.” All the Golden Rule really ends up saying is that I should only agree with this statement if I too am willing to be murdered if it turns out I am an infidel. Since most religious people generally operate on the principle that someone else is an infidel, there’s not contradiction there at all.

What the Charter for Compassion folks are really doing is outlining a broader moral vision and trying to pass it off as some sort of universal view by repeating “Golden Rule” like some sort of mantra that will smooth things over.

I can’t wait to see how they handle genuine debates such as that surrounding abortion. Should I oppose abortion since clearly I would not have wanted to have been aborted as a fetus, or should I favor abortion because I would not want other people telling me what to do with my body.

That’s a real moral dilemma — and one the Golden Rule pretty much  does nothing to help solve.

As George Bernard Shaw put it,

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

Book Review: Moral Minds

Moral Minds by Marc HauserMarc Hauser’s book Moral Minds purports to travel much the same territory for morality that books like Steven Pinker’s The Language Instinct does for language — he argues that human beings are born with an innate moral capacity that is separate and distinct from other faculties (morality is not, for example, simply a byproduct of a general rational ability).

As Hauser sums it up in the prologue,

I argue that our moral faculty is equipped with a univeral moral grammar, a tookit for building specific moral systems. Once we have acquired our culture’s specific moral norms — a process that is more like growing a limb than sitting in Sunday school and learning about vices and virutes — we judge whether actions are permissible, obligatory, or forbidden, without conscious reasoning and without explicit access to the underlying principle.

Moreover, Hauser believes that we should go beyond merely describing such an innate moral faculty, but that in addition the existence of said moral faculty should be taken into account in policy making.

But does the book actually deliver? Briefly, no. The author complains in an afterword in the paperback version of the book about an early negative review from the late Richard Rorty in the New York Times (Hauser claims that the review was especially insulting because, Hauser claims, it was clear that Rorty hadn’t read the book). Having slogged through the book, I thought Rorty was pretty much spot on with his criticisms. Rorty wrote,

The exuberant triumphalism of the prologue to “Moral Minds” leads the reader to expect that Hauser will lay out criteria for distinguishing parochial moral codes from universal principles, and will offer at least a tentative list of those principles. These expectations are not fulfilled. The vast bulk of “Moral Minds” consists of reports of experimental results, but Hauser does very little to make clear how these results bear on his claim that there is a “moral voice of our species.”

. . .

Hauser thinks that Noam Chomsky has shown that in at least one area — learning how to produce grammatical sentences — the latter sort of circuitry will not do the job. We need, Hauser says, a “radical rethinking of our ideas on morality, which is based on the analogy to language.” But the analogy seems fragile. Chomsky has argued, powerfully if not conclusively, that simple trial-and-error imitation of adult speakers cannot explain the speed and confidence with which children learn to talk: some special, dedicated mechanism must be at work. But is a parallel argument available to Hauser? For one thing, moral codes are not assimilated with any special rapidity. For another, the grammaticality of a sentence is rarely a matter of doubt or controversy, whereas moral dilemmas pull us in opposite directions and leave us uncertain.

The book never comes close on delivering on the prologue’s claim about an innate moral faculty. Instead, much of the book is filled with a mind numbing discussion of Hauser’s particular framing of moral philosophy interspersed (which is Rawlsian, though he doesn’t make a convincing case even on that) with long catalogs of animal experiments that are somehow supposed to tie-in to the philosophy but never quite seem to (which isn’t to say that some of the experiments aren’t fascinating, they just don’t ever come close to demonstrating what Hauser sets out to convince the reader of).

All-in-all this book was bloody awful. Someday someone is going to write a classic book on the sociobiology of human morality. This, however, is not it.

But Science and Religion Do Inherently Clash

An article from the New York Times — Teacher shows that science, religion don’t have to clash — seem to have been linked to widely across the Internet as an example of a teacher doing a good job of demonstrating natural selection to his students in a country where sympathy for creationism seems to be on the upswing.

The article is fairly interesting, except if you stop to think why a science teacher demonstrating basic scientific principles to his students is considered remarkable enough to warrant an entire article in The New York Times. Its the title, however, and the last few paragraphs that reflect a silly but widely accepted dichotomy,

He [science teacher David Campbell] looked around the room. “Bryce, what is it called when natural laws are suspended – what do you call it when water changes into wine?”

“Miracle?” Bryce supplied.

Campbell nodded. The ball hit the floor again.

“Science explores nature by testing and gathering data,” he said. “It can’t tell you what’s right and wrong. It doesn’t address ethics.

“But it is not antireligion. Science and religion just ask different questions.”

He later explained to the class, “Faith is not based on science,” Campbell said. “And science is not based on faith.”

This idea that science and religion are complementary seems widely assumed but makes absolutely no sense. Science completely undercuts the rationale for religion across disciplines, including ethics, despite what Campbell asserts.

Once someone has rejected revelation in favor of experimentation, observation and data gathering, exactly what is the argument in favor of revelation for establishing ethics? It would seem fairly untenable to argue that when it comes to explaining, say, the weather that we should rely on observation and reason, but the second we want to discuss the ethics of using birth control that we should run to some holy book or holy person for The One True Answer?

Thankfully, at least in the West, we do not do anything like that anymore. Rather, our laws and ethical beliefs have been largely secularized. Over time people have abandoned large parts of “ethical” principles contained in their religions precisely because they applied data gathering, observation and reason to religious teachings and jettisoned the parts that didn’t make any sense. In turn, people tend to redefine their religious views to accommodate these to the point where the religious views become neutered shadows of themselves — like silly proclamations that “Jesus is love”.

Religious texts are helpful to the extent that they codify and let us closely examine what particular groups of humans in their time and in the context of their culture thought constituted morality. Some of it is splendid and worth copying, while much of it is ugly and rightly cast aside. But those particular decisions are best made by the application of reason, not by some appeal to an inherently irrational faith in God(s) and those who claim the mantle of representing them here on Earth.

Steven Pinker on The Moral Instinct

Writing in the New York Times Magazine, Steven Pinker did an excellent job outlining an evolutionary explanation and approach to our individual and collective moral intuitions. The most intriguing part of Pinker’s long essay is his summary of the view that there may be a small set of universal moral values, along the lines of Noam Chomsky’s theory of a universal grammar, and that cultural differences in morality are explained through the different rankings and importance that different cultures assign to different values,

All this brings us to a theory of how the moral sense can be universal and variable at the same time. The five moral spheres [harm, fairness, community, authortiy, purity] are universal, a legacy of evolution. But how they are ranked in importance, and which is brought in to moralize which area of social life — sex, government, commerce, religion, diet and so on — depends on the culture. Many of the flabbergasting practices in faraway places become more intelligible when you recognize that the same moralizing impulse that Western elites channel toward violations of harm and fairness (our moral obsessions) is channeled elsewhere to violations in the other spheres. Think of the Japanese fear of nonconformity (community), the holy ablutions and dietary restrictions of Hindus and Orthodox Jews (purity), the outrage at insulting the Prophet among Muslims (authority). In the West, we believe that in business and government, fairness should trump community and try to root out nepotism and cronyism. In other parts of the world this is incomprehensible — what heartless creep would favor a perfect stranger over his own brother?

Pinker argues that examining our differing moral thinking through the lens of these five factors may allow us not only to understand each other better, but also achieve more rational solutions to problems such as global warming. This is, in Pinker’s view, much preferable to the habit of moralizing problems, and he does a nice job of taking chief moralizers Leon Kass to task to demonstrate the problems of reducing morality simply to our intuitions,

Though wise people have long reflected on how we can be blinded by our own sanctimony, our public discourse still fails to discount it appropriately. In the worst cases, the thoughtlessness of our brute intuitions can be celebrated as a virtue. In his influential essay “The Wisdom of Repugnance,” Leon Kass, former chair of the President’s Council on Bioethics, argued that we should disregard reason when it comes to cloning and other biomedical technologies and go with our gut: “We are repelled by the prospect of cloning human beings . . . because we intuit and feel, immediately and without argument, the violation of things that we rightfully hold dear. . . . In this age in which everything is held to be permissible so long as it is freely done . . . repugnance may be the only voice left that speaks up to defend the central core of our humanity. Shallow are the souls that have forgotten how to shudder.”

There are, of course, good reasons to regulate human cloning, but the shudder test is not one of them. People have shuddered at all kinds of morally irrelevant violations of purity in their culture: touching an untouchable, drinking from the same water fountain as a Negro, allowing Jewish blood to mix with Aryan blood, tolerating sodomy between consenting men. And if our ancestors’ repugnance had carried the day, we never would have had autopsies, vaccinations, blood transfusions, artificial insemination, organ transplants and in vitro fertilization, all of which were denounced as immoral when they were new.

Pinker is certainly on the right track here, but he too quickly glosses over just how disconcerting this is. Earlier in his essay he debunks a naive version of the selfish gene theory, demonstrating that although our genes may be selfish that does not mean that human behavior must be (as he puts it, the genes that predispose us to care for our children may be selfish, but parents who care for their children are usually acting on genuinely altruistic motives).

Be that as it may, our moral intuitions are extremely deep rooted and it is disconcerting to think that, for example, my view that free speech should be tolerated except for a handful of very extreme instances is simply a product of a)  an evolved, shared set of moral values, combined with b)  the particular way that my culture and subculture rank the relative importance of those moral values. There is, after all, a reason that the “God said it, and I believe it” explanation of morality is so popular.

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.