A recent exchange at An Apostate’s Chapel got me thinking about the ethic of reciprocity, better known as “The Golden Rule”. At that time, I objected to the assertion that the variant put forth in the new testament is superior to what came before. I started thinking that perhaps I should take some time to research the Golden Rule. Certainly it’s something that comes up in discussions about the origins of and basis for morality, so that alone is enough to warrant research but as I found in the above discussion, THE Golden Rule is not a singular rule. It instead can be expressed in various ways, and I have found four, which can be simplified to these:
1. Don’t do to others what you wouldn’t want done to you
2. Do for others so that they do for you
3. Do to others what you would want done to you
4. We are all one, and one’s pains and joys are everyone’s pains and joys
Almost the same, but the longer you consider them, the more they become distinctive and they move apart from one another. Perhaps the first thing you see, which is what I originally saw, was the contrast of doing for and not doing to. This is often referred to as Positive Golden Rule and Negative Golden Rule respectively. The negative version is what we have knowledge of existing first, coming from Confucius, the Buddha, Zarathustra, Socrates and also appearing in Judaism. I believe it no doubt is the earliest form, for you can imagine in a primitive world your first desire is to put your fears to rest, and one of the greatest early fears must have been fear of others. Will my neighbor take my food, my animals, my shelter, my life? Ah, how to defend against such a threat? Eventually someone realized that their neighbor may be just as fearful of them, so they explained to the neighbor, “look Oog, I won’t fuck with you if you don’t fuck with me” and so it began perhaps, civilization. It should not be overlooked what profound understanding this reciprocity is based on, and that’s understanding of others. Over time as humanity changed and specialized, this awareness of others had to grow. To be fully callous, this early form of the Golden Rule is based on a threat, “don’t fuck with me or I’ll fuck with you”. Well in order for it to work, two things are needed – the means to harm and the knowledge of how to harm, and the latter demands knowledge of those around you. It may seem amazing that from basic fear and the need to be able to give weight to a threat, humanity first came to know and understand one another, but I find it highly plausible. Sure it’s wholly selfish in it’s motivation, but by forcing understanding it may force respect as well. Now I did find a variation of this, what I listed as #2 above, which may seem less brutish but still clearly motivated by selfishness. Some of us today may recognize it and call it by other names like “brown nosing”. Still, the necessity to know and understand others is paramount for, as you needed to know how to harm before, now you needed to know how to help. This necessity is ignored by the next incarnation of the Golden Rule, Positive Golden Rule.
Appearing earlier in the works of Plato and found in Hinduism, Jainism, and even Judaism from Hillel, it eventually made it’s appearance in the christian gospels. Christians hail this “improvement” of the Golden Rule by their man Jesus as a profound change for the better. Now I feel they are as wrong about this variant being an improvement as they clearly are that their Jesus came up with it first. Now your initial reaction might be to think me mad for now, instead of being based on a threat, it’s based on love and altruism, but I ask you to look closer at it with me. First, let me start with where it seems to have neither gained nor lost ground, and that’s the issue of selfishness. Yes, this version is still inherently selfish. It doesn’t say “do for others what THEY would want done for THEM”, it says, “do for others what YOU would want done for YOU”. Now as far as selfishness itself, this variant seems on par with the earlier form but it’s a selfishness that leads to other problems and makes it what I see as a fundamental flaw. To put it simply, how do you know your neighbor would like what you like? How do you know doing something for him that you’d like to have done for you is something he’d appreciate? Well now we’re back to the earlier need for knowledge of others only this new variant doesn’t teach that as a necessity. In fact, it’s not just completely ignored but made irrelevant.
What comes from the loss of understanding of others in the positive Golden Rule is the actions of its adherents becoming trespasses and impositions upon others, possibly even harming them and taken to it’s extreme can be grounds for a most insidious form of tyranny, one where the tyrant is unaware of his tyranny. In fact, such a tyrant will no doubt believe that his tyranny is a gift, a favor, a blessing if you will bestowed upon another out of love. Because of this I see nothing positive coming from the positive variant of the Golden Rule, nor do I even feel comfortable in letting it share the title of “Golden Rule” for its flawed basis carries the potential, often manifested, to run counter to the original Golden Rule in that it leads to harm for others. It is this very disconnect that I see as the primary divisive force between secularists and evangelicals in America and why we will ALWAYS have to battle the encroachments of the evangelicals into both public and private lives. The problem is all their trespasses, they believe, are for our sake, for our greater benefit. Prayer in school? Well of course we NEED that since they feel it’s necessary, what with morality being based on their bible. They simply can’t fathom our objections because they can’t see why we don’t want what they want since what they want, they believe, is good. There simply can’t be any respect without understanding and as long as they hold true to a philosophy like this that disregards understanding, they will never respect others. Let me offer an example I learned while in college. A British missionary group was saddened to see tribesmen (I think Trobrianders, but I’m not sure) running around naked so they wrote back to their church and the fine old church ladies in England, with nothing but love and the desire to help in their hearts, knitted and sent wonderful sweaters to these poor, naked wretches in the rainforest. Not wanting to offend, the tribe accepted and wore the sweaters. Soon the rain fell, as it does in rainforests, the sweaters got soaked, and the tribe, now wearing soaked sweaters, developed pneumonia and almost all died.
No doubt there are some kindly christians who would object to the notion of their Golden Rule mandating the disregard of other’s wishes. Well to play along, let’s pretend that’s so for a moment. So good christians, taking into account what others need, give out of the goodness of their hearts. Now I’m sure those in desperation will be most appreciative and certainly I don’t want to distract from successful charitable efforts of christians but there’s unfortunately another problem that can grow from this and that’s resentment. Like it or not, the very act of giving to another in need is a show of power. The giver shows that he is power enough to give up some of what he has and the recipient of that generosity by accepting that help acknowledges that he is weaker, deficient and subordinate to the giver. It’s often asked in America why foreign cultures would hate us when we do so much to help them and this plays a part in that. It can be seen as a flaunting of power and as such, fosters resentment.
Before I simply dismiss the positive Golden Rule and dub the negative version the TRUE Golden Rule, I do want to mention the last of the four variants I listed earlier and that’s an idea of true unity with all. This variant I found present in Taoism, Shintoism, Sikhism, Native American religions, Sufism and adopted by the Unitarians and some Humanists (the British Humanist Society, for example, subscribes to the negative Golden Rule). I have no choice but to find this final one superior for it not only encourages knowledge and respect for others, but it’s the only one that is not inherently selfish. Unfortunately, as a cynic, I find it highly probable that many could subscribe to this but perhaps unknowingly fall into the dangers of the positive variant so I would probably still consider the original Golden Rule, the negative Golden Rule, being both the most practical and least dangerous.
Something came to me just now considering these variants, and that’s that I could see people perhaps not clearly belonging to one or the other. For instance, I sympathize with the unity idea, but in practice I’m probably more negative Golden Rule. So what better way to see where you fall than with a color wheel? (Sorry, but what do you expect from a visual artist?) So where do you fall? I’m kinda green.