Sunday, 9 August 2009

He who has the gold...

In a recent copy of Philosophy Now I came across an article on The Golden Rule and felt some comments were required.

Simply put, the Golden Rule (do unto others, love thy neighbour and other variations) is considered by many moral philosophers to be the fundamental and universal tenet of morality. In his article in the July/August 2009 edition (issue 74) of Philosophy Now, Stephen Anderson argues against this premise. There are however, a few points where his conclusions seem to me to be fallacious and I'd like to raise those points now.

The first is a tiny point which he himself glosses over to some extent, and rightly so in my opinion. It is this; that the Golden Rule is not truly universal as there are those belief systems that actively disdain the rule, citing Nietzsche and tribal philosophies as examples. This seems to me to be making the wholly indefensible assumption that any philosophy or belief is moral in its own right. While I believe we should remain open to the idea that opinions other than our own might have a basis in morality, to make the assumption that all opinions hold some moral value seems obviously flawed. Is it not a condition that if we can define any basic principle for universal morality then we must be able to also define immorality in the same terms. Could not then these (minority!) beliefs be considered immoral and hence not be posited as an argument against the Golden Rule?

His second and I believe most flawed argument postulates two very different definitions of the Golden Rule; that of the positive and that of the negative. Thus, the positive Golden Rule states that one must DO unto others as one would have DONE unto oneself. This implies positive action on our part. The negative version tells us to DO NOT unto others as we would NOT have DONE unto us. This seems to suggest, as Stephen himself said, that inaction is sufficient to obey this rule.

"If we have only negative duty, an obligation to avoid harming people, that can be construed as imposing minimal obligations... ...In fact, the negative version may be fulfilled (if we wish to construe it that way) simply by ignoring our neighbour, for as long as we are not directly implicated in his harm, we have not transgressed the negative version of Golden Rule ethics."

However, it is a simple and obvious enough fact that any negative can be reworded as a positive to exactly the same effect. To take Stephen's example, imagine that you were lonely and in need of a friend. According to Stephen, if you tried to contact a friend, they are under no obligation to respond according to the negative Golden Rule. But it occurs to me that such a deliberate act of ignoring a person in need is an ACTION not an inaction. We can now substitute this action into the negative Golden Rule and say "DO NOT ignore someone as you would NOT like to be ignored yourself" and so it goes with any other example I can personally bring to mind.

Stephen Anderson's final point lies on the idea of sacrifice. The idea that to create a truly moral society we must sometimes do more unto others than we would expect done unto us, that this breaks reciprocity (tit for tat) and thus the Golden Rule is insufficient. I have only a few simple points to make on this. The first is that the Golden Rule states that one should do unto others as one would WISH done unto oneself not as we would EXPECT done, and I am sure many people wish others would make more sacrifices for them and so it seems to me that the concept of sacrifice is well treated in the Golden Rule. Secondly, I ask "How much sacrifice is the average person willing to accept on their behalf?" After all, have we not all at some point said "Only if it's not too much trouble," or "I wouldn't want to put you out."? Human beings are naturally opposed to the idea of others sacrificing too much in our names, possibly due to the expectation of necessary reciprocity. While this may at first seem selfish it actually goes to show how ingrained the Golden Rule is in our minds, that we naturally expect to need to reciprocate a good deed done. My third and final point is that in all the cases of sacrifice Stephen puts forward, I believe it can be shown that if not a personal, then at least on a sociological level, reciprocity is upheld. One such example he cites is that of parenting. But while we sacrifice for our children, our parents in turn made sacrifices for us and so in balance reciprocity is maintained. Further more, if a child is abused he or she is far more likely to become an abusive parent, further showing how this idea of reciprocity and hence the Golden Rule, is ingrained in our very nature.

Stephen then goes on to describe sacrifice not only to our neighbours but to our enemies, something he calls the Platinum Rule and suggests is something beyond most humans beings. A point raised earlier in his article suggested the difficulties of interpretation in the Rule, difficulties he himself stumbles into now. For in making a distinction between "neighbour" and "enemy" he is postulating two different rules which once again I believe are one in the same. However, to avoid confusion, I shall continue my arugments as if accepting this distinction and discuss the Platinum Rule. The Platinum Rule posits love our neighbour and our enemy but says nothing of our neighbour's enemy and I believe this is an important omission. Consider this example:

There are three nations, A, B and C (for want of better names). B and C are at war. C are the aggressors where B are fighting a purely defensive war. For A to love his neighbour (we shall refer to B as the neighbour and further suppose B is losing the war) he must intervene in the war and make an enemy of C. For A to love his neighbour's enemy (who is also his neighbour) he must make an enemy of B or do nothing. It is clear (as it has been designed thus) that C are at fault and for A to do nothing would be to allow the guilty to prosper. In any case, whatever A decides they must in some way break the Golden and Platinum Rules. It is clear then that A must defend B, as the innocent party, as this is the most acceptable way to break the Rules. Perhaps then the Platinum rule can be amended to a version that can indeed be followed; that one must love thy neighbour and thy enemy but not thy neighbour's enemy. Here then we can afford to make the sacrifice of loving our enemy as our neighbour is in a position by the New Platinum Rule to prevent us from coming to undue harm.

From this simple scenario we can draw a few conclusions. First, justice is the part of the observer, as it is in our courts, and is a necessary consequence of the Golden Rule. And second, and perhaps more importantly, that the Golden Rule is a basis for universal morality, not the whole story. This is a fact the Stephen Anderson seems to forget. Reality is far more complicated than any single rule can account for and we should not abandon a good premise on account of the fact that it needs specific variations for specific situations. That, I'm afraid, is just life!

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