The Golden Rule Distortions

golden-rule distortedA recent unpleasant visitor here sought to defend unethical conduct—or perhaps it is more accurate to say that she argued that no one was qualified to assess the conduct as unethical—by citing the hoary theory that only someone who has “walked in the shoes” of the wrongdoer in question may judge the ethical nature of his actions. This is a dodge, of course, and one which I need to add to the list of rationalizations. It is an appeal to purely subjective ethics, and ultimately no ethical standards at all, since if every individual is the only one who can judge his own or her own conduct (since each individual’s experiences are unique), then everyone is free to construct their own ethics rules that seem right from their self-centered perspective. The argument is also a convenient way to shut off dissenting voices: only the poor have standing to criticize the poor, only blacks can find fault with the acts of African-Americans, and since men can’t get pregnant, how dare they have any opinion at all on abortion?

But before I added this irritating trick to the Rationalizations List—I think it will be called “The Foreign Shoes Defense”—I realized that it is also another one of The Golden Rule distortions: flawed ethical arguments that seem logical to some because they are based on a warped version of the principle of reciprocity.

The Golden Rule, usually stated as “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” is frequently attributed to Jesus, but in fact it is much, much older, and is a basic ethical tenet, reciprocity, of most religions and many philosophies. Here are some examples; there are many, many more:

  • Christianity: “And as ye would that men should do to you, do ye also to them likewise.” (Luke 6:31, King James Version.)
  • Confucianism:  “Do not do to others what you do not want them to do to you.” ( “Tse-kung asked, ‘Is there one word that can serve as a principle of conduct for life?’ Confucius replied, ‘It is the word ‘shu’ — reciprocity. Do not impose on others what you yourself do not desire.”)
  • Bahá’í Faith:  “Ascribe not to any soul that which thou wouldst not have ascribed to thee, and say not that which thou doest not.”
  • Islam: “None of you [truly] believes until he wishes for his brother what he wishes for himself.”
  • Judaism:  “What is hateful to you, do not to your fellow man. This is the law: all the rest is commentary.”  (The Talmud)
  • Brahmanism: “This is the sum of Dharma [duty]: Do naught unto others which would cause you pain if done to you.”
  • Buddhism:  “…a state that is not pleasing or delightful to me, how could I inflict that upon another?”  and “Hurt not others in ways that you yourself would find hurtful.”
  • Ancient Egyptian: “Do for one who may do for you, that you may cause him thus to do.” (circa 1800 BC)
  • Hinduism: “This is the sum of duty: do not do to others what would cause pain if done to you.”
  • Jainism:    “In happiness and suffering, in joy and grief, we should regard all creatures as we regard our own self,” and  “A man should wander about treating all creatures as he himself would be treated.” 
  • Taoism:  “Regard your neighbor’s gain as your gain, and your neighbor’s loss as your own loss.”
  • Zoroastrianism:  “That nature alone is good which refrains from doing to another whatsoever is not good for itself,” and “Whatever is disagreeable to yourself do not do unto others.”

Simple, ubiquitous, ancient, and hard. Reciprocity is also less than helpful in complex situations, especially when multiple parties with interdependent and conflicting interests are involved, and when decisions necessarily generate winners and losers. Nonetheless, the Golden Rule and its various equivalents are so old and so widely adopted and taught because they are the beating heart of ethics:  fairness, justice, empathy, respect, charity. If we had to pick one ethical system and abandon all others, this would be the one to keep, because a child can understand it, and because it is difficult to imagine how a person who lived by the Golden Rule could be anything but ethical.

That is why unethical people, or the ethically ignorant, gravitate to warped versions of reciprocity. The “The Foreign Shoes Defense,” for example is an appeal to this Bizarro World version of Golden Rule:

“Allow me to do unto others as you would do unto others if you were me.”

Here are some others you should recognize:

  • Do unto others as you know others would do unto you.
  • Do unto others what they did unto you.
  • Do unto others as you wish others would do unto you even though you wouldn’t deserve it.
  • Do unto others as those others treat others.
  • Do unto others as they promised to do unto you.
  • Do unto others as others who think like you do would also do to those others.
  • Do unto others according to how you feel about what they did unto you.
  • Do unto others before they do it unto you.

My advice? Stick to the original.

Any of them.

25 thoughts on “The Golden Rule Distortions

  1. Circumstances alter cases. Don’t do to others what you wouldn’t like done to you if you were in their position.

    Example – I wouldn’t like to be doused with a fire hose. But if I were on fire, I would. I see someone on fire. By the simple form, I’m forbidden from taking action.

    • Zoe: What you have demonstrated is the argument technique of “reducto ad absurdum”

      Circumstances do not alter what is right or wrong nor does the Golden Rule suggest that all actions are wrong. I do not wish to be cut by a knife but the surgeon may do so for very practical reasons. This does not mean that all surgical operations are medically advised because the guiding rule is first to do no harm.

      The employment of the rationalization that one must first walk a mile in the other’s shoes reflects the concept of moral relativism. Moral relativism may have some usefulness but it is too often used to excuse inexcusable behavior simply because one behavior is less morally reprehensible than another. The rationalization that one must put themselves in the shoes of another ignores the fact that both sides would be equally obligated to walk in the other’s shoes. In the end two wrongs do not make a right.

      Take for example the case of a thief who steals a loaf of bread because he must feed a family or they will starve. We try to mitigate the wrong because he or she commits the wrong for a noble purpose. It may be just as true that family of the bread’s true owner may now starve. Nonetheless, the thief deprived one person’s family sustenance simply to provide for his/her own family. We incorrectly assume that simply because the true owner of the bread had more bread than the thief and the thief acted with a noble purpose, then punishment for the act should mitigated.

      If we have a true owner of the bread, then the owner engaged in some form of work to create the bread or entered into voluntary transactions with others to obtain the bread. Could not the thief have done the same to obtain the loaf of bread? Thus, had the thief actually walked a mile in the shoes of the owner of the bread, then the theft would have been unnecessary. If the thief could not do the same by virtue of some physical or mental disorder that made it impossible, then wouldn’t a simple request to the owner for a portion to help feed his family been a superior choice? We can simply apply the Golden Rule here. If I were in dire circumstances, would I want someone to help my family? The answer may be yes but then the only recourse would be to put some aside for the truly needy which too would obviate the need for theft.

      Therefore such rationalizations about walking a mile in the other’s shoes are demonstrably illogical. When used by the beneficiary of the act Its base supposition is that “more” or deprivation is inherently unfair and oppressing. Such constructs are only logical when you use it to guide your own actions. Thus taking the bread creates no fairness but giving some bread can be.

      The concept of fairness is often used as a justification for aberrant behavior. The Occupy Wall Street movement railed against the “One Percenters” who have a great deal. If those that have more got more by virtue of innate talents or through voluntary legal transactions then why should they be vilified? Should I be provided with a share of their income simply because I was not born into wealth, did not have the physical capabilities to throw or a ball with great precision, be blessed with stunning looks that peopled associated with talent, or create a solution for the masses that people flocked to purchase? The answer is an emphatic NO. The 99% voluntarily exchange their limited resources for what the 1% offered? It is neither fair nor unfair that this group has more. They have only gotten more because they gave us something we wanted and were willing to give up scarce resources to obtain.

      “Black rage” was used by social commentators to explain away the use of a concrete block to bash in the skull of truck driver who had the misfortune of driving through an area in LA and the riots that ensued after Rodney King was severely beaten by police and the offending police officer’s acquittals. The reason – it was a response to the perpetrator’s feeling of being oppressed due 400 years of slavery, segregation and ongoing police oppression. I suspect that none of the rioters or those that assaulted the truck driver were ever enslaved themselves or victims of forced segregation. They may have experienced unfair treatment by law enforcement and in some degree discrimination but this is conjecture and not evidenced by fact. Even if proved as fact, there are legal means to address such grievances.

      If we decide to rationalize away socially unacceptable behavior by virtue of the fact that one finds something “unfair” then who will define what is fair? I suspect that beneficiaries of wealth transfers from those with more will view such transfers appropriate, necessary, and fair. Conversely, those whose wealth has been expropriated for social fairness will find it inherently unfair when transferee is not obligated to create any value for the group as a whole.

      • Thank you for bringing up the “stealing a loaf of bread to feed one’s family” example.
        Hypotheticals such as that are often used to enforce the idea of moral relativism. The argument is that stealing is not always “wrong” and therefore there are no absolute moral statements to be made, such as “stealing is wrong.”

        I find that reasoning not only flawed but nonsensical, because it presupposes that a person forced to do a wrong in order to prevent a greater wrong, did no wrong. This is bad logic.

        If I have no other choice but to steal in order to save an innocent life, and I DO steal, then I have done wrong. My conscience is clear, and I am not to be blamed or condemned, at least not from a moral/ethical standpoint. But the act of stealing does not lose its wrongness simply because I was forced into it by circumstances.

        Simply put, if I steal a loaf of bread to save my family, then I was forced to do something wrong. Assuming that I had no better alternative, I chose to do wrong because to NOT act would be to commit a greater wrong (allowing my family to die when it was in my power to save them.) This is a terrible catch-22 in which to find oneself, but it doesn’t erase the immorality of the act of stealing. It does, however, mean that I am not an immoral person for stealing. That’s all it means. I am still legally a thief, and will be punished, absent a sympathetic judge/victim.

        An ethical person (again, assuming that stealing was the only alternative to a dead family) does not discount the wrongness of stealing the bread. He or she would feel bad about stealing the bread, do everything within reason to apologize or even make restitution for the crime afterward, and willingly accept the reasonable legal penalty for the crime of stealing bread without complaint.

        An unethical person would say “Nananana, stick it to the man, I stole and it wasn’t wrong because I needed it, therefore stealing isn’t always wrong, it’s in the eye of the beholder” because that person is stupid.

        • Nicely done, and the Comment of the Day. That damn loaf of bread has shown up in many comments over the life of the blog, usually in argument against my statements that lawbreaking itself is inherently unethical except in the rare case of an objectively immoral and unjust law ( as opposed to an unpopular one.)

        • If I have no other choice but to steal in order to save an innocent life, and I DO steal, then I have done wrong. My conscience is clear, and I am not to be blamed or condemned, at least not from a moral/ethical standpoint. But the act of stealing does not lose its wrongness simply because I was forced into it by circumstances.

          Well said.
          Applies to warfare too of course.

          Is my conscience clear there? Not completely. Would I have done anything different? No, not at all, it was necessary. Does that make it right, a moral good? No.

          An observation, for what it’s worth: many people seem unable to forgive themselves for misdeeds. They deal with that by telling themselves that what they did was good, not merely the least worst of two bad options. they rationalise.

          Those with Egos so big that it enters the room a full ten seconds before they do have no such issues. They accept their own fallibility, as they accept that others are fallible too, and worthy of forgiveness. They are willing to take on the burden of wrongdoing when it’s needed, without calling that wrongdoing anything other than what it is – wrong.

          Those who can rationalise theft to save their families from starvation as a good find it all too easy to rationalise it when it’s to keep them in comfort. Or to give them the same standard of living as others. Or to redress past wrongs. Or to redress past wrongs to their ancestors. Or because everybody does it.

          It’s all too human.

        • Isaac:
          Very good points. What is always left out of this loaf of bread example is that the person who chooses to take the loaf of bread also has the opportunity to tell the person from whom he took the bread his identity, why he took it, and where he can be found to make restitution when possible. The catch 22 may exist in the near term but that does not mean that no opportunities to make restitution will ever occur.

          It is the failure to identify oneself as the person taking the bread that leads us to believe that the taker did not wish to pay now or ever. You alluded to this point in the last two paragraphs. I would only suggest that the taker should acknowledge the debt to the owner in advance rather than to use the rationale that the act was committed to avoid a greater wrong at the time of capture or to assuage personal feelings of guilt.

          • The assumption in the scenario is that ALL ethical options and gates through which one must pass before thievery is the least worst option have been tried. One assumes that the ethical person has at least appealed to his extended family, and they, equally destitute or incapable of providing aid, are not an option. One would then approach other ‘bread-owners’, describing the dire circumstances in which they live appealing to their charity. All the while ensuring they will do what they can as quickly as they can to repay any such benevolence. After exhausting all options that involve others voluntarily assisting the individual, do we then assume the would-be thief has NO other alternatives other than thievery. Then, the ethical thief would then have a plan in the future to repay the victim as well as surrendering to the legal system, with the big caveat: as long as they have taken care of their family’s welfare (which, if pushing one into long-term banditry, I’d submit there are far more ethical considerations and societal conditions that are in question).

            And I don’t think Zoebrain’s initial post was an actual reductio ad absurdum. It is an attempt at reductio ad absurdum, but only by taking comments made in good faith that have unspoken and reasonable assumptions with them and pretending like those unspoken and reasonable assumptions do not exist. I think she was just quibbling because the general rule placed had exceptions derived from unlikely scenarios, that if she were discussing in good faith, would not have expected to be added on in a litany of caveats and clarifications to the general rule. She’s done it before.

            • Tex:
              You make very good points regarding assumptions. My original post was based on the idea that TGR should negate the need for thievery. It seems to me that only the person that bears the cost of the other’s behavior can logically use the “walk a mile” rationale when examining the ethics of the perpetrator. Beneficiaries of the doubt or sympathetic third parties (especially third parties that profit from excuse making) are not in a position to offer mitigating factors when they are not at risk of loss and/or can only benefit from the walk a mile defense of the behavior.

              Another point that I wanted to make was that one of the fundamental assumptions seems to be that the true owner of the bread had a surplus of goods whose loss would not have created an equally negative outcome. It is possible that the owner may have had sufficient stocks to suffer a loss without equivalent dire consequences, but it is equally true that the possibility exists that an equal negative consequence could befall the true owner as a result of the taking. If we accept the assumption that the owner had sufficient stocks and whose family’s well being is not threatened, this then begs the question would the original “thief” be justified in killing another, while trying to defend his ill gotten gains, who tries to steal away from the “thief” the stolen loaf to feed his family who might be equally destitute? To what degree do we justify behavior?

              It is interesting to note that Black’s Legal dictionary defines theft as an act with the intention to PERMANENTLY deprive the owner of the possession taken. Thus, we cannot have an ethical thief if in fact he has articulated to the owner, in advance, a plan to repay the victim and subsequently does so. For if he has articulated a plan in advance and later pays then the taking would not constitute a true theft.

              I offered the “in advance” limitation because anyone could say they were going to pay only after the subject was caught.

              Black’s also advises in general that theft is a popular name for larceny – the taking of property without the owner’s consent. Whether we use the word Theft, Larceny, or Steal the underlying foundation of the act is to take someone’s property with the intent to deprive them permanently of the value, without the owner’s consent. If it is proven that the intent was to repay then theft did not occur.

              Anyway, thanks for the comments – food for thought.

            • I’ve had far too much experience with legalism to rely on unspoken assumptions, whether reasonable or not.

              If Good Faith is being shown, there would be no need for the Golden Rule. It would be as automatic as breathing.

              There are for example two different forms, one affirmative, one prohibitory. The first, affirmative form, says “do unto others as you’d have them do unto you”. This doesn’t work if you’re a masochist, or you like broccoli and they don’t. It arrogantly uses your own standards as those that others must follow.

              The second, negative form is “What is hateful to you, do not to your neighbour” (That’s the version from Rabbi Hillel in Tractatus Shabbat .31a). This avoids forcing your own opinions on others, but does not encourage pro-active action to help them. For example, an attempt to save them if they’re drowning.

              Both forms are capable of being misused. Both positive – “Be Kind” and negative “Don’t be an asshole”. The kind of person who needs such rules to guide them is often the exact kind who will do the wrong thing by obeying the letter, but not the spirit, of the Rule.

              That was the point I was trying, however poorly to make. With Good Faith, all things are possible. Without it, no set of formal rules is adequate, and proof against misuse.

  2. As it stands, all of that is defective, because it is too simplistic to address George Bernard Shaw’s counter: “do not do unto others as you would have them do unto you; their tastes may not be the same”. To meet that, the principle has to be generalised further, e.g. as it is in Christianity’s second great commandment.

  3. “What is hateful to you, do not to your fellow man. This is the law: all the rest is commentary.”

    If memory serves, the next sentence is “Go and study”. The Golden Rule is only a beginning, as I’m sure Mr. Marshall would agree.

    Walking a mile in the other man’s shoes is important if you’re going to judge his character. That, of course, is a different activity from assessing the ethics of one of his actions.

    • Excellent caveats both. In the latter case, though, and I hope you would agree, there are some single acts that tell us all we need to know about someone’s character, what Ethics Alarms calls acts of “signature significance.”

  4. There is the pseudo-egalitarian, narcissistic control freak’s perversion of the rule:

    “Others must do unto me what I feel is fair to me, regardless of what I do or don’t do.”

  5. The Golden Rule is attributed to Jesus because the expression “Golden Rule” is only a few-hundred years old and refers specifically to the exact words “do unto others as you would have them do unto you” or “whatsoever ye would that men would do unto you, do ye even so unto them,” in the King James Bible, not to a general principle of reciprocity. But I’m nitpicking, and I know it. Sorry.

    The Golden Rule is really a common-sense principle that I think anyone, anywhere who thinks introspectively could hit upon. But it’s interesting that pretty much ALL cultures and civilizations with some encoded version of the Rule in place still had institutionalized slavery. Goes to prove the post’s point, the Golden Rule is easy to arrive at, but hard to practice, especially on a large scale. It’s troubling that there was no anti-slavery movement to speak of until the 1700s, centuries after Jesus and even more centuries after Moses and Confucius.

    It’s also not enough to work as a complete moral code. If I play video games and sleep in for a week, I may not be breaking any Golden Rule, but I feel as if I am doing wrong. I am sinning against myself. It’s fascinating (to me, anyway) that Jesus’ favored scripture from the Torah was “Love your God with all your heart” and secondly “love your neighbor as yourself.” The Golden Rule is secondary to one’s personal righteousness, because it assumes that the person practicing it is himself right-thinking, honest, and of strong character, etc. It doesn’t really work in the context of moral relativism, or without the ability to gauge another person’s wants and needs.

    • But it’s interesting that pretty much ALL cultures and civilizations with some encoded version of the Rule in place still had institutionalized slavery. Goes to prove the post’s point, the Golden Rule is easy to arrive at, but hard to practice, especially on a large scale. It’s troubling that there was no anti-slavery movement to speak of until the 1700s, centuries after Jesus and even more centuries after Moses and Confucius.

      It does actually make sense, once you consider the circumstances of those times and places. Slavery was often a lesser evil before it became practical to guard and feed prisoners of war on any scale, with the only alternatives being massacre of enemies or giving them the chance to re-arm and regroup, Caudine Forks fashion (when Tamerlaine had to retreat from Delhi in a hurry, he couldn’t bring the recently captured slaves along safely; guess which option he picked – and which option he would always have picked if captives hadn’t been worth something). In fact, many slave codes had provisions forbidding the emancipation of slaves against their will, to head off turning them loose to starve (whether from benevolence or to prevent vagrancy); there was a minor slave revolt against emancipation in the British West Indies, for fear of this very thing, that was only ended once the transitional arrangements to prevent that were made clear. That it was a well founded fear we can see from the fate of the later coolies when the replacement indenture system was ended abruptly, that V.S.Naipaul describes; instead of ordinary contract completion with a land grant or a passage home, they were indeed turned loose to starve. And there are many other examples that also back that up.

      None of this makes it right, but it makes it understandable that people might rationalise it as right if they knew the alternative was worse – which it was, for much of history. Certainly, until the African slave trade began to drive slave raiding the export of slaves actually saved lives, because Africans raided anyway for women and children to build up tribal strength and killed any men as bycatch.

  6. Perhaps an examnation of destitution and vagrancy might shed more light? I understand that in these exceptional circumstances cops may leave a rough sleeper be or order a ‘move on’ or make an arrest but not press charges or the charges may be drropped ‘in the public interest’. Thus our society in practice follows the golden rule in circumstances where applying a code strictly does more harm than good. The vagrant Jean Val Jean equivalent in this real life dilemmma is thus guilty, innocent and ‘unproved’ all at the same time, of stealing space to sleep in.

    • I have examined those issues, as part of the background to looking into certain externalities in labour market economics.

      Unfortunately, the public interest in minimising vagrancy has nothing to do with individuals’ guilt or innocence of any inherent offence, and so it does not arise out of the ethics of their conduct or attitudes. Quite simply, it is analogous to soldiers preparing a free field of fire, or fire services seeking to reduce burnable loads in country areas. Vagrants have – not necessarily through any fault of their own – incentives for “crime of necessity”, and when their population density rises it opens the possibility of brigandage, with groups of them gathering for criminal purposes. So it makes sense to prevent people becoming vagrants and to disperse any that might be around, for much the same reasons that it makes sense to drain malarial swamps to stop mosquitoes spreading malaria, even though they don’t do it deliberately and may even suffer from it themselves.

      And none of that accurate logic takes any account of the human cost of dealing with those things in those ways, but it remains accurate all the same and the human cost isn’t addressed there all the same.

  7. Fascinating stuff thanks, is there a collective name for these ‘certain externalities’?

    I was actually thinking of the individual ethics of a rough sleeper who sleeps on private property, ‘under bridges’ is one example, in London where i live it is not unheard of that the homeless slept in shop doorways. Officially in either case a criminal trespass would be actual or at least potential (if any loss to the owner of the property rights occurred). Thus the sleeper ‘steals’ space to sleep in.

    The way the guardians of the law dealt with the problem seemed to me to be instructive. That is, it is possible in fullly embracing the dilemma of Jean Val Jean to choose not to resolve it. To leave the dilemma hanging. That being the best way to serve the common good, to do no harm and preserve the golden rule.

    If applying a law (not to steal) would potentially do more harm than good (a citizen may die) then that is taken to be contrary to the intent of the law makers (to do good). In such a dilemma right conduct of a citizen is a matter of their right judgement (assuming good faith on all sides). If that right judgement is more difficult than its is reasonable to expect of a citizen in distress then forcing either principle (no stealing being one, preserve lfe being another) may be unethical or at least imprudent or divisive or not the best way to uphold the rule of law.

    If the law as it stands cannot be applied without resulting harm it is possibly best left to the fallible guardians to judge according to a principle i don’t know of or possibly practice and precedent.

    I guess that means that all the concerns about fairness, foreign shoes, golden rules and any other ethical concern are weighed against the preparedness of a street cop to fill in the paperwork for an arrest.

    Is Jean Val Jean innocent or guilty? If the ethics aint worth the effort – stow the question. My best answer. Whether that’s moral relativism or the coppers rule (keep the peace, leave the rest)? I’m not sure.

    • The externalities in the original, underlying situation are Vagrancy Costs, e.g. the costs of crime from street kids in Brazil or the costs of off duty police killing them. When tax funded benefits head those particular problems off, you can’t really say it’s vagrancy any more, but there is still the spread cost of the taxes involved; I don’t know what you would call those costs, though I have suggested “Negative Payroll Tax” for one proposal to eliminate them.

      On the other points, I have heard it suggested that Latin cultures tend to exercise forbearance in whether they apply the law or not, but when they do they apply it rigorously all the way through, and that Anglo-Saxon cultures tend to apply the law without any respect for persons or circumstances, but then they allow judicial discretion to vary sentences etc. in view of any mitigating circumstances even though they allow no judicial discretion to vary verdicts etc. – there is a literal attitude to the truth.

      • Thanks for coming back to this. Negative payroll tax on a company would include all external costs of an external labour shedding – for example in a slump? Neat idea.

        Judicial ‘ducking’ is not unknown in the anglo-saxon world. example:

        Coming back to ethics rather than law. Possibly the ‘refuse to answer’ option to the original post would also be the most ethical.

        The thiieve’s dilemma problem was presented as a one agent (the thief) and two object (the human life as the non-ethical value and the loaf representing all the weight of the reciprocity principle, the rule of law, and admissible ethical argument as the ethical value). If we add to that the welfare of the baker as some want to then its a one agent 3 object problem, or if the baker may have social obligations to feed the needy its a 2 agent 3 object problem.

        The ethical principle we are to judge by is the Golden Rule which we’ve been given many formulations for. Some valid and ‘hard’ some tricky and invalid. The Golden Rule is arising from nature, has that authority, but there is no clear specific intent by the rule giver (other than to do good and avoid harm presumably).

        That’s a hard problem. With a lot at stake, life on one side ethics and more on the other.

        But there’s also is a lot at stake in terms of an ethical .precedent or rule being set in error or subject to challenge in a manner disruptive to the study of ethics. That’s a higher order 4th object of ethical value. There’s also a higher order third agent – this website as ethical judge.

        If we apply the higher order ‘ethicists impasse’ that considering the thieves dilemma may do more harm than good to ethics – we can ethically refuse to answer (and get rid of that damned loaf forever).

        possibly not.

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