A 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.