Commentaries on the Golden Rule

Lately, the phrase “treat others as you want them to treat you” has promoted good communication with many people who remain lost in their own contradictions, people who are, moreover, continually increasing the contradiction in those around them. People’s behavior today is becoming more and more erratic and they don’t know how to relate to others; at the same time, the others don’t know what to expect from them.

At times we have alluded to “morality.” Today, this word rings hollow, as has happened with so many words that have been manipulated and used with the worst of intentions. What is “morality” today but a wornout mess that nobody believes in? Our morality has nothing to do with the established farce. We base what we do on a great principle of behavior that has been called “the Golden Rule.” Clearly, for those familiar with Humanist thinking “the Golden Rule” presents no problems. It fits our vision of the human being perfectly.

Nevertheless, a few comments may help disseminate a type of behavior that affirms and justifies the effort to eradicate pain and suffering in the society in which we live. When we speak of anti-discrimination, respect for diversity, and choosing the conditions of life to which we aspire for ourselves and for others, this morality resounds!

In the Dictionary of New Humanism, we define the Golden Rule as “A moral principle found among a wide diversity of peoples, which expresses the humanist attitude (*). Following are examples of the various ways it has been expressed. Rabbi Hillel: ‘What you do not wish for yourself, do not do to your neighbor.’ Plato: ‘May I always do to others that which I would want them to do to me.’ Confucius: ‘Do not do to another what you would not want others to do to you.’ Jainist maxim: ‘Man must try to treat all creatures as he would want them to treat him.’ In Christianity: ‘All those things that you would want men to do unto you, do also unto them.’ Among the Sikhs: ‘Treat others as you would have them treat you.’ Herodotus recorded the existence of the Golden Rule among various peoples of the ancient world.”

In Humanism we say: “Treat others as you want them to you.” In the Humanist Movement many understand, practice and/or try to practice this principle of conduct. These people start from a sensitivity, an appreciation of others that is different from that which has been imposed until now in this period of destructuring of human relations. A worthy understanding of this principle begins with comprehending the structure of human life as a whole. This understanding is different from the habitual. In the Movement, we mistrust the sincerity of others who claim to share in this belief, because their vision of the human being is frequently opposed to that of Humanism. If people habitually do not treat their neighbors according to this principle, how does this leave things when they speak of changing society and the world? What is the real basis of their struggle to improve the conditions of life for the human being?

Let´s see the difficulties...

"Treat others as you want them to treat you." In this relationship of behavior there are two terms: the treatment one requests from others, and the treatment one is willing to give others.

A. The treatment one seeks from others

It is common to aspire to be treated without violence and to call for help in bettering one’s existence. This is true even among the most violent and exploitive of people, who demand cooperation from others to maintain an unjust social order. The treatment people request is independent of what they are willing to give.

B. The treatment one is willing to give others

What is common is to treat others in a utilitarian way, as is done with objects, plants, or animals. We’re not talking about the extreme of cruel treatment because, after all, you don’t destroy something you want to use. We tend to take care of others as long as their existence pleases us, or may be of some use in the present or future. However, there are certain “others” who cause us greater commotion: those we call our “loved ones,” whose suffering and whose joy touches us deeply. In them we recognize something of ourselves, and we tend to treat them the same way we would like to be treated. There is, then, a big difference between our loved ones and those others in whom we do not recognize ourselves.

C. The exceptions

In regard to our "loved ones," we tend to treat them with help and cooperation. This also happens with strangers in whom we recognize something of ourselves, because the situation in which the other person finds themselves reminds us of our own situation, or because our calculations reveal a future situation in which this person may be of help to us. All of these cases are unique and not entirely the same as with our "loved ones," and this is not extended to all strangers.

D. Words alone mean nothing

You want to receive help, but why should you give it to others? Words like "solidarity" or "justice" are not enough; people say them with an underlying insincerity, without conviction. They are "tactical" words that are often used to get collaboration from others, but without giving it to them. This can go even further, for example with other tactical words such as "love," "kindness," etc. Why should we love someone who is not one of our loved ones? The statement “I love someone I do not love” is contradictory, and it is redundant to say “I love someone I love.” Moreover, the feelings these words seem to represent are constantly changing, and I can verify that at times I have more love, or less love, for the same loved one. Finally, the layers of this love are diverse and complex. This is evident in phrases such as: “I love X, but I can’t stand them when they don’t do what I want.”

E. Applying the Golden Rule from other positions

If someone says: "Love your neighbor as yourself, because of your love of God,” at least two difficulties arise:  

  1. We must assume that one can love God and accept that this "love" is human; in which case the word love is inadequate. Or, that we love God, but with a love that is not human; in which case the word love is still inadequate; and 
  2. You love your neighbor only indirectly, by way of your love for God. Double problem: using a word that does not adequately represent this relationship with God, we must translate it into human feelings.

From other positions people say things such as: "We struggle for class solidarity,” "we struggle for human solidarity,” "we struggle against injustice to free the human being.”  Here we are still left without a firm basis. Why should I struggle for solidarity, or in order to liberate others? If solidarity is a necessity, it´s not a matter on which I can choose, in which case it is of little importance whether I do it or not, since it does not depend on my choice. If, on the other hand, it is a choice, then why do I have to choose that option?

Others say even more extraordinary things, such as, "loving our neighbor, we fulfill ourselves,” or "loving my neighbor sublimates the instincts of death.” What can we say about this, when the word "fulfilled" is not clear if the objective is not presented; when the words "instinct" and "sublimate" are metaphors from a mechanistic Psychology which is by now clearly insufficient?

And then there are always the most brutish who preach: "You cannot do anything outside the established Justice system, which exists so that we are all mutually protected.” In this case, one cannot ask from this “Justice system” any moral position that is beyond it.

Finally, there are some who talk about a biological Natural Morality, and still others who, defining the human being as a "rational animal,” claim that morality derives from the operation of reason in said animal.

In all of these cases the Golden Rule does not fit very well. We cannot agree with them even when they tell us that we are saying the same thing, but with different words. It is clear that we´re not saying the same thing.

What have all those felt who, among different peoples and historical periods, have made the Golden Rule their moral principle par excellence? This simple formula, from which a complete morality can be derived, springs simply and sincerely from the depths of the human being. Through this principle, we discover ourselves in others.

The Golden Rule does not impose any behavior; it offers an ideal and a model to follow, at the same time that it allows us to progress in knowledge of our own life. Nor should the Golden Rule be turned a new instrument for hypocritical moralizing, useful for measuring the behavior of others. When a “tablet of morality" serves to control others instead of helping, to oppress instead of liberating, it must be broken. Beyond any tablet of morality, beyond the values of "good" and "bad,” human beings and their destiny soar, ever unfinished and ever growing.

Silo, Mendoza, December 17, 1995

download: Commentaries on the Golden Rule.pdf

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