How would you feel if a million Soviet troops stormed your Reich Capital?

The so-called Golden Rule, the ethic of transference of perspective, is common to many religions and cultures. That does not make it right. Immanuel Kant, for instance, dismissed it in a footnote. Few ethical precepts are as easy to undermine as the Golden Rule: but unfortunately it just soldiers on, through the millennia. And increasingly, it is proposed as one foundation of a 'global ethic'.

The Golden Rule - a list of religious versions
A short essay on the Golden Rule
Universal Declaration of a Global Ethic

In western culture the Golden Rule is best known in the version attributed to Jesus Christ: "All things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them: for this is the law and the prophets". But is is not specifically Christian. The secular equivalent is found in expressions such as "How would you feel?" or "Put yourself in their place".

Here is a simple formal summary from Harry Gensler's ethics web exercises:

Our golden rule theorem says: "Treat others only as you consent to being treated in the same situation." To apply GR, I'd imagine myself in the other person's place on the receiving end of the action. GR forbids this combination:
- I do something to another.
- I'm unwilling that this be done to me in the same situation.
GR doesn't tell us what specific act to do. And it doesn't replace regular moral norms. It only prescribes consistency...

The Golden Rule is a 'proto-liberal' ethic. It is older than western liberalism, but it is similar to the liberal ethics in form. It is formal, procedural, and interactive. You can compare it with rights-based liberal social ethics, which say

The golden rule says, approximately: In both cases the ethic excludes any moral norms, external to the society. This rejection is more explicit in the case of liberalism, and especially in political liberalism. (Liberal is used here in the European sense). As an anti-liberal, I am extremely suspicious of the Golden Rule.

The Golden Rule disregards moral autonomy

Unlike much western ethics, the Golden Rule does not emphasise claims to moral autonomy. Should Bill Gates give his money to the starving Ethiopians? The Golden Rule approach implies, that he should try to think himself into the position of a starving Ethiopian, and ask whether he would want money or food in those circumstances. But - assuming he can not otherwise understand the issue - why not just ask the Ethiopians?

In the Golden Rule approach, they have nothing to say. It is the person who acts (or refrains from an act), who must use the Golden Rule. Applying the Rule requires their 'skill' in transferring their viewpoint. They are centre-stage, in the Golden Rule approach. The object of the action does not need to think or speak, and no dialogue takes place. (Remember that western philosophy generally encourages discourse). A strict Golden Rule ethic would probably forbid asking the other person's opinion, since that might be distorted by temporary circumstances. And the Golden Rule is used to assess cases of persons who can not speak their will - coma patients, for instance.

What would a society be like, where everyone takes ethical decisions, on the assumption that other people have as much to say as a coma patient? Would that be the mild-mannered 'community' type society, as suggested by supporters of the Golden Rule? I doubt it.

In social-political terms, the Golden Rule is compatible with inequality of power. An absolute ruler can apply the Golden Rule, but not any principle of communal decision-making. That does not mean - in reverse - that if the Golden Rule is used, it will cause inequalities of power. But if it was the primary ethic of a culture, it would not prevent them.

The Golden Rule can be used to justify oppression

As with human rights, the Golden Rule creates a moral obligation, which is claimed by its supporters to be self-evident. Once there is a human right, there is a moral obligation to 'respect' it: this is (more-or-less) the definition of a right. So, according to the theory of rights, 'respecting a human right' can never be wrong, and those go around the world 'respecting rights' can not be criticised on moral grounds. No surprise, that this 'licence to act' has attracted the attention of political and military propagandists. "Protecting human rights" has become a standard justification for military intervention. In a less clear sense, human rights and other liberal values are used to justify governments, against opposition.

The Golden Rule is not systematically quoted in this way, but it could be. It is implicit, in statements where military action is justified with an appeal to the supposed wishes of people in another country. For instance "If the people of Iraq could speak freely, they would support an invasion and bombardment of their country". Because the Golden Rule places moral judgment in the hands of the person committing an act, it is easily open to abuse in this way.

Take an example which is extreme, but real: it is from a comment on the NATO victory in 1999, Europe after KFOR. I oppose the so-called liberation of concentration camps such as Dachau by US troops. In historical perspective it was not a 'liberation', since no-one was given a free choice about their new social or political situation. The United States defeated the German forces, conquered territory, and imposed its preferred social system, the liberal 'market democracy'. The released prisoners had to accept that (or move to eastern Europe). That is the geopolitical reality, calling it 'liberation' is propaganda. Not surprising propaganda, but still propaganda. The issue could be described as 'the ethics of rescue', and in this respect Dachau and Kosovo and Afghanistan and Iraq are indeed similar. In all these places there are some people who will be thankful for an American intervention, and many people who will be thankful for any intervention.

But am I morally obliged to accept any rescue of the oppressed, by any rescuer, on any conditions imposed by the rescuers? Most Americans have no doubts that their soldiers are the good guys, and they would urge me to accept the military intervention, and the subsequent American influence or hegemony. However, that is not a consistent position. Not the American army, but the Soviet army, reached Auschwitz first. Does that justify the political system of the Soviet Union under Stalin, or the subsequent occupation of Poland and its conversion into a People's Republic within the Soviet bloc? I doubt if many pro-interventionist Americans agree with that. So why should I support the United States and its armed forces, simply because they got to Dachau first?

Now this is typically where the Golden Rule is quoted. One reaction to my opposition is to say, that if I had been in Dachau, I would have glad to see the US Army arrive - Wall Street or no Wall Street. In other words, present-day Americans (or pro-American Europeans) place themselves in the situation of a prisoner in Dachau. At first sight that appears morally praiseworthy, to take account of the oppressed in this way. But they conclude, that any prisoner would have chosen to live in a free market liberal-democracy, rather than stay in Dachau and face certain death. They might say, that I am morally obliged to put myself in the place of the prisoners also, implying that I must support the post-1945 US presence in western Europe.

The Golden Rule always appeals to a hypothetical position. It is unrealistic, to claim that prisoners in 1945 in some way endorsed the geopolitical situation of present-day Europe: many prisoners in Dachau were communists anyway. Any use of the Golden Rule, for this sort of political or geopolitical legitimation, will be unrealistic. The Golden Rule, in such cases, is not a 'consideration of others', it is a rhetorical device, to justify your own position, at worst a form of emotional blackmail. Ultimately that is true for ethics in general, which is best seen as a branch of political propaganda. Ethics is about legitimising existing social structures, not about formulating guides to future individual action.

Who is the object of the Golden Rule?

The Golden Rule is often used as a summary (or symbol) of altruism. In that case, it would be contrasted with 'ethical egoism'. Altruism is also a 'proto-liberal' doctrine. It shares one of the typical characteristics of liberal ethics: the refusal to make a distinction between good people and evil people. Altruism is extremely difficult to criticise, because of its positive emotional connotations, and the negative impression of 'egoism'. But the standard 'altruism' and standard 'egoism' are not an exclusive categorisation. The false duality, and the positive image of altruism, form an ideology - unfortunately a successful ideology.

How does this ideology work? The logical flaw in the standard image of altruism and egoism is that the image includes two people only. But that social reality rarely consists of one-to-one interactions with no further consequences.

Suppose James Wolfensohn, President of the World Bank, falls into the canal in Amsterdam, and starts to drown in front of me. I would not rescue him. Yet if I fell into the canal, I would want to be rescued, so the Golden Rule is clear. If I follow it, I should rescue him. But if I pull Wolfensohn out of the water, I may be disregarding the interests or preferences of millions of people in Africa. They might be better off if he drowns - or they may simply want him dead, for what he has done to them. This is the most obvious inherent failure of the Golden Rule: it contains no provision for transference of perspective to third parties.

The Golden Rule implies that I should transfer my perspective to the person affected, the one standing in front of me who will be affected by my action. But behind them may be another, who is affected by the person standing in front of me. Where does it stop? In society, my help to others will often facilitate their harm to third parties. The pure altruist, who helps everyone, will cause harm. Helping people at random, on the grounds that some of them are good, is no more moral than shooting people at random, on the grounds that some are bad. Insofar as the Golden Rule is interpreted as a principle of one-step-only altruism, it is wrong.

The title gives a dramatic example. What would have happened, if the commanders of Soviet troops in late April 1945 were committed to the Golden Rule, and telepathically in touch with Adolf Hitler? They would have understood his extreme fear and despair, so great that he planned to kill his favourite dog and commit suicide. Who would want that to happen to them? The Golden Rule would suggest they call off the siege of Berlin, and withdraw their troops from the Reich. The western commanders, if they had similar attitudes and telepathic powers, would do the same. Europe would be left in control of Hitler. Now where does that leave the liberation of Dachau?

As I said above, it is farcical to apply tenets like the Golden Rule to historical situations anyway. But its supporters do use it for political purposes, including its application to social transactions involving millions of people. So, note what is missing from the use of the Golden Rule in this example: the commanders are telepathically in touch with only one person. Millions of others think differently. On the other hands millions also supported Hitler to the end. If the decision is to consider their perspective as well, great problems will arise with defining priorities for differing perspectives. The question will arise of whether certain perspectives are fundamental, and can not be overridden.

In other words, any attempt to correct the socially unreal two-person perspective of the Golden Rule will lead to a discussion of some form of utilitarianism. Or at least, some system of summing or ordering preferences and/or emotions. The Golden Rule is so limited, that it can not even give a preferred outcome if three people are involved. (Remember the film cliche, where gangster A has a gun to the head of gangster B, who has a gun to the head of gangster C, who has a gun to the head of gangster A, completing the circle).

If everyone remembered this limitation at all times, there would be no political problem. But the 'ideological' use is precisely to apply it in certain situations only.

If I let Wolfensohn drown, I would be criticised for my selfish attitude, my ethical egoism, my refusal to take account of The Other, my lack of empathy. I would be diagnosed as a 'sociopathic personality'. In fact I would face criminal charges, since Dutch law forbids "abandonment of a person in circumstances where they require help". But would these critics also criticise Wolfensohn, for his refusal to give the World Bank funds to the poor? Would they diagnose him a 'sociopathic personality', for keeping hundreds of millions of people in extreme poverty? Would he be criticised for lack of empathy? No - at least not in mainstream media. Will he face criminal charges? No, and neither will Bill Gates. The law against 'abandonment' is not applied to the rich who abandon the starving. I think this is all inconsistent, but the ideology works, for its promoters. There is general public acceptance of the pro-Wolfensohn ethic.

The general political effect, of appeals to altruism and socially responsive behaviour, is to maintain and conserve social structure. That is especially true of the Golden Rule, which inherently can not justify any social change, against the wishes of others. At best, all the Golden Rule offers, in the face of injustice, is patience - in the hope that the unjust will achieve empathy at some future time.

Why consider the interests of evil people anyway?

At worst, the Golden Rule is fundamentally wrong in itself. It explicitly states that the perspective of 'the other person' should form the basis of moral judgment. Yet that person can be evil, or at least engaged in evil. Of course, the liberal tradition rejects this sort of a priori category anyway. But on such assumptions, even leaving aside the issue of third parties, the Golden Rule would be wrong. It would be wrong even in the case of 'victimless evil', where there was no third party to consider, no-one to consider at all. In that case, the Golden Rule would simply be inapplicable. It would allow the evil, which is a defect for an ethical precept.

If there is a person who is inherently evil, who is doing evil, and who wants to do evil, the Golden Rule formally says they should not be stopped. One response to this is the claim that the 'Golden Rule' specifies that society should approximate to the situation where everyone apples the Golden Rule. This is the 'proto-liberal' aspect of Golden Rule ethics mentioned above. Not the Golden Rule itself is to be promoted, but kind of society its general application would produce. In this way the 'no-utopias' position of liberal political philosophy can be circumvented. But if it may be circumvented for one utopia, why not for others?

Why only take account of people (humans)?

Does the Golden Rule apply to animals? At the time of Immanuel Kant, that was not an issue, but in the last 30 years the moral status of non-humans has become a major question in ethics. Especially in the theory of rights, where there have been serious attempts to formulate rights of animals, plants, species, eco-systems, and Nature as a whole. I think this only illustrates the absurdity of liberal moral philosophy, but it is a useful answer to supporters of 'natural rights': simply claim more natural rights, for other entities.

Supporters of the Golden Rule are years behind the rights theorists on this issue. Most of them will not even concede that it applies to animals, let alone snails or wetland ecosystems. But, as rights theorists know, there is no logical defence of these exclusions. They can only put their foot down, and say: "It stops here".

The difficulties of this are indicated in the discussions around abortion, new medical technology, and bioethics. If you wanted to exclude bacteria from human rights, you might say human rights are limited to entities which have a brain, a central nervous system, and weigh more than 1 gram. But a fertilised egg cell meets none of these criteria - and for orthodox Catholics it is a full human being. They may believe it is protected the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, against an attempt by the mother to use a morning-after pill.

This example shows that is is difficult if not impossible to agree on boundaries for moral concern. In rights theory, the resulting inconsistencies are enough to discredit the principles. When theorists of the Golden Rule start to consider this issue, there is no reason to think they will perform any better.

Why not assume the other person is self-sacrificing, and willing to suffer harm for my benefit?

If the reach of the Golden Rule is expanded in the same way as rights, people will be asked questions like "How would you feel, if you were a wetland ecosystem, and your water level was lowered by 10 cm?" In such cases it seems obvious that humans would think as humans: they would try to imagine a hypothetical entity with human emotions, and substitute it for the ecosystem.

But that is standard practice with the Golden Rule. By definition, it requires an imagined entity, substituting for the real person. That imagined entity might be just as absurd, as an ecosystem with feelings. To work, the Golden Rule requires an implied extra condition - matching the imagined person to reality. But the real person might be, for instance, weak and timid, always in search of an easy way out. Should the imagined person be given 'moral backbone'? With extra conditions of this kind, the Golden Rule would lose its simplicity.

But as it stands, there is nothing to stop people making the most positive assumptions about the person affected by their actions. So why not assume they are saintly, self-sacrificing, and desire to meet the wishes of others, all the time? In most cases, that is enough to evade any inconvenient moral obligation under the Golden Rule. So either the Golden Rule gets additional clauses, or it can be used to justify most or all actions - again a defect for an ethical precept, which is supposed to distinguish between right and wrong action. In practice, supporters of the Golden Rule first defend its simplicity - and then add extra conditions, when the simple version gives an outcome they reject.

Political uses of the Golden Rule

Apart form the supporters of a 'global ethic', the Golden Rule is not often an explicit foundation of political or social ideologies. It seems to have a second-class status in this respect. Nevertheless it can also be used in this way. The Golden Rule has a veto effect: it includes a prohibition. According to the Rule, if you would not have something done to you, then you should not do it. In politics, this makes it attractive to conservatives. It is usually easier to argue, that offence and harm is caused by an attempt to change the existing, rather than by non-introduction of an innovation. The Golden Rule lends itself to the argument, that society should prioritise the offence caused to conservatives, over the frustration caused to innovators and reformers.

Specifically, it is attractive to quote the Golden Rule in opposition to particular projects: it is an ethic for NIMBY-ism. (NIMBY is an acronym for Not In My Back Yard. It caricatures the kind of people who are happy to use roads and nuclear electricity - as long as the roads and power plants are built somewhere else). In a more general sense, the Golden Rule can be appealed to as an anti-utopian precept, against any ideal society or large-scale reform. The argument would be, that the 'utopians' would not like to live in a society imposed by someone else, therefore they should abandon their project. But in any case, the liberal tradition offers a more developed and sophisticated anti-utopianism.

The Golden Rule is in a similar way attractive to libertarians and anti-statists. The Golden Rule would seem to prohibit the State -at least from the point of view of those who see it as pure coercion. Since the libertarian is distressed by paying taxes, the libertarian would argue that no-one should collect them. In practice, libertarians usually argue that coercion is inherently wrong, rather than appeal to empathy.

On the issue of redistribution of wealth, the conservative bias of the Golden Rule is evident. Certainly rich people would be distressed if their money was taken, and given to the poor: they would also suffer clear economic harm. (Supporters of the Golden Rule might argue that the circumstances of the two parties are not comparable anyway). But there is a hidden political effect to consider here: it derives from the perception that the Golden Rule apples more to action, than to omission. If the State decides to redistribute wealth, then clearly that decision is subject to moral judgment. If the rich sit on their wealth, that is equally a 'decision', but it is perceived as a non-decision. In other words the taking of the money is more likely to be judged, than the not-giving. The starting inequality is more likely to be seen as a quasi-natural state of affairs, to which the Golden Rule does not apply. (This type of assumption is often made, when inequality of wealth is defended).

Kant's comment

Immanuel Kant dismisses the Golden Rule in the presentation of his own 'Categorical Imperative'. In a footnote. (Kant fans may feel, that even mention in a Kant footnote gives it a semi-sacred status). This is his comment...
Man denke nicht, dass hier das triviale: quod tibi non vis fieri, etc. zur Richtsnur oder Prinzip dienen könne. Denn es ist, obzwar mit verschiedenen Einschränkungen, nur aus jenem abgeleitet; es kann kein allgemeines Gesetz sein, denn es enthält nicht den Grund der Pflichten gegen sich selbst, nicht der Liebespflichten gegen andere (denn mancher würde es gerne eingehen, dass andere ihm nicht wolltun sollen, wenn er es nur überhoben sein dürfte, ihnen Wohltat zu erzeigen), endlich nicht der schuldigen Pflichten gegeneinander; denn der Verbrecher würde aus diesem Grunde gegen seine strafenden Richter argumentieren, usw.
Grundlegung zur Metaphysik der Sitten, II.
English translation, in note 7.

A closing question

Many of the people who access this site will be students, on Ethics courses. If any of them refer to this site during the course, they will probably be reprimanded by their teachers, for using 'invalid' material. In modern societies, ethics is the exclusive domain of professional ethics practitioners. Most of them are English-speaking academics, and US universities dominate academic ethics. Why should such an elite be allowed to determine that my objections to the Golden Rule are 'invalid', just because my objections don't meet their standards? Allowing them to determine what is 'valid' ethics, is equivalent to conceding them political power over me (and over society). Their attitude is an academic equivalent of the George Bush view of the world: America is always right, because America says so.


Why democracy is wrong