The Golden Rule gets a lot of promotion as a moral precept by both the religious and the secular. In my Methodist upbringing, I learned the Golden Rule as: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” Phil Zuckerman, in his book What It Means to Be Moral: Why Religion Is Not Necessary for Living an Ethical Life, provides a more modern version: “Treat people in the way in which we ourselves would want to be treated.”
As a skeptic, I think it is reasonable to ask just how golden this rule actually is. Consider these applications of the Golden Rule:
Door knocking. That is, knocking on people’s doors in an attempt to convert them to your religion. People who do this would absolutely say they follow the Golden Rule. Yet, they have to know that most people don’t want to be treated this way—I mean, how many doors closed in your face does it take to get a clue? Their Golden Rule justification is that they know the importance of being “saved,” and thus, if they hadn’t been saved, they would want someone to knock on their door to save them.
Laws and Unless a judge desires jailtime or other punishment (which seems highly unlikely), a judge implementing the Golden Rule would not impose punishment on any criminal. In other words, laws are unenforceable under the Golden Rule.
Cultural conflicts. A simple example is that, when greeting other people, some cultures shake hands while other cultures bow. But there are more serious examples that have led to significant conflicts. If people from these different cultures follow the Golden Rule, all that’s accomplished is to reverse the conflict.
Masochism. Most people do not take pleasure from pain. But some do.
Genital mutilation of children (both male and female). Because they believe their god said to do this, most people who condone this act would want it done to them.
Rape. I see someone whom I am sexually attracted to. I would enjoy having them come over to me and, without saying a word, aggressively start having sex with me. So, applying the Golden Rule, I treat them that way; I go over to them and, without saying a word, I aggressively start having sex with them. That is, the Golden Rule can be used to justify rape.
However, whenever I present such examples, people tell me I am misinterpreting the Golden Rule. Zuckerman puts it this way:
The Golden Rule, of course, is not to be taken in some sort of pedantic, literal, precise way, such as: because I want a specific medical procedure done to me, then I will make sure that the same exact medical procedure is done to you. Rather, the Golden Rule should be understood in a broader, principled way, such as: because I’d like the right to choose whatever medical treatments I do or don’t receive, I’ll support your right to choose whatever medical treatments you do or don’t receive.
I interpret Zuckerman’s objection as saying the Golden Rule shouldn’t be used formulaically; you shouldn’t just plug in some action and pump out whether or not you should engage in that action. But why shouldn’t I myself interpret it that way? It certainly looks like “apply condition A to action B.” Zuckerman’s answer is “of course” it shouldn’t be. Yet there is nothing in the Golden Rule to support Zuckerman’s interpretation. In fact, I think Zuckerman’s “of course” evidences Zuckerman’s unconscious understanding that the Golden Rule does not mean what he thinks it means.
Zuckerman presents arguments on why relying on a god is not a valid method for determining morality. There is no universal agreement on which god to follow, and religions do not agree on moral precepts either between religions or even within a single religion. That is, any god-based morality is ultimately mere opinion. How much more explicit can you be that morality is based on opinion than by saying morality is based on what “we ourselves” want? In and of itself, the Golden Rule doesn’t even pretend that a god or anyone other than me is involved.
Zuckerman also brings up Plato’s “Euthyphro Dialogue,” which discusses whether morality is based on a god’s will or is inherent regardless. If morality is based on a god’s will, then morality is arbitrary. If morality is inherent—and a god’s will is based on an external morality—then a god is superfluous to the question of what is moral. The same argument applies to the Golden Rule, which puts each individual in the place of a god. If morality is based on what we ourselves want, then morality is arbitrary. If people are basing their morality on an external morality, then the Golden Rule is superfluous. Or just wrong.
To help illustrate my objection to the Golden Rule, here is my Golden Rule–inspired moral heuristic: “Moral action is a balance of what I want, what others want, what is good for society, and what is good for the environment.”
Note that the Golden Rule only includes one of these four considerations. I also argue that this heuristic would be difficult to interpret formulaically and thus there is no need for an “of course” clarification. Now, moral heuristics do not have
argue that the Golden Rule is in conflict with this heuristic unless every person is concerned with the well-being of others, which the evidence does not support. I also include other general concepts, such as civil rights.1
I consider all the examples I’ve given immoral. Let’s revisit them to emphasize how arguing their immorality requires more than what is stated in the Golden Rule.
Door knocking does not consider what other people It is also usually based on a god as a moral authority.
That laws are not enforceable under the Golden Rule does not consider the broader implications for society.
Applying the Golden Rule to cultural conflicts does not consider what other people want or the difficulty of dealing with society as a whole. The solution to this conundrum is acknowledgement of the conflict and resolution by negotiation, neither of which are suggested by the Golden Rule but are inherently included in my heuristic.
Applying the Golden Rule to masochism does not take into consideration what other people want or, in a bizarre pardox, what masochists themselves really want either.
Forced genital mutilation does not consider what other people want, causes harm, and violates civil rights. It is also usually based on a god as a moral authority.
Rape does not consider what other people want, causes harm, and violates the concept of civil rights.
Zuckerman’s “of course” example regards forcing a medical procedure on someone. Well, genital mutilation of children is a counterexample to the assumption that all people believe all people have the right to choose medical procedures. Also, consider cases where people prevent others from having medical treatment: religious sects that would rather see their children die than for them to be subjected to modern medicine; abortion; medical aid in dying; and people disrupting COVID-19 vaccination clinics. All these can be justified via the generalized door knocker argument: Because I know the importance of the knowledge I have, even if I didn’t have that knowledge, I would want to be treated in a manner consistent with that knowledge. Thus, applying the Golden Rule, I treat other people in a manner consistent with that knowledge.
I offer masochism as the canonical counterexample to the morality of the Golden Rule. More generally, ethical BDSM requires, in some sense, the rejection of the Golden Rule. The ethical practice of BDSM starts with the recognition that not everyone wants to be treated the same: your fetish is not necessarily my fetish. Masochism also raises the question of whether the Golden Rule requires treating other people the way I want to be treated. There are situations in which it is morally acceptable to want to be treated in a way that I do to be based solely on the Golden Rule or inspired by versions of it. Indeed, Zuckerman lists ten other heuristics (that I fully agree with), such as “Working to increase health, happiness, and well-being in our families, communities, and society at large.” Note the inclusion of considerations other than self. I not want to treat other people. In this sense, the Golden Rule introduces a false dichotomy.2
Again, my point is that you have to introduce other considerations beyond the Golden Rule to argue that these actions are immoral.
An argument for the internal logic of the Golden Rule by Abraham Lincoln is cited in both Zuckerman’s book and Michael Shermer’s book, The Science of Good and Evil: Why People Cheat, Gossip, Care, Share, and Follow the Golden Rule. In 1854, Lincoln wrote:
If A. can prove, however conclusively, that he may, of right, enslave B.—why not may B. snatch the same argument, and prove equally that he may enslave A.?—You say A. is white and B. is black. It is color, then; the lighter, having the right to enslave the darker? Take care. By this rule, you are to be a slave of the first man you meet, with a fairer skin than your own.
There are aspects of this argument that make the logic suspect.
First, if this argument has a generically valid form, I should be able to substitute other actions for “enslave.” For example, we can substitute “imprison,” as in my earlier example. “Of course,” one might respond, the Golden Rule shouldn’t be treated formulaically. But there isn’t any hint of a “broader, principled” understanding in Lincoln’s argument as Zuckerman suggests there should be. So why does the particular formulaic instance of slavery provide an argument for the validity of the Golden Rule? Even if this specific example validly argues against slavery, in terms of logic, one example does not prove a general statement. That is, this example does not validly support the Golden Rule as a general rule.
Second, let’s look at Lincoln’s quote as an argument against enslavement. Note that there is a direct appeal to “you” as an individual. Thus, this argument assumes that no one would willingly submit to being enslaved. Now, defining slavery is, perhaps, more difficult than might be surmised. I posit that a fundamental aspect of slavery is that a slave cannot leave the influence of the slaver (through whatever mechanism the slaver uses). Thus, if I cannot leave my home without permission and must return, I am effectively a slave. Under this definition, women who accede to religious guardian laws and people who enlist in the military willingly accept a form of slave hood. It can also be argued that a military draft is a form of forced legal slavery—willingly accepted by the nation. In the context of BDSM, some people openly describe their relationship as master and slave. Further, under the modern definition of slavery (euphemistically called “human trafficking”), there are people who, through various forms of psychological manipulation, don’t realize they are enslaved and will deny that they are. The idea that no one willingly submits to any form of slavery is not supported by the evidence. Lincoln’s argument doesn’t hold.
Now, antebellum slavery, which Lincoln was referring to, was particularly heinous, and it is highly unlikely that anyone would willingly submit to it. Such slavery is not moral. In contrast, if humanely implemented, some forms of slavery such as military service and imprisonment can be morally justified due to their value to society.
Another argument used to support the Golden Rule is that it is, as Shermer says, “historical and universal.” Shermer even provides twenty examples spanning three millennia to support this description. In particular, the Golden Rule is generally recognized as being promoted as a moral foundation by most religions, including the three largest modern religions: Christianity, Islam, and Hinduism. But what do these religions say about slavery? Jesus never condemned slavery and implicitly supported it. The New Testament was explicitly quoted to support slavery during the founding of the United States and the American Civil War. Muhammad partially supported his cause financially through slave trading. The general concept of karma suggests being a slave is a consequence of actions done in past lives, and there are passages in Hindu texts supporting slavery. There are many other examples beyond slavery of immoral tenets supported by religions and of immoral actions by the religious. I argue that many of these are supportable by the Golden Rule via variants of the door-knocker argument. Even justifying holy wars (or wars to spread democracy) can be an extreme application of the door-knocker argument. As a religiously based moral precept, the Golden Rule doesn’t seem to be very successful. Perhaps we can dismiss this as another example of the contradictory nature of most religions and religious texts, but it is also a bit contradictory to argue against using a god as a moral authority and then support the Golden Rule by pointing to its religious pedigree.
Although one example does not prove a general statement, one counterexample does, in fact, disprove a general statement. I have provided a variety of counterexamples against the Golden Rule being a general moral heuristic. But even if someone goes through and argues against all these examples, why bother? Why not simply include additional conditions as I suggest in my heuristic. Why not make them explicit instead of assuming people understand them. In fact, I find it curious that in the list of moral precepts provided by Zuckerman, the Golden Rule has a completely different structure than all the others. None of the others are in a formulaic form or include a subjective factor.
Let’s review some logical errors. When providing direct formulaic examples of the Golden Rule, people often argue that it is an incorrect interpretation of the Golden Rule. This is moving the goal post. Arguing that morality shouldn’t be based on opinion and then providing a maxim that explicitly says it should be is a case of selective use of logic. Using Lincoln’s example to demonstrate the internal logic of the Golden Rule is a case of hasty generalization. In the other direction, denying the examples I’ve provided of the Golden Rule leading to immoral behavior ignores the fact that a single counterexample disproves a general statement. Pointing to the multiple historical variations of the Golden Rule engages in the appeal-to-ancient-wisdom fallacy. I find it interesting that these logical errors are often raised when skeptics dissect the arguments of religious apologists.
I’ve referenced Zuckerman’s and Shermer’s books because they are explicitly about morality and provide common arguments in support of the Golden Rule. But the Golden Rule is promoted by a great many people, and I think they intend the Golden Rule to be a good moral guideline. If the Golden Rule doesn’t hold up to logical analysis, why is it promoted? Perhaps one reason is simply that most people don’t analyze philosophical or moral precepts at this level; people probably don’t actually use the Golden Rule the way my examples do or even ever consciously apply it. People are presented with a moral heuristic that looks good on the surface and is socially accepted, so they don’t question it. Also, the Golden Rule probably works much of the time. People generally don’t want to be raped or hurt by other people, so their actions are consistent with the Golden Rule. But I honestly think not raping or killing is more a product of compassion than it is of the Golden Rule. The connection to the Golden Rule is an after-the-fact application; most people simply don’t want to hurt other people. I also suspect that people often confuse empathy with what they themselves want and feel. But empathy is the capacity to understand what other people want and feel. Indeed, the fundamental problem with the Golden Rule is that it is based on projection—believing that other people want the same things that we ourselves want—rather than empathy. This projection is the foundation of the door-knocker argument. In fact, the projective nature of the Golden Rule puts it in direct conflict with the moral precept of being empathetic and compassionate that Zuckerman and most moralists promote.
Perhaps the promotion of the Golden Rule is simply an example of how hard it is to let some things go. Between social acceptance and historical provenance, many people (secular or not) are shocked when I question the Golden Rule. Is it comparable to the emotional and psychological effort expressed by Julia Sweeney in her play Letting Go of God? The path away from a god often starts with questioning a childhood religion, then questioning other religions, and then going through some form of being “spiritual but not religious.” And even after people get to the point of totally not believing in a god, they often stop at agnosticism because it can be really hard to take the final step to atheism.
There are other historical moral maxims people find difficult to question. Should I truly love my neighbor if they rape me? Should I love my genocidal enemy? Does self-defense play no role in a moral society to the point that we should turn the other cheek and not even separate serial killers from the rest of society?
When deciding how to treat others, considering how we ourselves want to be treated is a good start. But we must consider things beyond our own desires before making a final decision. The Golden Rule doesn’t tell us to do that.
Even if there are defenses against all my arguments (which I don’t think there are), why bring up the Golden Rule at all when it requires an “of course” clarification. Zuckerman discusses how our concept of morality has progressed; the Code of Hammurabi is a little cringe worthy compared to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Aren’t a few millennia enough time for our understanding of morality to progress and allow us to update this adage? The Golden Rule is unnecessary for a moral foundation and even contradicts other moral precepts. Let’s stop worshiping this golden calf.
I think Zuckerman makes a notable error in not including the environment beyond nonhuman Even more generally, if we are discussing universal morality, we need to include the potential of truly sentient artificial intelligence and extraterrestrial life. My minimal rephrasing of Zuckerman’s precept would replace “nonhuman animals” with “that which is not human.”
Masochism is also a counterexample to the less famous Platinum Rule: treat others the way they want to be treated.
The Golden Rule gets a lot of promotion as a moral precept by both the religious and the secular. In my Methodist upbringing, I learned the Golden Rule as: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” Phil Zuckerman, in his book What It Means to Be Moral: Why Religion Is Not …