The Golden Rule Revisited

The most common formulation for the Golden Rule in most religions and possibly humanist philosophy is, “Do to others what you would like others to do to you.” This is the positive version. Confucius was credited with what might have been the earliest version of the rule, albeit the negative position, “Do not desire for others what you do not desire for yourself”. Like Confucius, Hillel also presented the negative side of the coin, “That which is hateful to you, do not do to any other person.”

Do we need two versions? I will argue that there are good reasons for both sides, both perspectives. First, let’s put aside the masochists who may relish being hurt by others or the bully, who might say, “Do to others what you would have them do to you, only do it first”.

It strikes me that the difference between the positive adaptation of the Golden Rule and the negative form may be considered the distinction one could draw between being charitable and being moral. Being moral is choosing not to do something. One is moral if one does not deliberately and needlessly harm someone else. You are not immoral if you hurt someone unintentionally. You are not immoral if you hurt someone in self defence and there is no other alternative. The world, in my view, would be a better place if everybody would simply be moral, avoiding that which is hateful (harmful) to someone else.

Most people, I believe, behave morally most of the time. Most of our laws are based on the principle of morality, both restitutive and restorative laws in Emile Durkheim’s terminology. Restitutive laws are those that try and prevent criminal behaviour, acts such as assault, murder, theft, vandalism (restitutive in that one ‘pays’ the ‘debt’ to the those harmed or to the individual writ large, to society.) Restorative laws are those which aim to regulate behaviour for the smooth functioning of society. Traffic regulations, workplace safety requirements, food safety, public health are the most prevalent that come to mind. This is an over simplification as a violation of traffic laws do result in fines and can lead to criminal charges. The main point, again, is that behaving morally is the negative side of the Golden Rule and is similar to one of the tenets of a medical doctor’s code of ethics, “First do no harm”.

As an aside, it may be worth spending a moment to discuss the difference between ethical and moral behaviour. We often accuse politicians of behaving unethically although the activity might not be illegal. If an unethical behaviour leads to harm, and it often does, then it is immoral as well. Some unethical behaviour is not immoral. If a child lies about how late he returned home after a party, while it would be considered unethical, it does not harm others, and by my definition is not immoral. Lying, I might add, is not always unethical. Lying to save the life of an innocent person would be deemed commendable and fall under the category of situational ethics.

Returning to the subject at hand, would we enhance the world by simply being moral? Probably, but we do know it would improve the well being of others if we positively do good for someone. As W. H. Auden put it:

“We are here on earth to help others; why on earth the others are here I don’t know.”

That is the distinction in my mind between moral and charitable behaviour. Charitable behaviour, one might even argue altruistic behaviour, requires one to seek out the wrongs and injustices of the world and attempt to rectify them and not just sit back and observe and be acted upon. It is the principle behind the overwhelming majority of the tens of thousands of charities that are operating in Canada, not to mention international not-for-profit organizations.

One can get involved with just and compassionate causes in a variety of ways: lobby politicians, donate money (in 2018, the median donation in Canada was $310), donate time to charities, join or take a leadership role in charitable or not-for-prophit organizations that seek justice and the alleviation of suffering, or found or help found an organization with these aims. It is largely why I joined with a few others to organize a not-for-profit charity to provide affordable housing for low income families, Multifaith Housing Initiative.

Tragically, many people on this earth embrace neither the positive nor the negative versions of the Golden Rule and we are not the better for it.


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