The golden rule blows!

I’ve mentioned in the past that while I agree with atheism I find the notion that you can have morality without religion to be, well, less obvious than many make it out to be. (I tackled this idea in detail here.)

A lot of secular humanists point to the golden rule as an easy source for morality. That rule is, of course, “do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” Over at Andrew Sullivan’s blog a reader makes the case.

…we also have deeply ethical atheists, agnostics, and secularists who debate the fine points of moral behavior with as much rigor and passion as theologists do, and who are building great ethical revolutions such as environmentalism on the surprisingly robust foundation of a practical, secular ethics.

Much of this success rests on the self-explanatory Golden Rule. No fear of damnation is needed to explain why it’s a good idea to treat others as you would like to be treated. It’s a contract, and you get security and stability only if you obey it. The obviousness of this contract also makes it a firm basis for moral innovation.

The problem is that while the golden rule might work some of the time, it really doesn’t work all of the time. The idea is that if I don’t want to be screwed, I shouldn’t screw others. But really you just don’t want others to know you’ve screwed them. If you can screw over other people without them knowing it, then you get all the benefits of the golden rule, plus a little extra for yourself. Also, the premise of the golden rule is that your security and safety will be harmed if you violate the golden rule. But what if I am strong enough that I cannot be harmed? Say I’m a king, or some kind of mafia boss? Then I can break the golden rule with at least some impunity and not fear for my security. As an incentive for morality, the golden rule does not work consistently and seems to have many caveats. Counter to the writer above, there are cases where one can get security and stability without obeying the golden rule.

There’s a third complaint I’d make which is the golden rule isn’t really moral in any kind of purist sense. According to the golden rule, you should treat others well not because you really want to but because you wanted to be treated well. It’s selfish. This may be acceptable, but I think the realization takes a bit of the wind out of the sails of people like the above person who righteously tout the golden rule as something almost holy.

Is religion the way to morality then? As I’ve said in the past, even it is flawed. The Christian argument is that one should be good to avoid burning in hell. Again, the is really a selfish argument: Do this to avoid pain (and lots of it!)

I do suspect morality evolved as a social practice that tended to work for most of those who engaged in it. Those who followed the golden rule flourished and were successful at passing on their genes etc. I presume it is, in some hard to imagine way, encoded into our genes. But morality and the golden rule are not really “logical” in any sense.

  1. No Comments