Living the Golden Rule/Human Nature and the Golden Rule

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Human Nature and the Golden Rule[edit]

Is the golden rule aligned with human nature, or does it require us to act against our true nature? Some object to the golden rule citing self-interest. This objection holds that golden rule is foolish (since we often can do better for ourselves by breaking the golden rule) or impossible (since we’re built to pursue only self-interest).

These objections are answered through an understanding of Charles Darwin and evolution, and also Thomas Hobbes and the social-contract idea. By investigating these areas, we’ll further appreciate how following the golden rule promotes our own good – and not just the good of the other person.

Philosophers distinguish two kinds of egoism; each provides an objection to the golden rule. The first is ethical egoism, the second is psychological egoism.

The theory of ethical egoism says that we ought to do whatever most promotes our own individual good, regardless of how this affects others. Thus it’s foolish to follow the golden rule, since we can often do better for ourselves by cheating.

Imagine Old Joe at the bar, bragging about how he sold his car for more money by lying about its condition. Joe says, “Hey, why not? Everyone does it. Honesty hurts my wallet.” His friends object, “Do you want people to cheat you?” He responds, “No, I’d complain if someone cheated me! But so what?” They ask, “Don’t you believe in the golden rule?” Joe responds, “Heck no! I believe in doing what you can get away with!”

He continues in verse:

“Any who follow the golden rule
shall surely be treated like a fool,”
says Old Joe on the barstool.

The golden rule is for naïve fools, he says. Smart folks can do better for themselves by being amoral and not caring about the golden rule.

The theory of psychological egoism goes further; it says that everyone by nature is motivated only by self-interest. So the golden rule goes against how we are built. Psychological egoism argues that even do-gooders care only about themselves. When we help someone else, we think, deep down, that this will in some way help us, and that’s why we do it. We’re products of evolution, which is about survival of the fittest. We survive by pursuing our own good, not another’s good. Since it goes against our nature, following the golden rule is impossible.

Again, imagine Old Joe at the bar. He says that science teaches that we care only about ourselves. As products of evolution, we have concern only for our own good. Thus following the golden rule is impossible and trying to follow it leads to frustration. The golden rule is unrealistic and impractical; it just won’t work.

As a result of these misconstrued arguments the golden rule is often seen as foolish (ethical egoism) or impossible (psychological egoism). A deeper analysis shows that both forms of egoism are false. But it’s interesting that we can defend the golden rule fairly well even if we assume both kinds of egoism.

Hobbes and social contracts[edit]

Thomas Hobbes (1588–1679)

Thomas Hobbes accepted both kinds of egoism: self-interest ought to and does govern us completely. But enlightened self-interest moves us to create a social contract based on the golden rule.

Hobbes has us imagine, either as an early human condition or as a thought experiment, a state of nature without moral or social rules. Without rules, humans, who are completely egoistic, would lie, steal, or kill whenever it was in their interest. And so no one could farm, since others would just steal their crops. The resulting social chaos would make life miserable for everybody and promote nobody’s interests. Life, in Hobbes’s words, would be “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”

As a result rational egoists in a state of nature would agree to social rules to protect their interests. Wanting their own property to be respected, they’d agree to respect the property of others. Wanting their own lives to be respected, they’d agree to respect the lives of others. They’d set up social rules with a golden-rule pattern: “We want others to treat us in such and such a way, and so we agree to treat them likewise.” Egoists would support a golden-rule society because this serves their self-interest better than a society without rules. Morality is born. Morality (as summed up in the golden rule) is a social contract that egoistic humans, to further their interests and prevent social chaos, would agree to in the state of nature.

After agreeing to a social contract, egoists wouldn’t follow it unless they thought this was in their self-interest. So Hobbes has his egoists set up an absolute monarch to punish rule-breakers. Recent Hobbesians such as Richard Brandt instead contend that society needs to make rule-breakers suffer penalties both external (alienation, social disapproval, legal penalties) and internal (guilt, anxiety, loss of self-respect); and rule-followers would be praised and made to feel good about themselves. These sanctions ensure that it’s in our interest to follow the rules. In short, it’s in everyone’s interest to bring about a situation where it hurts individuals when they violate the golden rule – and such a situation by and large exists.

The Golden Rule Promotes Self-Interest[edit]

As opposed to Hobbes, it now seems clear that humans have some built-in concern for others and some built-in sense of right and wrong. In this case Hobbes’s big contribution is showing that the golden rule can be defended even using very unfriendly assumptions: that humans by nature are completely egoistic and have no sense of right and wrong. The golden rule is stronger because it can be defended even using such unfriendly assumptions.

Knowing this, how can we respond to old Joe?

Old Joe gave us a poem about how the golden rule is foolish. If we versify to Joe as he’s done to us, we can say:

“If you shun the golden rule,
you’ll be treated oh so cruel,
you will be the biggest fool.”

But how is Old Joe foolish (in terms of self-interest) to shun the golden rule? And how does following the golden rule promote self-interest? The golden rule promotes our self-interest in many ways:

  1. People mostly treat us as we treat them. So it pays to treat others well.
  2. Following the golden rule promotes cooperation (which benefits everyone), self-respect, and admiration from others.
  3. Selfishness brings conflict (which hurts everyone), guilt, alienation, disapproval, and legal penalties.

What about Old Joe? He may suffer or fear legal penalties for cheating. His reputation will be harmed. Would you trust someone who brags about his lies? He hurts relationships essential to his well-being. If his friends aren’t jerks themselves (perhaps a greater curse), they’ll see him as an inconsiderate jerk. And Old Joe will likely feel guilt, anxiety, and lowered self-respect. We try to socialize people so they feel bad when they violate the golden rule – even if others don’t find out. So yes, Old Joe gained a few extra dollars; but he loses much. If he thinks the dollars matter more to his well-being, he’s fooling himself.

Further internal motivational factors to consider include cognitive dissonance and self-worth.

First, humans tend to be distressed when they find they’re inconsistent. Psychologists call this cognitive dissonance. When students discover that the first sentence in their paragraph is inconsistent with their last sentence – they feel not joy but distress; and they scramble to rearrange their beliefs. Since consistency promotes survival, cognitive dissonance likely comes from how we evolved and are socialized.

Golden-rule violations are inconsistencies: our action (toward another) clashes with our desire about how we’d be treated in a similar situation. When we sense our golden-rule-inconsistency, we feel that something is wrong inside us – we feel a distressing cognitive dissonance.

Second, an essential ingredient in happiness is a sense of self-worth. We won’t be happy without this, even if we have great possessions.

Our sense of self-worth depends on the golden rule. If we violate the golden rule, we treat others as having no worth. But then how can we see ourselves as having worth? Since you and I are so similar, if I see you as having (or lacking) worth, I similarly see myself as having (or lacking) worth. Following the golden rule ennobles both of us. I see myself as having worth because that’s the way I see everyone.

Having a sense of self-worth is more significant than getting a higher price for a used car. Foolish Old Joe doesn’t understand this. Many studies have shown that how we treat others has a major impact on our happiness.[reference?] If you want to make yourself miserable, focus on promoting your own self-interest. Others will likely despise you, and you may end up despising yourself. Much of our good is social, and selfishness poisons relationships. You promote your interest better if you respect the good of others as you respect your own good. That is how we are built.

Or is it? Old Joe insists that evolution would have programmed selfishness, not cooperation, into us. After all, our evolutionary ancestors survived by crushing their opponents. But again, Old Joe is wrong. Both Darwin and recent biologists have argued that humans survived by working together; the golden rule is a big part of the story and is to some degree built into us.

Darwin and Evolution[edit]

Charles Darwin (1809–82)

Charles Darwin proposed the theory of evolution; he saw the evolutionary process as leading humanity toward the golden rule. Darwin’s book On the Origin of Species claimed that our present biological species evolved from earlier ones through mutation and selection. Mutation means that a species randomly produces organisms with slight differences; so some are bigger or faster. Selection means that those with some features are more likely to survive and produce offspring with these same features. Repeating the mutation-selection process many millions of times eventually produces radically new life forms. Evolution explains many facts about organisms: comparative structure, embryology, geographical distribution, and fossil records.

Darwin’s book Descent of Man focused on human evolution. Darwin claims that the moral sense (conscience), which is rightfully supreme over human action, is the most important difference between humans and lower animals. Analogues of morality exist in other social animals, such as dogs, wolves, ants, and bees. With social animals, evolution encourages instincts and behaviors that benefit the group’s survival.

Humans are social animals, living in families or groups. Like other such animals, we evolved social instincts. We enjoy helping others and are distressed by another’s misery. We often show concern for others, especially offspring and members of our group. We value the approval of others, internalize group norms, and follow the leader. Opposing our social instincts are impulses that can be anti-social, like lust, greed, and vengeance. According to Darwin, primitive morality had arbitrary taboos, little discipline, and little concern for those outside one’s clan or tribe.

Humans gradually developed their intellectual powers through observation, language, and abstract reasoning. As a result morality became more rational, disciplined, and concerned with consequences. As human groups expanded, so did our circle of concern. We struggled toward a higher morality, supported by reason and directed to the good of everyone, even the weak and animals. Our noblest attribute became a disinterested love for all living creatures. The golden rule sums up this higher morality: “Treat others as you want to be treated.” Yes, Darwin defends the golden rule.

Recent evolutionary thinkers (like William Hamilton, Robert Trivers, and Edward Wilson) agree that evolution has instilled a tendency toward golden-rule thinking into us; they have considerably expanded the explanation, bringing in modern genetics. Donald Pfaff has investigated the neuroscience of morality, explaining how golden-rule thinking is built into our brain structure. And others point to psychological or sociological data to explain human altruism.

The bottom line is that science supports the belief that people care about others. No, we are not innately and completely selfish. Instead, we have a drive toward altruism (which struggles against a contrary drive toward selfishness). The great world religions have always taught this, and now science agrees.

Assignment[edit]

Part 1: Choose another student or friend to work with on this assignment.

  1. Flip a coin to decide which one of you will plan the role of “Old Joe” and who will play the role of “Wise Kita.”
  2. Begin a dialogue on the wisdom of the golden rule. Joe can begin with his verse, or the story of the used car, or some other boast.
  3. Kita engages him in a dialogue to argue for the value of the golden rule.
  4. Work to include both the ethical egoism, and the psychological egoism arguments against the golden rule in your dialogue. Work to refute both arguments.
  5. Continue the dialogue to include arguments for and against the golden rule based on evolution.
  6. As the dialogue nears its end or becomes repetitive, pause to reflect on how clearly and convincingly each of you were able to get your ideas across to the other.
  7. Take a break, then switch roles and repeat the dialogue representing the opposite viewpoint.

Part 2: View this TEDX video The Trouble With The Golden Rule, by Brendan Schulz


Please continue the course with the topic on Embracing other Races and Outgroups.

References[edit]