Understanding the Golden Rule/Rigorous Introduction to the Golden Rule

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Rigorous Introduction to the Golden Rule[edit]

The golden rule (GR) says “Treat others as you want to be treated.” Other phrasings include “Do unto others as you’d have them do unto you,” “Do as you’d be done by,” and “Don’t do to others what you want not done to yourself.” GR calls for a harmony between my act toward another and my desire about how I’d be treated in the same situation.

This course is a fairly comprehensive treatment of the golden rule. We’ll defend GR philosophically, connect it with world religions and history, and apply it to practical areas like moral education and business. If you are more interested in living the golden rule than studying it, you may prefer to take the companion course Living the Golden Rule or you may benefit from taking both courses.

This section is about GR reasoning. We’ll first note that GR is wildly influential across the globe (and considered gold) but largely ignored in academic circles (and considered garbage). Then we’ll look at problem areas.

Gold or garbage?[edit]

The golden rule for centuries has been important all over the world, in different cultures and religions, and in professions and families.

All major religions accept GR. Confucius, Hillel, Jesus, and many others used it to sum up how to live. The Parliament of the World’s Religions in 1993 overwhelmingly supported GR as the basis for global ethics and the “irrevocable, unconditional norm for all areas of life”[1].

Conscientious professionals often appeal to GR. A business person might say, “I try to treat customers as I desire that I’d be treated.” A nurse might say, “I care for patients as I hope that I’d be cared for if I were sick.” A teacher might say, “I teach students as I wish that I’d have been taught.”

GR is popular among politicians. President Barack Obama used it in over twenty speeches; here are two examples:[2]

The only time I ever saw my mother really angry is when she saw cruelty, when she saw somebody being bullied or somebody being treated differently because of who they were. And, if she saw me doing that, she would be furious. And she would say to me: “Imagine standing in that person’s shoes. How would that make you feel?”

If there is one law that we can be most certain of, it is the law that binds people of all faiths and no faith together. It’s no coincidence that it exists in Christianity and Judaism; in Islam and Hinduism; in Buddhism and humanism. It is, of course, the golden rule – the call to treat one another as we wish to be treated.[3]

His Republican predecessor, George W. Bush, in at least eighteen speeches used some variation of this GR phrasing: “Love your neighbor just like you’d like to be loved yourself.”[4] GR is non-partisan.

A British TV station created a new “ten commandments”[5], surveying 44,000 people about the most important norms for living. GR was by far the most popular norm: “Treat others as you want to be treated.”

Searching the Web for “golden rule” reveals many Web pages, including Harry Gensler’s page. GR is growing in popularity.

GR is less popular in academic circles. Courses in moral philosophy or moral theology typically ignore GR or mention it only briefly. Marcus Singer began an article about GR by saying:[6]

The golden rule has received remarkably little philosophical discussion….Considering its obvious importance and its almost universal acceptance, this… is unfortunate, and also somewhat surprising.

The only philosophy dissertations on GR up to now were Alton 1966[7] and Gensler 1977.[8][9] Jeff Wattles 1996: 6, in a groundbreaking first scholarly book in English on GR since the 17th century, noted that:

Many scholars today regard the rule as an acceptable principle for popular use but as embarrassing if taken with philosophic seriousness. Most professional ethicists rely instead on other principles, since the rule seems vulnerable to counterexamples, such as the current favorite, “What if a sadomasochist goes forth to treat others as he wants to be treated?”

When Harry Gensler was writing the book this course is based on[10] , his fellow academics often asked about it. Imagine this conversation. Professor asks, “What is your book about?” He says, “The golden rule.” Professor then snickers inside, thinking, “You mean that silly kindergarten saying that doesn’t apply to the complex problems of the real world?” Now Professor is too polite to say this out loud. His mother long ago used GR to instruct him against rudeness, and this is still with him. But his behavior suggests what’s in the back of his mind: “The golden rule – what a silly principle for a grownup philosopher to write a book on!”

Not all academics think so little of the golden rule. But most do. Most think that GR is unclear and full of problems. If we take the vague GR and try to formulate it clearly, it quickly leads to absurdities. So GR is dismissed as a folksy proverb that self-destructs when analyzed carefully.

So is GR gold (as the world thinks) or garbage (as many academics think)?

Literal GR[edit]

What does “Treat others as you want to be treated” mean? Let’s try taking it as the literal golden rule (or Pyrite 1, where pyrite is fool’s gold):[11]

Pyrite 1: the literal GR   Objection 1: different circumstances
If you want X to do A to you, then do A to X   If you’re in different circumstances from the other person (for example, you have different likes and dislikes), GR can command bad actions.
The experienced gold prospector is undeterred by fool's gold. Don't let faulty representations of the golden rule distract you from understanding its true worth.

To derive an instance, substitute a person for X and an act for do-A, and rephrase to keep it grammatical. So Pyrite 1 logically entails “If you want Jones to be polite to you, then be polite to Jones” – and “If you want Jones not to hit you, then do not hit Jones.” Pyrite 1 works well if you and X are in similar circumstances and you have good desires about how you’re to be treated. If either condition fails, Pyrite 1 can tell you to do crazy or evil things.

Consider this different circumstances objection. Suppose you have a bad appendix and want Dr. Davis to remove it. Then Pyrite 1 absurdly tells you: “If you want Davis to remove your appendix, then remove her appendix.” Pyrite 1 assumes that how you want to be treated in your situation is how you should treat others in their situation – even if their situation is very different.

Here’s another example. I’m a waiter, and I hate broccoli. Becky orders broccoli (which she likes). Should I serve her broccoli? Not by the literal GR, which says: “If you want Becky not to serve you broccoli, then don’t serve her broccoli.” Becky would be upset, and I’d likely be fired. Pyrite 1 seems to assume that the other person’s tastes are the same as mine.

Or suppose I visit my sister Carol at her house. In the morning, I wake energized and like to chat. But Carol absolutely hates early chatting, since she needs to wake up before she can deal with others. Should I chat with Carol? The literal GR says yes: “If I want Carol to chat with me, then I’m to chat with her.” But this is inconsiderate, since her needs differ from mine.

Or you’re a little boy who loves fighting, and you’d love to have your little sister fight with you. She’s peaceful and hates fighting. Should you fight with her? Pyrite 1 says yes: “If I want my little sister to fight with me, then I’m to fight with her.” Pyrite 1 here is violent and inconsiderate.

Here’s another objection to GR (don’t worry about why it’s 3):

Objection 3: your flawed desires
If you have flawed desires about how you’re to be treated, GR can command bad actions.

Suppose you eat bad broccoli and catch the dreaded broccoli-itis disease, which makes you want everyone to hurt you. Pyrite 1 tells you: “If you want your friend to hurt you, then hurt her.” But you do want your friend (and everyone else) to hurt you; thus by Pyrite 1 you’re to hurt her (and everyone else). So Pyrite 1 can tell a person with flawed desires to do bad things.

Pyrite 1 assumes that our desires about how we’re to be treated are fine and guide us well on how to treat others. But our desires may be flawed. Maybe we have mental problems and want everyone to hurt us. Or maybe we have immoral desires and want Rob to help us to rob banks; then Pyrite 1 tells us to help him to rob banks. Or maybe we’re misinformed and want others to give us severe electrical shocks (which we think are pleasurable); then Pyrite 1 tells us to give others such shocks. Since our desires about how we’re to be treated may be flawed, they aren’t a reliable guide on how to treat others.

Since Pyrite 1 can tell us to do crazy things, it’s only fool’s gold. It also fails the Wattles[12] GR test for GR interpretations: “Would you want to be treated according to a rule construed in this way?”

Some who use GR in their lives are impatient with GR objections and say they know how to avoid the problems. They may be right. But still it’s important to study the objections, because (1) many reject GR on this basis; (2) GR should lead us to take seriously the views and objections of others; (3) a clear GR formula that avoids the objections may help others to use GR; and (4) without understanding the objections, we’ll never really understand GR.

Same-situation clause[edit]

GR urgently needs a same-situation clause.[13]

Here’s a fable about the literal GR. There once was a flood involving a monkey and a fish. The monkey climbed a tree to escape the rising flood waters. He looked down and saw a poor fish struggling against the current. Because he cared about the fish, he reached down and grabbed him from the water, lifting him to safety on a high branch. But the fish died after being taken from the water. The foolish monkey applied GR too literally; he wanted to be taken from the water himself, so he took the fish from the water.[14]

Now there was also a wise GR monkey, named Kita, who knew that fish can’t survive out of water. Kita saw a fish, imagined herself in its place, and asked “Am I now willing that if I were in the same situation as the fish, then I be taken from the water?” She answered, “Gosh no: this would kill me!” So Kita left the fish alone.

In applying GR, we need to know the other’s situation, which may differ from ours: the other may have different likes, dislikes, and needs. We need to imagine ourselves in the other’s situation. And we need to ask, “How do I desire that I be treated if I were in that situation?

The same-situation clause helps with the other cases:

  • I want Dr. Davis to remove my appendix. Should I thus remove hers? No, since I desire that if I were in her situation (with a healthy appendix) then my appendix not be removed by a patient ignorant of medicine.
  • I’m a broccoli-hating waiter, and Becky who likes broccoli orders it. Does GR prevent me from serving her broccoli? No, since I’m willing that if I were in her situation (loving the stuff) then I be served it.
  • I want people to chat with me in the morning, but my sister Carol hates this. Should I chat with her? No, since I desire that if I were in her situation (hating early chatting) then people not chat with me.
  • I’m a violent little boy who loves to have others fight with me. Should I fight with my peaceful little sister who hates fighting? No, since I desire that if I were in her situation (hating violence) then people not fight with me.

Adding a same-situation clause improves GR greatly.[15]

How should we go about reformulating GR? Should we just tinker with the wording until we get it right? It’s better to apply a deeper understanding. GR, Gensler contends, is a child of two parents: IMPARTIALITY and CONSCIENTIOUSNESS. GR inherits its same-situation clause from IMPARTIALITY.

Impartiality, as we use the term throughout the course, requires that we make similar evaluations about similar acts, regardless of the individuals involved.[16] If we’re impartial, then we’ll evaluate an act based on what it’s like – and not based on who plays what role in the situation; so we’ll apply the same standards to ourselves that we apply to others. I violate impartiality if I make conflicting evaluations about acts that I regard as exactly similar or relevantly similar.

Here’s a Good Samaritan example. Suppose that, while jogging, I see a man who’s been beaten, robbed, and left to die. Should I help him, perhaps by making a phone call? I think of excuses why I shouldn’t. I’m busy and don’t want to get involved. I say, “It would be all right for me not to help him.” But then I consider an exactly similar reversed situation, where our properties are switched.[17] I imagine myself in his exact place; so I’m the one who’s been beaten, robbed, and left to die. And I imagine him in my exact place; so he’s jogging and sees me in my sad state. I ask myself, “Would it be all right for this man not to help me in this reversed situation? Surely not!” But then I’m inconsistent. What’s all right for me to do to another must be all right for the other to do to me in an imagined exactly similar reversed situation.

In the actual world, no two acts are exactly similar. But I can always imagine an exactly similar act. If I’m about to do something to another, to test my impartiality I can imagine what it would be like for this to be done to me in an exactly similar situation. Impartiality forbids the combination on the left:

Impartiality forbids combining these:   GR forbids combining these:
• I believe: “It’s right for me to do A to another.”
• I believe: “It’s wrong for A to be done to me in the same situation.”
  • I do A to another.
• I’m unwilling that A be done to me in the same situation.

The left box is about impartiality: making similar evaluations about similar acts. The GR analogue, by contrast, forbids combining an act toward another with a desire about how I’d be treated in the same situation. Both are good principles. And both take “(exact) same situation” the same way; we are to imagine the two acts having all the same properties in common.

Don't cut someone off in traffic unless it's OK for you to be cut off.

This example uses an imagined second case. But we can use an actual second case, if there’s one handy. Suppose I cut X off in traffic and I think this is OK. Later, Y cuts me off and I think this is wrong. But I ask, “Why would cutting-someone-off be right for me to do but wrong for another to do?” Since I find no rationally defensible reason, I conclude that the two acts are relevantly similar. But then I violate impartiality, which forbids the combination on the left:

Impartiality forbids combining these:   GR forbids combining these:
• I believe: “It’s right for me to cut X off.”
• I believe: “It’s wrong for Y to cut me off.”
• I believe: “These two acts are relevantly similar.”
  • I cut X off.
• I’m unwilling that Y cut me off.
• I believe: “These two acts are relevantly similar.”

I violate impartiality, since my three beliefs don’t fit together. I must reject at least one belief. I could hold that both actions are wrong, or that both are right, or that one act was right, but not the other, because of such and such differences. So, while impartiality doesn’t say specifically what to believe, it guides me on how to work out my beliefs in a consistent way.

The GR analogue involves an act toward another and a desire about how I’d be treated in a similar situation. We can express this GR as “Don’t act to do A to another while you’re unwilling that A be done to you in a situation that you regard as relevantly similar.” Both boxes take “relevantly similar” the same way: two acts are relevantly similar if the reasons why one fits in a given moral category (good, bad, right, wrong, or whatever) also apply to the other.

In deciding whether two actions are relevantly similar, we appeal to antecedent moral beliefs about which factors give reasons for a given moral appraisal. Impartiality and GR push us to apply these reasons in the same way to our actions and to another’s actions. But since the appeal to relevantly similar cases can get slippery, it’s often cleaner to appeal to imagined exactly similar cases – and so this course will emphasize these more.

Thus we can apply impartiality and GR to imagined cases or to actual cases. Poetic justice occurs when you later have the same thing actually done to you. So the Good Samaritan may later be helped in a similar way.

Impartiality requires a same-situation clause. It doesn’t violate impartiality to say “It’s right for me to drive but wrong for my sister to drive” – since there may be important differences between the cases (maybe I’m sober but she isn’t). Impartiality needs a clause about the acts being relevantly or exactly similar. GR needs this too, which is why Pyrite 1 is pyrite.[18]

The GR question[edit]

We need to be careful about something else. GR is about my present desire about a hypothetical case. It isn’t about what I’d desire if I were in the hypothetical case. Ask the first question, not the second:

Am I now willing that if I were in the same situation then this be done to me?   If I were in the same situation, would I then be willing that this be done to me?

The difference is subtle. Let’s try to clarify it.

Use your adult judgement to decide how to protect children.

Suppose I have a two-year-old son Willy, who puts his fingers into electrical outlets. I try to discourage him from this, but nothing works. I see that I need to stop him when he does it. But can I stop him without violating GR? In deciding this, I should ask the first question, not the second:

Am I now willing that if I were in Willy’s place in the same situation then I be stopped?   If I were in Willy’s place in the reversed situation, would I then be willing to be stopped?
This has “willing that if.” It’s about my present adult desire about a hypothetical case.   This has “if” before “willing.” It’s about the desire I’d have as a small child.

With the first question, I imagine this case: I’m a two-year-old child who knows nothing about electricity; I want to put my fingers into electrical outlets and I want not to be stopped from doing this. As an adult, I say “I now desire that if I were in this situation then I be stopped from putting fingers into an outlet.” Thus I can stop Willy without breaking GR, since I’m willing that I would have been treated the same way in the same situation. I might even tell my parents: “Thanks for stopping me in this situation!”

On the other hand, if I were in Willy’s place, and thus judged things from a two-year-old mentality, then I’d desire not to be stopped. That’s what the crossed-out question is about. If we express GR using this, then I’d break GR if I stopped Willy. But this is absurd and leads to fried children. The GR question needs to deal with my present desire about a hypothetical case. I satisfy GR because I’m now willing that I would have been stopped in this situation.

Many people ask the GR same-situation question wrongly. The distinction is crucial when we deal with one who is less rational (e.g., drunk, senile, or in a coma). Suppose a friend at your party wants to drive home despite being drunk and confused. You tell her no; and you’re willing that if the situation were reversed (and you were drunk and confused) then you be told the same thing.

You might even say: “If I ever insist on driving home drunk, please stop me!” In applying GR here, ask the first question, not the second:

Am I now willing that if I were drunk in this situation then I be told that I can’t drive home?   If I were drunk in this situation, would I then be willing to be told that I can’t drive home?

With the second question, drunk and confused desires give the norm of how to treat your friend. To use GR correctly, say “I’m willing that if.” Ask this: “Am I now willing that if I were in the same situation then this be done to me?

Here’s another example. You’re a judge, about to sentence a dangerous criminal to jail. The criminal protests and appeals (incorrectly) to GR: “If you were in my place, you’d want not to be sent to jail; so by GR you can’t send me to jail.” You should respond: “I can send you to jail, because I’m now willing that if I were in your place (as a dangerous criminal) then I be sent to jail.” You could add, “If I do such things, then please send me to jail too!”[19]

Pyrite 2 goes with the bad crossed-out question and suffers from Objection 2:

Pyrite 2: a faulty same-situation GR   Objection 2: X’s flawed desires
Given that if you were in X’s exact place (in the reversed situation) then you’d want A done to you, then do A to X.   If X has flawed desires (about how he wants to be treated), GR can command bad actions.

Suppose X has flawed desires. For example, X is little Willy (who wants to be allowed to put his fingers into electrical outlets), or a drunk (who wants to be allowed to drive home), or a dangerous criminal (who wants to be set free so he can harm others). If you were in X’s exact place, then you’d have the same flawed desires. Then by Pyrite 2, you should act according to these desires (and let Willy put his fingers into electrical outlets, or let the drunk drive home, or let the criminal go free). But these actions are wrong. Sometimes we need to act against what others want. GR lets us do this, as long as we’re now willing that if we were in the same situation then we be treated similarly. We might say: “If I ever insist on driving home drunk, please stop me!”[20]

GR inherits its present desire about a hypothetical case question from its CONSCIENTIOUSNESS parent.

Conscientiousness, as the term is used in this course, requires that we keep our life (including actions, intentions, etc.) in harmony with our moral beliefs. When we are conscientious, we act consistently with what we believe. Suppose I believe that one ought never to kill a human being for any reason. If I’m conscientious, then I’ll never intentionally kill a human being, I’ll resolve not to kill for any reason (even to protect myself or my family), and I won’t want others to kill for any reason. Similar requirements cover beliefs about what is “all right” (“permissible”). If I’m conscientious, then I won’t do something without believing that it would be all right for me to do it. And I won’t believe that something is all right without consenting to the idea of it being done.

The conscientiousness norm says “Avoid inconsistencies between your moral beliefs and how you live.” It forbids inconsistent combinations like these:

• I believe I ought to do A.
• I don’t act to do A.
  • I believe act A is wrong.
• I act to do A.
  • I believe everyone ought to do A.
• I don’t act to do A.

Conscientiousness gives a consistency tool to criticize moral principles. Let’s call “All short people ought to be beat up, just because they’re short” shortism. Now shortism commits us to these two conditionals:

(1) If I were short, then I ought to be beat up.
(2) If I were short, then beat me up.

If I accept shortism, then, to be consistent, I must accept these. Accepting (1) is believing that if I were short then I ought to be beat up. Accepting (2) is desiring that if I were short then I be beat up; this is a present desire about a hypothetical case, like GR uses.

GR requires consistency[edit]

Pyrite 3 adds a present desire about a hypothetical case:[21]

Pyrite 3: an almost correct GR   Objection 3: your flawed desires
If you want it to be that if you were in X’s exact place (in the reversed situation) then A would be done to you, then do A to X.   If you have flawed desires about how you’re to be treated, GR can command bad actions.

Pyrite 3 still suffers from Objection 3. Suppose you’re a masochist and want everyone to hurt you. You desire that, if you were in Xavier’s place in the reversed situation, then you be hurt. Then Pyrite 3 tells you to hurt Xavier. Think of an evil action that you could do to another. Imagine that you’re so deranged that you desire that, if you were in the other’s place, then this action be done to you. Then Pyrite 3 would tell you to do this evil action.[22]

Gensler's solution is to rephrase GR so it forbids an inconsistent combination but doesn’t say specifically what to do:

• I do something to another.
• I’m unwilling that this be done to me in the same situation.
  Don't combine these.

This consistency GR won’t tell you to hurt Xavier (a specific action), even if you have flawed desires. A more complete solution would also say how to criticize flawed desires See the section on Applying GR wisely: Kita. But for now it’s enough to formulate GR so it won’t tell you to do bad things, even if you have bad desires. This prose version is Gensler’s central GR formula, with three key features:

Gold 1: Gensler’s GR
Treat others only as you consent to being treated in the same situation.
  • a same-situation clause,
  • a present desire about a hypothetical case, and
  • a consistency form that forbids an action–desire combination.

We need these features to avoid absurd implications and ensure that GR follows from impartiality and conscientiousness.

Two examples show how Gold 1 works with flawed desires. (1) There once was a woman named Electra who got her facts wrong. Electra thought severe electrical shocks were pleasant. So she shocked others and, yes, she was willing that she be shocked in their place. She followed GR but acted wrongly. While Electra satisfied GR consistency, she can be faulted for getting her facts wrong. Applying GR wisely requires more than just sitting down in ignorance and asking how we want to be treated. To lead reliably to right action, GR needs to build on knowledge and imagination. But even if we’re misinformed, GR doesn’t command specific wrong acts – because it doesn’t command specific acts. Instead, GR forbids inconsistent combinations.

(2) There once was a coal-mine owner named Rich. Rich was very rich but paid his workers only a miserly $1 a day. He was asked if he’d be willing to be paid only $1 a day in their place. He said yes, and so was consistent. But he said yes only because he thought (wrongly) that his workers could live tolerably on this much. If he knew how little $1 buys, he wouldn’t answer that way. Rich needed to get his facts straight; he might have tried going to the store to buy food for his family with only $1 in his pocket. Here Rich satisfied GR consistency but acted wrongly, because he was misinformed. GR consistency needs to combine with other elements, like knowledge and imagination.

Let’s consider three consistency examples, to see better how consistency principles work. Then we’ll get back to GR. Perhaps you sometimes meet people who say things like “All bearded people are crazy.” It can be fun to challenge their consistency. You might ask, “Did Jesus Christ and Abraham Lincoln have beards?” They say yes. Then ask, “Were they crazy?” They say no. Then say, “You contradicted yourself.” You can’t reasonably combine these three beliefs:

• I believe: “All bearded people are crazy.”
• I believe: “Jesus and Lincoln are bearded people.”
• I believe: “Jesus and Lincoln aren’t crazy.”
  Don't combine these.

If you hold all three, you must give up one. A consistency challenge doesn’t say exactly what to believe. It just says, “The things you accept don’t fit together – so you must change something.”

Or suppose that Donna wants to become a doctor. She realizes that, to do this, she needs to study hard and get good grades. But she doesn’t act accordingly. Donna violates this ends–means consistency imperative:

• I have the goal of becoming a doctor.
• I believe that achieving this goal requires that I study hard.
• I don’t study hard.
  Don't combine these.

Since her goals, beliefs, and actions don’t fit together, she must change something. Maybe her doctor-goal is unrealistic and should be rejected; or maybe she just needs to carry out the means. Consistency doesn’t say what to change.

Here’s a simple imperative about consistent willing:

• I resolve to eat nothing.
• I eat this granola bar.
  Don't combine these.

This forbids a combination but doesn’t say exactly what to do. If my medical exam requires that I not eat, then I should do the resolving and avoid the eating. If my resolving is an unhealthy way to diet, then maybe I should do the eating and avoid the resolving.

Gold 1, on the left, likewise forbids a combination but doesn’t say exactly what to do (and so doesn’t tell us to do bad actions if we have flawed desires):

Gold 1 forbids an inconsistent combination:   Deductive model of GR reasoning (the desire wording can vary):
• I do something to another.
• I’m unwilling that this be done to me in the same situation.
      If you have this desire about A being done to you, then do A to X.
    You have this desire about A being done to you.
∴ Do A to X.[23]

Gold 1 has a consistency model of GR reasoning. If we violate GR consistency, it needn’t be that our action is wrong. It could be that our action is right and we should be willing that this thing be done to us in the same situation.

Pyrite 1–3 use a deductive model, on the right. This can prescribe bad actions if we have flawed desires. Flawed desires might, for example, be immoral (like wanting others to cooperate with you in doing evil), come from an unhealthy psychological condition (like wanting everyone to hurt you), or come from wrong information (like thinking that severe electrical shocks are pleasurable). And this model can lead to contradictions in multi-party cases, where you desire conflicting things depending on which place you consider yourself in (§14.3e). We fix these problems if we see GR as a consistency norm that forbids a combination but doesn’t prescribe or forbid specific actions.[24]

So how is Gold 1 derivable from IMPARTIALITY and CONSCIENTIOUSNESS? Suppose you want to steal Detra’s bicycle. And suppose you’re impartial (make similar evaluations about similar acts) and conscientious (have your moral beliefs and how you live in harmony). Then you won’t steal her bicycle unless you’re also willing that your bicycle be stolen in the same situation. Here’s a chart showing the steps involved:

You steal Detra’s bicycle conscientious → You believe it would be all right for you to steal her bicycle
    ↓impartial↓
You’re willing that your bicycle be stolen in the same situation ← conscientious You believe it would be all right for your bicycle to be stolen in the same situation

Here’s a less graphical version. If we’re impartial and conscientious, then:

We won’t do A to X unless we believe that our doing A to X would be all right.
We won’t believe that our doing A to X would be all right unless we believe that it would be all right for A to be done to us in the same situation.
We won’t believe that it would be all right for A to be done to us in the same situation unless we’re willing that A be done to us in the same situation.
∴ We won’t do A to X unless we’re willing that A be done to us in the same situation.

So if we’re impartial and conscientious, then we’ll follow GR: we won’t do A to X unless we’re willing that A be done to us in the same situation. If we assume that we ought to be impartial and conscientious, then it follows that we ought to follow GR. So GR is a theorem, provable from the impartiality and conscientiousness requirements.

As a consistency norm, GR isn’t a direct criterion of right and wrong, and isn’t a rival to moral norms like “We ought not to steal.” GR works at a different level. GR is more like “Don’t contradict yourself” or “Don’t accept a premise without accepting what logically follows from it.” GR’s role isn’t to replace other ethical theories but to supplement them – by giving a consistency tool that’s often useful. Most ethical theories recognize the role of consistency and so should be able to accept GR on this basis.

Gold, not garbage[edit]

So is GR gold or garbage? As opposed to what many academics think, we can explain GR in a clear way that avoids the absurdities:[25]

Gold 1: Gensler’s GR
Treat others only as you consent to being treated in the same situation.

Understood correctly, GR is pure gold; we’ll appreciate this more as we move through this course. GR is gold (valuable) because it captures so much of the spirit behind morality. It counters self-centeredness and helps us to see the point of moral rules. It’s psychologically sound and personally motivating, engages our reasoning instead of imposing answers from the outside. It promotes cooperation and mutual understanding. It criticizes culturally taught racist or sexist moral intuitions. It concretely applies ideals like fairness and concern. And the core idea is a global wisdom, common to most religions and cultures. So GR makes a good one-sentence summary of morality.

GR also can be gold if we live and apply it wisely, even if we word it poorly. Many people live GR more subtlety than how they say it.[26]

Applying GR wisely: Kita[edit]

Kita (Know-Imagine-Test-Act) gives four main elements for using GR wisely:[27]

K. Know: “How would my action affect others?”
I. Imagine: “What would it be like to have this done to me in the same situation?”
T. Test for consistency: “Am I now willing that if I were in the same situation then this be done to me?”
A. Act toward others only as you’re willing to be treated in the same situation.

Suppose that Rich, who pays his workers a miserly $1 a day (See the section on GR requires consistency), decides to run his coal mine by the golden rule. How could he apply GR wisely?

(K) Rich would gain knowledge. He’d ask, “How are my company policies affecting others – workers, neighbors, customers, and so on? What problems do my policies create for people?” To know such things, Rich would need to spend time talking with workers and others.

As we form our moral beliefs, we need to be informed. As far as reasonably possible, we need to know circumstances, alternatives, and consequences. To the extent that we’re misinformed or ignorant, our thinking is flawed. We also need to know alternative moral views and arguments for or against them; our thinking is less rational if we’re unaware of opposing views. We also need self-knowledge. We can to some degree neutralize our biases by understanding how they originated. For example, some are hostile toward a group because they were brought up this way; their attitudes might change if they understood their hostility’s source and broadened their experience.

We can never know all the facts. And we often must act quickly and can’t take time to research a problem. But we can act out of greater or lesser knowledge. Other things equal, a more informed judgment is a more rational one.

(I) Rich would apply imagination. He’d ask, “What would it be like to be in the place of those affected by my company’s policies?” He’d imagine himself as a worker (laboring under bad conditions for a poor salary), or a neighbor (with black smoke coming into his house). Or he’d imagine his children being brought up under the same conditions as his workers’ children.

As we form moral beliefs, we need to exercise imagination. As far as reasonably possible, we need to be vividly and accurately aware of what it would be like to be in the place of those affected by our actions. This differs from just knowing facts. So besides knowing facts about poor people, we also need to appreciate and envision what these facts mean to their lives. Movies, literature, and personal experience can help us visualize another’s life.

Imagining another’s place is a common human experience[28]. A child pretends to be a mother or a soldier. A chess player asks, “If I were in my opponent’s place, how would I respond to this move?” A writer dialogues with an imagined reader who misunderstands and raises objections. A teacher asks, “How would I respond to this assignment if I were a student?” Imagining another’s place is especially important for applying GR.

Our imagination can be more or less accurate. The mine owner will never perfectly understand what it’s like to be in the place of his workers and their families. But, with effort, he can grow in this area and become better at it. The fact that we’ll never do something (like moral decision making) perfectly doesn’t excuse us from trying to do it as well as we reasonably can.

Theists can see this Kita procedure as an attempt to imitate God’s wisdom. Only God can know perfectly how an action affects another and understand perfectly what it would be like to be in another’s place. We struggle in these areas, knowing that our wisdom will always be incomplete. Kita reflects our attempt to know what a perfectly knowing and loving God would want.

(T) Rich would test his consistency using the GR question: “Am I now willing that if I were in the same situation (as that of my workers, neighbors, or customers) then these company actions be done to me?” If the answer is no, then his actions toward others clash with his desire about how he’d be treated in a similar situation – and so he must change something.

If Rich changes company policies, he’ll need creativity to find alternatives. He might listen to ideas from others, after first helping them to feel free to share ideas. He might learn what other companies and cultures do. He might imagine what policies make sense from a worker’s perspective, explain current policies to a child, write an essay listing options, take a long walk, or pray about it. Any acceptable policy must satisfy GR; he must be able to approve of it regardless of where he imagines himself in the situation: as owner, worker, neighbor, or customer. The final solution, while maybe not satisfying everyone fully, needs to be at least minimally acceptable from everyone’s perspective.

(A) Rich would act on GR: he’d act toward others only as he’s willing to be treated in the same situation. Yes, it’s a simple formula. But it may require difficult preparatory work on knowledge, imagination, and creativity.


Flawed desires (about how we’d be treated in a similar situation) can stall GR. And so sometimes we need to make our desires more rational. Many think desires can’t be appraised as rational or irrational. Richard Brandt[29] rightly disagrees. He proposes that a rational desire is one that would survive cognitive therapy: a maximal criticism in terms of logic and vivid exposure to facts.

Suppose you hate the very idea of eating yogurt. Maybe you never tried it; but you were falsely taught that it has bad germs, tastes awful, and is eaten only by weird people. Then your aversion would likely diminish if you understood its origin, learned more about yogurt, and actually tried it.

Or suppose you dislike Xs because your family hated Xs, called them names, taught false stereotypes about them, and had you meet only a few atypically nasty Xs. Your aversion to Xs would likely diminish if you understood its origin and broadened your experience and knowledge. Such cognitive therapy can be useful to help us conquer prejudices and apply GR more wisely. We’ll appeal to it later, in discussing racism and masochism (§§8.2 & 14.3g).

Gensler’s favorite historical GR example is a civil rights speech by President John Kennedy (1963) during the first black enrollment at the University of Alabama. His speech exemplifies Kita: Know-Imagine-Test-Act. Here’s part of it:

Would you consent to being excluded from attending the state university system?

If an American, because his skin is dark, cannot eat lunch in a restaurant open to the public, if he cannot send his children to the best public school available, if he cannot vote for the public officials who represent him, if, in short, he cannot enjoy the full and free life which all of us want, then who among us would be content to have the color of his skin changed and stand in his place? Who among us would then be content with the counsels of patience and delay? … The heart of the question is whether all Americans are to be afforded equal rights and equal opportunities, whether we are going to treat our fellow Americans as we want to be treated.[30]

Kennedy also stressed the inconsistency between American ideals (“All men are created equal”) and practice (black soldiers are denied basic rights but fight and die for freedom). His Civil Rights Act passed in 1964, after his death.

Further GRs and relatives[edit]

Many GR formulas (not just Gold 1) are good principles and derivable from IMPARTIALITY and CONSCIENTIOUSNESS.[31] The golden rule is a family of related formulas. No one formula exhausts GR.

The section above on the Same-situation clause gave a GR variation about relevantly similar actual cases. This variation gives a duty instead of an imperative:

Gold 2: a duty GR
You ought to treat others only as you consent to being treated in the same situation.

This one deals with desires instead of actions:

Gold 3: a GR about desires
Don’t combine desiring something to be done to another with being unwilling that this be done to you in the same situation.

.

These give consistency conditions for using moral terms:

Gold 4: a GR about consistently using “all right”
Don’t believe that it would be all right for you to do A to X unless you’re willing that A be done to you in the same situation.


Gold 5: a GR about consistently using “ought”
Don’t believe that you ought to do A to X unless you want A to be done to you in the same situation.

Or we could imagine someone else we care about (for example, our daughter) on the action’s receiving end.[32] Since these and other variations can combine, there are at least 6,460 correct GRs[33][34]. So “the” golden rule is a family of principles rather than a single principle.

Related principles can help us recognize duties to ourselves. Suppose you have so much concern for your children that you never think of your own needs; you’re inconsistent if you aren’t willing that your children live that way when they grow up. Or you go through college putting little effort into it; you’re inconsistent if you don’t consent to the idea of a daughter of yours doing this. Or, because you lack courage and a sense of self-worth, you refuse to seek treatment for a drug habit that’s ruining your life; you’re inconsistent if you aren’t willing that your younger brother do this in a similar situation. The self-regard principle says: “Treat yourself only as you’re willing to have others (especially those you most care about) treat themselves in the same situation.”

Many people have too little concern for themselves. Various factors (like laziness, fear, habit, and lack of self-appreciation or discipline) can drive us into actions that benefit neither ourselves nor others; consider how we hurt ourselves by overeating, selfishness, laziness, or overwork. Our consistency norms recognize the importance of concern both for others and for ourselves.

Consider the well-being of your future-self when deciding how much to drink.

GR and self-regard switch persons. We also can switch times and imagine that we now experience future consequences. Future-regard says: “Treat your-future-self only as you’re willing to have been treated by your-past-self in the same situation.” More crudely: “Don’t do what you’ll later regret.” For example, maybe you cause yourself a future hangover by drinking; but, when you imagine yourself experiencing the hangover now, you don’t consent to the idea of your having treated yourself this way. Or you cause yourself a future jail sentence by stealing; but when you picture yourself suffering these consequences now because of your past actions, you don’t consent to these actions. In both cases, you’re inconsistent and violate future-regard.

This carbon rule switches both persons and times: “Keep the earth livable for future generations, as we want past generations to have done for us.”

How does GR apply to actions that affect several parties? Suppose I own a store and need to hire just one worker. Alice and Betty apply, and I must choose between them. Here I must satisfy GR toward each party. So if I pick Alice (who’s more qualified) instead of Betty, then I must be willing that I not be picked if I were in Betty’s situation. Combining two Gold 1s, we get:

Gold 6: a Three-party GR
Don’t act in a given way toward X and Y without Being willing that this act be done when you imagine Yourself in X’s place and being willing that this act Be done when you imagine yourself in Y’s place

The generalized GR goes further:

Gold 7: a generalized GR
Act only as you’re willing for anyone to act in the same situation, regardless of where or when you imagine yourself or others.

This includes GR (you’re in the place of someone affected by your action), self-regard (someone you care about is in your place), and future-regard (you’re at a future time experiencing your action’s consequences).

Reasonable moral beliefs need to be consistent, informed, imaginative, and maybe more things. Consistency requires GR, impartiality, conscientiousness, logical consistency in beliefs, ends–means consistency, self-regard, and future-regard. Consistency forbids combinations (of beliefs, actions, resolutions, or whatever) instead of saying exactly what to believe or do. Consistency norms specify a broader norm: “Be consistent in thought and action.”

GR fallacies[edit]

At least six fallacies can corrode golden-rule thinking.[35][36]

(1) The literal GR fallacy assumes that everyone has the same likes, dislikes, and needs that we have. So we treat others in their situation exactly how we want them to treat us in our situation. But on the contrary, we often need to grasp another’s uniqueness, imagine being in their shoes (which includes their likes and dislikes), and ask: “Am I now willing that if I were in the same situation then this be done to me?” Many problems come from neglecting the same-situation clause. (Literal GR Fallacy, Literal GR & 14.1–2)

(2) The soft GR fallacy assumes that we should never act against what others want. So we always yield to the desires of others. But on the contrary, we sometimes need to stop a two-year-old who wants to put fingers into electrical outlets, refuse a salesperson who wants to sell us overpriced products, fail a student who doesn’t work, forcibly defend ourselves against an attacker, and jail a dangerous criminal. And yes, we’re now willing that if we were in their situation then we be treated that way too. (Soft GR Fallacy, & The GR question)

(3) The doormat GR fallacy assumes that we should ignore our own interests. So we let others take advantage of us. But on the contrary, we need to consider everyone’s interests, including our own. GR lets us say no to others, as long as we’re willing that others say no to us in similar circumstances. GR tries to harmonize self-love and other-love, without destroying either; it builds on self-love and extends this to others. (See Doormat GR Fallacy, Further GRs and relatives & 14.3g)

(4) The third-parties GR fallacy assumes that we should consider only ourselves and the other person. But on the contrary, we also need to consider third parties. So a judge should consider that freeing a dangerous criminal may bring harm to future victims. We need to satisfy GR toward everyone affected by our action – acting only in ways that we find acceptable, regardless of where or when we imagine ourselves or others in the situation. (See Third Parties GR Fallacy & Further GRs and relatives )

(5) The easy GR fallacy assumes that GR gives an infallible test of right and wrong that takes only seconds to apply. We just ask ourselves how we desire that we be treated in the same situation. Sorry, life is more complicated than that. To lead reliably to right action, GR consistency needs to build on things like knowledge, imagination, creativity, rationalized desires, and a healthy self-love; these can take much time and effort. (See Easy GR Fallacy & Applying GR wisely: Kita)

(6) The too-simple-or-too-complex GR fallacy assumes that GR is either so simple that our kindergarten GR is enough for adult decisions or so complex that only a philosopher can understand it. But on the contrary, GR is scalable (which is computer talk for “expandable”). You can teach GR to little children (“Don’t hit your little sister – you don’t want us to hit you, do you?”), but adults can use it in complex decisions (like how to run a coal mine in a way that respects everyone’s rights and interests).

Robert Fulghum[37] wrote an essay called “All I really need to know I learned in kindergarten.” Here’s an excerpt (Gensler’s italics):

Share everything. Play fair. Don’t hit people. Put things back where you found them. Clean up your own mess…. The golden rule and love and basic sanitation…. Take any of those items and extrapolate it into sophisticated adult terms and apply it to your family life or your work or your government or your world and it holds true and clear and firm.

In kindergarten, you learned many things, including 2+2=4 and the literal GR. What you learned is a great beginning. But you must extrapolate the math further into sophisticated adult terms to do the company budget, and you must develop GR further to apply it to complex adult problems, like how to run a company in a way that respects everyone’s rights and interests. Your kindergarten GR has major flaws if you import it unchanged into the adult world:

  • Any smart philosopher can demolish your GR in thirty seconds.
  • Your GR thinking may be of low level and suffer from fallacies.
  • You may get so confused and frustrated applying your GR to adult problems that you reject it as unworkable and unrealistic.
  • Your world will be deprived of benefits that mature GR thinking can bring.

Our GR needs to grow as we mature, or else we may trash it as a “silly kindergarten saying that doesn’t apply to the complex problems of the real world.”

Religions and philosophies[edit]

So far, the course has presented how to phrase GR to avoid absurdities and how to apply it wisely. The course has not yet addressed about why we should follow GR and what larger worldviews can explain GR. We need these, and they will be addressed later in the course.

GR can be part of diverse frameworks. When a Buddhist talks about GR, you may hear about karma, peace of mind, reincarnation, the no-self view, and nirvana. From a Christian, you may hear about God as Love and Father, how we’re brothers and sisters of one family, Christ’s example, and how gratitude to God impels us to love our neighbor.

At a meeting on GR in world religions[38], a speaker used an airplane example: if you’re assigned a seat that splits a family, you might use GR to conclude that you should offer to switch seats, so the family can sit together. After that, others were inspired to use airplane examples. Gensler’s was this. Motivated by GR, I offer to switch my seat to let a family sit together. A Buddhist does the same thing. And suppose we both formulate GR the same way. Then is our GR thinking the same? Not necessarily. If we push it further, there may be differences: the Buddhist may talk about karma and reincarnation, while Gensler talks about Christian things. Suppose the plane has many people of diverse religions and philosophies who, motivated by GR, offer to switch their seats. Is their GR thinking the same? The formula and Kita procedure may be the same, while GR’s context may be very different.

Just as GR is part of diverse religions, so too it can be part of diverse philosophies. What do you think ethics is based on? Self-evident principles? Then you can see GR (or the consistency axioms from which it follows) as self-evident. A rational procedure? GR uses facts, imagination, and consistency. God’s will? Almost every religion teaches GR. Cultural conventions? Almost every society endorses GR. A social contract for mutual advantages? GR promotes cooperation and helps resolve conflicts. Social usefulness? GR has this. Personal feelings? Many have feelings that support GR. Self-interest? Many find that living GR brings self-respect and better treatment from others, and helps us avoid painful inconsistency and self-condemnation. It’s important that GR can be part of diverse frameworks. We live in an increasingly diverse world. How can we get along, when people have such different ways of looking at things, reflecting different religions, philosophies, and cultures? GR offers a global moral framework that diverse groups can share, but for different reasons. GR is a point of unity in a diverse world.

Technical appendix (This difficult material is optional)[edit]

Gold 1 rests on the idea that we ought to be consistent in thought and action. This section mentions related technical points. If you’re overloaded, skip this section. Or if you want more than what’s here, see Gensler 1996[39] (more philosophical) or Gensler 2010[40] (more logical).

We begin with three points about consistency. (1) Our duty to be consistent is subject to certain implicit qualifications (Gensler 1996: 19–23), since there may be cases when we’re unable to be consistent in certain ways (perhaps because of emotional turmoil or the inability to grasp complex logical relationships) or cases when being inconsistent in a minor way will have very bad consequences (maybe migraine headaches or Dr. Evil destroying the world). In practice, these qualifications aren’t very important.

(2) This section of the course leaves open why we ought to be consistent. While most thinkers accept a consistency duty, they justify it differently – for example, as a self-evident truth, a social convention, or a pragmatic norm to avoid confusion.

(3) When we call impartiality and conscientiousness “consistency norms,” we mean that they forbid certain combinations that are somehow objectionable – whether logically (based on the meaning and logical implications of words), ethically, religiously, or pragmatically. This section leaves this open too, since various thinkers may understand these matters differently (ch. 12–13).

Recall our explanation of conscientiousness (See The GR question):

Conscientiousness, as we use the term, requires that we keep our life (including actions, intentions, etc.) in harmony with our moral beliefs. Suppose I believe that one ought never to kill a human being for any reason. If I’m conscientious, then I’ll never intentionally kill a human being, I’ll resolve not to kill for any reason (even to protect myself or my family), and I won’t want others to kill for any reason. Similar requirements cover beliefs about what is “all right” (“permissible”). If I’m conscientious, then I won’t do something without believing that it would be all right for me to do it. And I won’t believe that something is all right without consenting to the idea of it being done.

This explanation requires that key terms be taken in certain ways.

“Believing that I ought now to do A commits me to acting now to do A.” Here “ought” must be used in an evaluative, all-things-considered sense. When I say “I ought to wear a tie at work,” I may be just describing company policy instead of giving my own evaluation; if so, my statement doesn’t commit me to acting accordingly. And a prima facie duty (a duty that may be overridden by other duties) doesn’t commit me to action. Suppose I say: “Insofar as I promised to take you to the movies, I ought to do this (prima facie duty); but insofar as my wife needs me to drive her to the hospital, I ought to do this instead (prima facie duty). Since my duty to my wife is more urgent, my all-things-considered duty is to drive my wife to the hospital.” Here the prima facie duties don’t commit me to action, but the all-things-considered duty does. The action I’m committed to is intentional action (acting with the intention of doing the thing).

“Believing that A ought to be done commits me to wanting A to be done.” Here “want” (or “desire,” which we use equivalently) must be used in a volitional, all-things-considered sense. Suppose that, while I hate going to the dentist, I make an appointment to go. Do I want to go to the dentist? I don’t want it in an emotional sense (I don’t feel like going), but I do want it in a volitional sense (my will directs me to go). Our consistency norms require the volitional sense. Or suppose I have some desire (a prima facie desire) not to do A, even though my all-things-considered desire is to do A. Our consistency norms require that the all-things-considered desire go with the all-things-considered ought.

“All right” (or “permissible”) in our consistency norms is also to be taken in an evaluative, all-things-considered sense.

“Believing that act A is all right (permissible) commits me to consenting to act A being done.” Now what does this “consenting” (or “willingness” that the action be done, which I use equivalently) involve? I see it as a kind of legislating in our minds about which actions we permit (allow, consent to, are willing to have done). Such permitting has these features:

  • For any specific act A that I’ve made up my mind about, I might permit doing A, or permit omitting A, or permit both.
  • If I do A or want A to be done, then I must in consistency permit A.
  • If I both permit doing A and permit omitting A, then I can consistently decide either way about what to do or want.
  • Permitting is volitional and all-things-considered. I may permit act A in an all-things-considered way, even though I object to some aspects of A.
  • Instead of permit, consent, or be willing, we can say approve, allow, agree to, condone, or tolerate – in some senses of these terms. The opposite is to inwardly condemn, object to, disapprove, forbid, protest, prohibit, or repudiate.

Recall our bicycle example. Stealing Detra’s bicycle (intentional action) commits you to believing that this act is all right (in an evaluative, all-things-considered way), which commits you to believing that the reversed-situation act is all right (in this same way), which commits you to be willing (in a volitional, all-things-considered way) that this reversed-situation act be done.[41]

Gensler sometimes speaks of GR as calling for a harmony between my act (toward another) and my desire about how I’d be treated in a similar situation. Here “desire” is used in a broad sense to cover consenting (as just described) as well as desiring in a narrow sense (as described a few paragraphs back).

This consistency theory’s more rigorous form uses three axioms, the first two adapted from R.M. Hare (§13.1). Axiom 1 is universalizability, which says that whatever is permissible (obligatory, wrong, etc.) in one case would also be permissible (obligatory, wrong, etc.) in any exactly or relevantly similar case, regardless of the individuals involved.[42] Axiom 2 is prescriptivity, which links judgments about what is obligatory/permissible to imperatives (“Do this”) and permissives (“You may do this”). Axiom 3 is rationality, which says that we ought to think and live consistently with logic plus universalizability and prescriptivity. Here we take universalizability and rationality to be self-evident truths and prescriptivity to express a self-evident logical entailment; but other views are possible (ch. 12–13).

This is a rough outline. For details, see Gensler 1996 & 2010: 290–335. The latter puts the consistency theory into symbolic logic, as a formal system. Gold 1 in symbols is “~(u:Aux • ~u:(ƎF)(F* Aux • ▉ (FAxu ⊃ MAxu)))” and its 35-step proof is a thing of great beauty.

Assignment[edit]

Please select answers to each of the following questions: Press the "Submit" button after you have made your selections.

1

GR tells us to put ourselves in the place of the other person. But this is logically impossible, since if I were the other person then I wouldn't be me.

True.
False.

2

The golden rule is an invention of modern western culture.

True
False.

3

The literal form of the golden rule says: "If you want X to do A to you, then do A to X." To this one might object that then

if you were a little boy who loved to fight and who wanted your sister to fight with you, then you'd have to fight with her.
if you were a parent who wanted your child to refrain from punishing you, then you'd have to refrain from punishing your child.
both of the above.

4

Ima Robber has a friend X who asks for help in robbing Y. Ima desires that if he were in the place of (fellow robber) X then he be helped to rob Y. But Ima also desires that if he were in the place of (victim) Y then people not collaborate to rob him. What does GR tell Ima to do?

Ima is to help X to rob Y.
Ima is to refrain from helping X to rob Y.
Both are implied by GR
Neither is implied by GR.

5

Correct variations on the golden rule require that we treat others only in ways that we're willing to be treated.

in an imagined relevantly similar situation.
in actual situations that we regard as relevantly similar.
in an imagined exactly similar situation.
all of the above.


Please continue. Select answers to each of the following questions: Press the "Submit" button after you have made your selections.

1

The literal form of the golden rule says: "If you want X to do A to you, then do A to X." This literal GR

is a basic first principle of formal ethics.
is a clear principle with sensible consequences
both of the above.
none of the above.

2

Correct variations on the golden rule require that we treat others only in ways that we're willing in like circumstances

to have our son or daughter treated.
to be treated ourselves.
both of the above.

3

The golden rule gives

a sufficient condition for permissible action.
a necessary condition for permissible action.
neither.

4

The duty to follow the golden rule holds without exception.

True
False

5

Suppose that I want to steal Pat's computer. To apply the golden rule, I'd imagine myself in Pat's exact place. I'd ask myself, "Do I consent to the idea of someone stealing my computer in such a case?" If the answer is NO, then it follows that I ought not to steal Pat's computer.

True
False


Please continue. Select answers to each of the following questions: Press the "Submit" button after you have made your selections.

1

Suppose that you want to discipline your child. GR would have you ask:

"If I were in my child's exact place, would I then (as a child) consent to being disciplined?"
"Do I now (as an adult) consent to the idea that if I were in my child's exact place then I'd be disciplined?"
Both questions mean the same thing.

2

While we've formulated the golden rule as an imperative or an ought judgment, we could also formulate it in terms of

the virtue of fairness (which involves treating others only in ways that you're willing to be treated in the same situation).
hypothetical imperatives involving consistency ("If you want to be conscientious and impartial, then you ought to follow GR").
a description of what certain ideals involve ("If you're conscientious and impartial then you'll follow GR").
any of the above.

3

Ima Masochist desires that if she were in the place of X (a nonmasochist) then she be tortured.

GR entails that Ima ought to torture X.
Ima could torture X and yet satisfy GR.

4

The golden rule applies to how we act toward

other sentient beings.
other human beings
other members of our tribe or social group.

5

The literal golden rule says: "If you want X to do A to you, then do A to X." A good objection to this is that it implies

"To a patient: if you want the doctor to remove your appendix, then remove the doctor's appendix."
"To a masochist: if you want X to torture you, then torture X."
both are good objections.
neither is a good objection.


Please continue. Select answers to each of the following questions: Press the "Submit" button after you have made your selections.

1

The practical value of the golden rule is that

it concretely applies ideals like fairness, concern, and impartiality.
it doesn't assume any specific theoretical approach to ethics.
it motivates us.
it counteracts our limited sympathies.
it engages our reasoning, instead of imposing an answer.
it helps us to see the point behind specific moral rules.
all of the above.

2

Suppose that you're thinking about robbing a person who is asleep. GR would have you ask:

"Do I now (while awake) desire that if I were in this sleeping person's exact place then I be robbed?"
"If I were in this sleeping person's exact place, would I then (while asleep) desire to be robbed?"
Both questions mean the same thing.

3

One could satisfy GR and still act wrongly.

True
False

4

Suppose that you act to do A to another but are unwilling to have A done to you in the same situation; you violate GR and your action-desire combination is inconsistent. Which should you change -- your action or your desire?

You should change the action. Since you are unwilling to have A done to you, you shouldn't do A to another.
You should change your desire. Since you act to do A to another, you should consent to the idea of A being done to you.
Either may be defective.

5

Correct formulations of the golden rule involve

a don't-combine form.
a present attitude to a hypothetical situation.
a similar situation qualifier.
all of the above.

Please continue. Select answers to each of the following questions: Press the "Submit" button after you have made your selections.

1

In applying the golden rule to someone who is confused, senile, or in a coma, we should ask

what we now desire be done to us in a hypothetical or future case in which we picture ourselves as confused, senile, or in a coma.
what we'd desire if we were confused, senile, or in a coma.

2

The golden rule tells you to treat others

as they'd treat you if the situation were reversed.
as they wish to be treated.
as they treat you.
as they wish to treat you.
as they in turn treat others.
as you want to be treated.

3

The golden rule presumes religious beliefs -- especially the belief in a loving God who is the Creator and Father of us all.

True
False

4

It's difficult to satisfy the golden rule.

True
False

5

The defenders of the golden rule include

Confucius
Buddha
Jesus Christ
Rabbi Hillel
Baha'i, Hinduism, Islam, Jainism, Mormonism, Sikhism, Taoism, Urantianism, and Zoroastrianism
All of the above


Please continue. Select answers to each of the following questions: Press the "Submit" button after you have made your selections.

1

The three-party version of GR says "Don't act in a given way toward X and Y without consenting to the idea of this act being done when you imagine yourself in the place of X and also consenting to the idea of this act being done when you imagine yourself in the place of Y."

True
False

2

The positive GR says "If you want X to do A to you, then do A to X" -- while the negative GR says "If you want X not to do A to you, then don't do A to X." How do the two compare?

The positive form tells us to do good to others, while the negative form just tells us not to harm others.
The two forms are logically and historically equivalent.

3

About how many correctly formulated variations on the golden rule are there?

Two.
Ten
One hundred.
Over a thousand.

4

"If you don't consent to the idea of someone doing A to you in the reversed situation, then you ought not to do A to another"

is a GR theorem.
is a nontheorem.


Please continue. Select answers to each of the following questions: Press the "Submit" button after you have made your selections.

1

"Suppose that you're a parent who has so much concern for your children that you never think of your own needs. But you think that it would be wrong for your children to live in a similar way when they grow up. Are you consistent?"

Yes -- since you follow the golden rule toward your children.
No -- since you are acting in a way that you think it would be wrong for others to act in similar circumstances.

2

"President Kennedy appealed to the golden rule in arguing that "

Americans should vote for him instead of for Nixon.
racial segregation was wrong.
cutting taxes would promote the economy.
the Russians ought to withdraw their missiles from Cuba.

3

"The golden rule applies to our actions toward "

other members of our tribe or social group.
other human beings.
other sentient beings.

4

"The literal golden rule (LR) says: "If you want X to do something to you, then do this same thing to X." To this one might object that LR tells "

a patient: If you want the doctor to remove your appendix, then remove the doctor's appendix.
a violent little boy who loves to fight: If you want your sister to fight with you, then fight with her.
a masochist who wants to be tortured: If you want Jones to torture you, then torture Jones.
All of the above are objections.

5

"We follow GR because it accords with our feelings "

cultural-relativist justification
subjectivist justification
self-interest justification
supernatualist justification
intuitionist justification


Please continue. Select answers to each of the following questions: Press the "Submit" button after you have made your selections.

1

"GR is a self-evident truth "

cultural-relativist justification
intuitionist justification
self-interest justification
supernatualist justification
subjectivist justification

2

"We follow GR because it's God's law "

cultural-relativist justification
supernatualist justification
self-interest justification
intuitionist justification
subjectivist justification

3

"What is the best match? We follow GR because then people will treat us better, we'll avoid social penalties, and we'll feel better about ourselves "

cultural-relativist justification
self-interest justification
supernatualist justification
intuitionist justification
subjectivist justification

4

"What is the best match? We follow GR because because society demands this "

self-interest justification
cultural-relativist justification
supernatualist justification
intuitionist justification

5

"What is your answer? Suppose that you explain the golden rule to your child, and then ask, 'If someone hits you, what would the golden rule say to do?' Your child answers, 'Hit him back. Treat others as they treat you.'Does your child have a correct understanding of the golden rule? "

Yes -- and he'd probably get 100% on these exercises!
No -- he needs to read Gensler's ethics book!


Please continue. Select answers to each of the following questions: Press the "Submit" button after you have made your selections.

1

"Defenders of the golden rule include "

Jesus Christ
Rabbi Hillel
Confucius
Baha'i, Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, and Taoism
all of the above

2

"The literal golden rule says: 'If you want X to do something to you, then do this same thing to X.' This literal GR "

is a clear principle with sensible consequences
is a basic first principle of ethics.
both of the above.
none of the above.

3

"'Love your neighbor' and our golden rule "

are complementary.
sometimes conflict.
are equivalent in meaning.

4

The literal golden rule tells Ima Masochist, who wants X to torture him, to torture X. The book deals with the masochist problem by

seeing GR as only forbidding inconsistent action-desire combinations.
including some method to criticize irrational desires.
having Ima ask whether he's willing that he be tortured if he were in the exact place of X (who presumably is a nonmasochist).
all of the above.

5

I do something to another. To test whether I satisfy our GR, I should ask:

"If I were in the same situation, would I then be willing that this be done to me?"
"Am I now willing that this be done to me (in my present situation)?"
"Am I now willing that if I were in the same situation then this be done to me?"
All of these mean the same thing.


Please continue. Select answers to each of the following questions: Press the "Submit" button after you have made your selections.

1

The golden rule theorem says:

Don't combine these two: (a) I do something to another, and (b) I'm unwilling that this be done to me in the same situation.
Treat others only as you consent to being treated in the same situation.
both of the above
neither of the above

2

Suppose that your present drinking will cause yourself a future hangover. When you imagine yourself experiencing the hangover now, you don't consent to the idea of your having treated yourself that way. Are you consistent?

Yes -- since you aren't violating the golden rule toward others.
No -- since you are treating yourselves (in the future) as you aren't willing to have been treated by yourselves (in the past).

3

Correct formulations of the golden rule involve

a don't-combine form.
a present attitude toward a hypothetical situation.
a same-situation clause.
all of the above.

4

Suppose that you want to punish your child. Our GR would have you ask:

"Am I now willing that if I were in my child's place then I'd be punished?"
"If I were in my child's place, would I then be willing to be punished?"
Both questions mean the same thing.

5

The golden rule, understood properly, is

a description of human behavior.
an infallible guide to what is right or wrong.
a consistency principle.
all of the above.


Please continue. Select answers to each of the following questions: Press the "Submit" button after you have made your selections.

1

In applying GR to someone who is senile, we should ask:

"If I were senile, would I then be willing to be treated in such and such ways?"
"Am I now willing that if I were senile then I'd be treated in such and such ways?"
Both questions mean the same thing.

2

The practical value of the golden rule is that

it counteracts self-centeredness.
it concretely applies ideals like fairness and impartiality.
it helps us to see the point behind moral rules.
it engages our reasoning, instead of imposing an answer.
all of the above.

3

One could follow GR but still act wrongly.

True
False

4

The golden rule can be derived from the requirements to

be impartial and follow ends-means consistency.
be conscientious and follow ends-means consistency.
be conscientious and impartial.
none of the above -- the golden rule is a basic principle and can't be derived from other requirements.

5

The golden rule is an invention of modern western culture.

True
False


Please continue. Select answers to each of the following questions: Press the "Submit" button after you have made your selections.

1

Our GR ("We ought to treat others only as we consent to being treated in the same situation") is stronger than the GR of prescriptivism in that:

we can violate it even if we don't use "ought."
we can defend it using practically any approach to ethics.
views that accept moral truths could accept that our GR is an important moral truth about how we ought to live.
all of the above.

2

Suppose that you write a poor essay and your teacher gives you a low grade. You tell your teacher, "If you were in my place, you wouldn't want to be given a low grade; so, by the golden rule, you ought not to give me a low grade." What is wrong with this reasoning?

GR doesn't tell what specific act to do. Instead, it forbids an inconsistent action-desire combination.
GR is about your present attitude toward a hypothetical situation.
Both of the above are defects in the reasoning.
Nothing is wrong with this reasoning.

3

Our GR can tell a masochist who wants to be tortured to torture another.

True
False

4

What is the best match? Keep your means in harmony with your ends

Impartiality
Golden rule
Universal law
Ends-means consistency
Self-regard

5

What is the best match? Make similar evaluations about similar actions, regardless of the individuals involved

Ends-means consistency
Golden rule
Universal law
Impartiality
Self-regard


Please continue. Select answers to each of the following questions: Press the "Submit" button after you have made your selections.

1

What is the best match? Our GR (Treat others only as you consent to being treated in the same situation

Ends-means consistency
Impartiality
Universal law
Golden rule
Self-regard

2

What is the best match? Act only in ways that you find acceptable, regardless of where or when you imagine yourself in the situation

Ends-means consistency
Impartiality
Golden rule
Universal law
Self-regard

3

What is the best match? Treat yourself only as you're willing to have others treat themselves in the same situation

Ends-means consistency
Impartiality
Golden rule
Self-regard

4

What is the best match? Act only as you're willing for anyone to act in the same situation -- regardless of imagined variations of time or person

Ends-means consistency
Impartiality
Golden rule
Universal law

5

What is the best match? Keep your actions, resolutions, and desires in harmony with your moral beliefs

Self-regard
Universal law
Logicality
Ends-means consistency
Conscientiousness


Please continue. Select answers to each of the following questions: Press the "Submit" button after you have made your selections.

1

What is the best match? Avoid inconsistent beliefs

Self-regard
Universal law
Conscientiousness
Ends-means consistency
Logicality

2

What is the best match? Treat yourself (in the future) only as you're willing to have been treated by yourself (in the past)

Self-regard
Universal law
Conscientiousness
Ends-means consistency
Future-regard

3

What is your answer? The formula of universal law theorem says:

Follow the rules that would be most useful for society to adopt.
Act only as you're willing for anyone to act in the same situation -- regardless of imagined variations of time or person.
Perform an act of sort A (e.g., an act of lying) only if you want everyone to perform acts of sort A.
Act according to your conscience.

4

What is your answer? If you're conscientious and impartial, then:

You won't act to steal Detra's bicycle unless you believe that it would be all right for you to steal her bicycle.
You won't believe that it would be all right for you to steal her bicycle unless you believe that it would be all right for your bicycle to be stolen in the same situation.
You won't believe that it would be all right for your bicycle to be stolen in the same situation unless you're willing that your bicycle be stolen in the same situation.
all of the above.

5

What is your answer? To apply the golden rule adequately, we need

imagination.
knowledge.
both of the above.
none of the above -- the golden rule doesn't need anything else!


Please continue. Select answers to each of the following questions: Press the "Submit" button after you have made your selections.

1

What is your answer? The formula of universal law says that we are to act only as we're willing for anyone to act in similar circumstances -- regardless of imagined variations of time or person. This formula includes the insights of

the future-regard principle (where we ask whether we consent to this act being done when we imagine ourselves experiencing its future consequences).
the golden rule (where we ask whether we consent to others acting this way toward us).
the self-regard principle (where we ask whether we consent to others, especially those we care about, doing as we do).
all of the above.

2

What is your answer? Our GR is the same as "Treat others as they want to be treated" (the platinum rule).

True
False

Please continue the course with the topic on Religious and Cultural Origins of the Golden Rule.

References[edit]

  1. Küng, H. (1993) Global Responsibility: In Search of a New World Ethic, New York: Continuum. 23f
  2. See also Obama, B. (2006) The Audacity of Hope, New York: Crown, p. 265.
  3. In researching his book, Harry Gensler searched whitehouse.gov for “golden rule” and for “do unto others” in August 2012. The quotes are from archives.cnn.com/transcripts (beginning) and presidentialrhetoric.com.
  4. Search georgewbush-whitehouse.archives.gov for “like to be loved.” A general Web search for Bush’s GR gives references mainly to him.
  5. Spier, R. (2005) “The British public speaks,” Science and Engineering Ethics 11: 163–5.
  6. Singer, M. (1963) “The golden rule,” Philosophy 38: 293–314
  7. Alton, B. (1966) An Examination of the Golden Rule, philosophy dissertation at Stanford, http://disexpress.umi.com
  8. Gensler, H. The Golden Rule, philosophy dissertation at Michigan, http://disexpress.umi.com
  9. Most Gensler items in the Bibliography of Gensler, Harry J. (March 21, 2013). Ethics and the Golden Rule. Routledge. p. 256. ISBN 978-0415806879. discuss GR, including a technical book on formal ethics (1996, ch. 5), a logic textbook (2010, ch. 11), and an ethics textbook (2011a, ch. 8).
  10. Gensler, Harry J. (March 21, 2013). Ethics and the Golden Rule. Routledge. p. 256. ISBN 978-0415806879.
  11. See Gensler, Harry J. (March 21, 2013). Ethics and the Golden Rule. Routledge. p. 256. ISBN 978-0415806879. Section 2.1a
  12. Wattles, J. (1996) The Golden Rule, New York: Oxford University Press.
  13. Gensler, Harry J. (March 21, 2013). Ethics and the Golden Rule. Routledge. p. 256. ISBN 978-0415806879. Section 2.1b
  14. This story may have originated as a traditional Tanzanian folktale and was adapted by Gensler for use in teaching the golden rule. See: http://www.afriprov.org/index.php/african-stories-by-season/14-animal-stories/67-how-the-monkeys-saved-the-fish.html
  15. Francis of Assisi (c. 1220: 134) was the first Harry Gensler found to use a same-situation clause: “Blessed is the person who supports his neighbor in his weakness as he would want to be supported were he in a similar situation.” Robert Golobish, a Franciscan, sent Gensler this quote. Benjamin Camfield, who published a GR book in 1671, wrote (p. 61): “We must suppose other men in our condition, rank, and place, and ourselves in theirs”; Boraston 1684, Goodman 1688, and Clarke 1706 used similar clauses. Wattles 1996: 35 says: “When we say, ‘Do not treat others as you do not want others to treat you,’ there is the unspoken assumption ‘in (essentially) the same situation.’” Wattles and Gensler differ in strategy. He keeps the GR wording as it is but applies GR in subtle ways to avoid objections; Gensler rephrases GR. They have the same goal, to understand GR.
  16. For more on the basis of impartiality, see: http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/impartiality/#2.1
  17. Instead of switching every property in my mind, I could switch just those relevant to evaluating the act. If I’m unsure whether a property is relevant, I could switch it anyway – just to be safe. This has me imagine a relevantly similar action. In this section, it would be more technically precise to speak of switching universal properties instead of just switching properties – so being injured and having blue eyes would be switched, but not being me or being Harry Gensler; The Technical Appendix has more details.
  18. We can mix the elements in each pair of boxes. So this is inconsistent: “I do A to another but I believe it’s wrong for A to be done to me in the same situation.” And so is this: “I believe it’s right for me to do A to another but I’m unwilling that A be done to me in the same situation.”
  19. Immanuel Kant (1785: 97) used this criminal objection against GR; others followed, including defenders of slavery who wanted to discredit GR (§§8.5 & 14.3c). R.M. Hare was perhaps the first to apply the distinction between our two questions to GR (Hare, R. (1963) Freedom and Reason, Oxford: Clarendon. 108). He noted that “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” obscures the issue (Hare, R.(1972b) Essays on Philosophical Method, Berkeley: University of California.44). See also Hare 1981 Moral Thinking, Oxford: Clarendon.: 95f, Hoche, H. (1982) “The golden rule: New aspects of an old principle,” Contemporary German Philosophy, ed. D. Christensen, University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, pp. 69– 90. First published in 1978, as “Die Goldene Regel: Neue Aspekte eines alten Moralprinzips,” Zeitschrift für philosophische Forschung 32: 355–75.: 76–9, and Carson 2010: Lying and Deception, Oxford: Oxford University Press, ch. 6–10.139f.
  20. Shifting to Pyrite 2a won’t help: “Given that if you were in X’s exact place except that you’re rational then you’d want X to do A to you, then do A to X.” People often need to be treated in certain ways because they’re irrational. For example, I may need to confront X about being irrational. If I were in X’s place but rational then I wouldn’t want to be confronted about being irrational; so, by Pyrite 2a, I shouldn’t confront X. So the solution in the text is better.
  21. Gensler, Harry J. (March 21, 2013). Ethics and the Golden Rule. Routledge. p. 256. ISBN 978-0415806879. Section 2.1d
  22. Shifting to Pyrite 3a won’t help: “If you believe that if you were in X’s place then A ought to be done to you, then do A to X.” Pyrite 3a commands you to do evil action E to X if your moral beliefs are deranged (you believe that if you were in X’s place then E ought to be done to you).
  23. The three dots at the beginning of this statement represent “therefore.” These three statements are an example of the logic construct called modus ponens.
  24. We could rescue the deductive model by rewording GR to say: “If you have this desire about A being done to you and your desire isn’t flawed, then do A to X.” Then we’d add this premise: “Your desire about A being done to you isn’t flawed” – so it isn’t immoral, based on an unhealthy psychological condition, or based on false information. While this works, the added premise makes GR harder to apply, since we must check whether our desire is morally proper (which requires antecedent moral norms and makes GR a less important addition to these norms), based on an unhealthy psychological condition (and that idea needs clarification), or based on false information (and even a morally and psychologically mature person can have false information). So GR gets messy. The consistency model is cleaner; it doesn’t try to build everything into GR but rather sees GR as a consistency component that needs to be combined with other components (like knowledge and imagination).
  25. Gensler, Harry J. (March 21, 2013). Ethics and the Golden Rule. Routledge. p. 256. ISBN 978-0415806879. Section 2.1e
  26. For more on living the golden rule, see the companion course Living the Golden Rule.
  27. These elements can be based on GR. Since we want others to use knowledge and imagination when deciding how to act toward us, we need to use these too. The question tests whether we’re following GR. And the act element is just GR itself. Dialogue, while not mentioned by Kita, is needed to get the facts, imagine another’s situation, and uncover inconsistencies (see Habermas 1983). While Kita covers some key elements of responsible decision making, there are other elements too (Gensler 1996: 149–57).
  28. Katz, R. (1963) Empathy, London: Collier-Macmillan. (psychology)
  29. Brandt, R. (1970) “Rational desires,” Proceedings and Addresses of the American Philosophical Association 43: 43–64.
  30. President John F. Kennedy, Civil Rights Message, June 11, 1963
  31. Gensler, Harry J. (March 21, 2013). Ethics and the Golden Rule. Routledge. p. 256. ISBN 978-0415806879. Section 2.3
  32. Don’t believe that you ought to do A to X unless you are willing A to be done to Y (where Y represents someone you especially care about, such as your daughter) in the same situation.
  33. Gensler, . (1996) Formal Ethics, New York: Routledge. 101-4
  34. Terry, Q. (2012) Golden Rules and Silver Rules of Humanity, 5th ed., Concord, Mass.: Infinity.
  35. Gensler, Harry J. (March 21, 2013). Ethics and the Golden Rule. Routledge. p. 256. ISBN 978-0415806879. Section 2.4
  36. Other fallacies confuse GR with “Treat others as they treat you” (repayment and retaliation), “Treat others well so they’ll treat you well” (self-interest), or “People will treat you as you treat them” (empirical claim); see also §11.2 Q2.
  37. Fulghum, R. (1990) All I Really Need To Know I Learned In Kindergarten, New York: Villard, pp. 6f.
  38. Neusner, J., and B. Chilton (eds) (2008) The Golden Rule: The Ethics of Reciprocity in World Religions, New York: Continuum.
  39. Formal Ethics, New York: Routledge.
  40. Introduction to Logic, 2nd ed., New York: Routledge, pp. 290–335.
  41. See also Boonin 2003 (who criticizes consenting), Carson 2010: 129–56 (who emphasizes not objecting), Wallace 2007 (who emphasizes resenting), and our §14.3a. All right and consenting need to be qualified the same way; so if I judge A to be all right relative to the total facts (or to the agent’s data), then I must also consent to A being done relative to the total facts (or to the agent’s data).
  42. The more precise wording for “permissible” (similar forms work for other terms) goes: “If act A is permissible, then there’s some universal property (or conjunction of such properties) F, such that: act A is F, and in any actual or hypothetical case any act that’s F is permissible.” Here a universal property is a non-evaluative property describable without proper names (like “Gensler” or “Boston”) or pointer terms (like “I” or “this”). An exactly reversed situation switches all the universal properties. See Gensler 1996: 69–92 & 2010: 324f.