19/23- The Golden Rule Revisited

The substance of the Ten Commandments, however radical the form in which it is stated, is conventional in that it refers to what is owed to God, now that he is defined as a single God, and what is by the way owed to other people, in that it is still about settling family disputes: families don’t steal from one another or seek to appropriate one another’s wives, which is the same thing. It says nothing about what has come to be called social justice in that it does not refer to the condition of the poor or the sick and it does not refer to how people should get along with one another, except insofar as they should not get in one another’s way.

The Golden Rule, on the other hand, is much more concerned with the quality of human interaction, how people get along with one another whether in friendship or in opposition, and not just with regard to extreme violations of decorum. It therefore supplies a way of life rather than a way to safeguard a way of life not otherwise open to question. The Golden Rule, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you”, suggests a new moral tone that is to be brought into the world that is so important it is to inveigle itself into everyone’s personality and a person should feel guilty for not living up to it every day and in every way. It does so by proclaiming an adage which can be distinguished from other adages, such as “Do unto others as it suits your interests” or “Do unto others more graciously than you expect them to do unto you”. In trying to guide everyday behavior and not just strictly moral conduct, indeed by reducing moral conduct to an advisory about everyday behavior, it is a species of etiquette or politeness and remains the sort of thing that underlies advice columnists: do the decent thing, which is defined as the kind of thing that takes other people’s feelings into account, and you will feel better for it. Treating morality as a form of politeness, as does the Golden Rule, is every bit as radical as treating morality as a law, which is what the Ten Commandments established. Referring morality to the more general category of politeness also expands rather than just defines more accurately the scope of morality.

The Golden Rule is supposed to be something of an epiphany in moral thinking but it  is hardly that at all because it does not invoke a more sublime level of moral thinking or emotion but rather invokes a very undemanding standard of conduct. All it means, most of the time for most people, is that people should be nice to one another, which is the counsel of all advisors on etiquette. And that is not even what it says in its own words rather than in the words of commentators who would gleam its wisdom. Its own words set it up as a prudential adage rather than an imperative adage and all this without the aura of obligation and justice that surrounds moral law. “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” commands nothing specific, does not draw categories where a person wrests with what constitutes compliance, and has no consequences, so that it can be used to justify whatever you do. Well, if I were an impossible or rude person, then I would deserve being treated in the way I am treating someone else. Moreover, the reduction of morality to the realm of politeness or etiquette, however much that expands the scope of morality while reducing its depth, can be treated as a trivialization or else a grand accomplishment, but is clearly enough outside morality. It will take some explanation to make that second point clear.

Politeness is a formal property of all social life. It consists of behaviors that convey the emotion of sociability, which means that a person is of good will and therefore inclined to engage with and to work out the problems that create the bumps of life in a way that acknowledges that we are all human and prone to mistakes, whether trivial or serious, in how we conduct ourselves. We are just being polite but demonstrate our sociability when we acknowledge the birthdays of others, though it is a good question of who are the people, beyond spouse and family, who qualify for having their birthdays remembered. An acknowledged birthday builds up emotional capital with people, like a mother or a wife, whom one knows will sooner or later be rubbed the wrong way. A person of social tact knows when he presumes upon another by buying a present for someone who is just an acquaintance.

Sometimes sociability is more difficult, either as an act to perform or as an act to justify, but we get away with doing it by isolating the sociability of the act. We are just being sociable when we go up and say hello to a family member who is on the outs with the other family members who have come over for Thanksgiving. We are just being sociable, though some would say we are just doing the morally right thing, when we contribute to orphans in Africa or support the liberation of a nation that has been subject to severe political repression, just so long as it does not require a great commitment of resources or lives on the part of our own nation and where we do not attend to how our acts of charity support a dictator’s regime. We are being sociable when we are polite to those with whom we negotiate.

Some people are so socially skilled, up to noticing the complexity of social circumstances as well as inventive in how to address them, that they are social stars, and for this they can be faulted by others as hypocrites rather than as gifted because those particularly adept at sociability can use their gift to manipulate situations. A spy plays it cool with the person he is about to execute. Moreover, there are people who can fake sociability, which is to say, to feel sociable where others would not feel friendly, and that is often taken as a criticism of sociable people, as if glibness or a smile was inappropriate because some people should be met with disdain—at least if one had the courage to call out an outré family member. So sociable people are considered phony when being sociable is what they “naturally” do, as if sociability is something that should not come easily, however much being sociable contributes to social life. It is a gift like any other, however much it seems an inferior gift. Aristotle strongly distinguished sociability, or friendliness, from being a friend, the latter of which he regarded as the highest of social virtues, and also the expression of a feeling.

Politeness is also not to be prized for a reason other than the one already cited, which is that polished politeness seems a vice rather than a virtue. That other reason is that politeness is a trivial emotion, an easily available one; it does not tax either emotional or economic resources, even though the minimal compassion suggested by politeness is enough to launch Hume on his moral theory that empathy for others is the basis of moral life. Politeness is a suitable subject only for etiquette columns that advise their readers to handle unruly or obnoxious relatives or friends gingerly—unless, of course, they do something awful, like make moves on your children, in which case you can even be rude to them.

Politeness shows itself a merely trivial even if universal emotion when it is exercised so as to forgive people for being late for a dental appointment or for stepping on someone’s toes when getting onto a subway car. Saying “I’m sorry” is enough, on those occasions, to restore a sense of comity. Moreover, people are not out to get you just because they are rude and push past you to get on a subway car. People who do not acknowledge that they were rude when called on it can be dismissed as just people who have never learned how to respect other people or, at least, to acknowledge that other people deserve respect. Most of the time, it doesn’t really matter. The person who pushes ahead on line is not to be treated as an ax murderer.  Politeness or good manners is therefore an easy salve for something that is not all that urgent an issue anyway.

The stakes get raised, however, when politeness serves as the basis for a moral adage, the trivial having been raised to the level of the profound. The Golden Rule generalizes politeness to the point where anyone can raise themselves to the level of a social star. We can all be gracious and generous in our social life and so signify that we are among the saved. An ordinary virtue is taken as a special one, and in that recognition we can all live as if the utopian future had arrived. “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” is taken as if it were an admonition that can only be heeded by those who have in some way purified their souls and are living in a community of the saved, as is possible if people remain small time farmers, merchants and government officials living out their lives in Roman Occupied Palestine. This  invisible community of those inwardly illuminated provides an alternative way of separating from the occupiers than the one that was followed by the Jewish community which separated itself from the Romans by creating a set of religious laws that enshrine precisely those customs, like keeping Kosher, which keep communities separate. The Christians, instead, created a purely mental separation from the Roman community by declaring themselves to be a radically different kind of person however much they continued to pursue their own lives in a very ordinary way. They made themselves heroic by thinking themselves so. That is not all that hard to do. You don’t even have to go through the serious business of circumcision.

But there is a serious restriction within this moral adage. You are to be nice to people not just in order to be nice. Rather, other people will be encouraged to be nice to you in exchange. Scratch their back so that they will return the favor not because that is the generous thing to do. This is a version of a prudential morality even if one of enlightened self interest rather than one of selfishness. In the long run, everybody will get along better if they are nice to one another. That is advice that could come from Hobbes rather than the most generous spirited of the Israelite prophets.

The Golden Rule can therefore be understood as a kind of silent or presumed contract not to push people around and has the genius of not requiring any surrender to obligation to make that possible. The Golden Rule is enforced by mere goodwill. That is very different from another rule which might be substituted for the Golden Rule: “Do unto others better than you would have them do unto you”. That means a person has to rev up to be more generous spirited to another person than it would be reasonable to assume that person will be towards you. That way, you are raising the moral plane for everyone. Applying that rule, however, requires some sacrifice because the standard of behavior it requires is as high as you can set yourself to go and you do not get back as much in implicit compensation. You give up more than you get, which is contrary to the common sense of the Golden Rule, which is that everybody can act in that way, while this Titanium Rule means that only the saintly need apply for membership in the community of those who can live as saved people. In common parlance, however, the Golden Rule is imagined as the most demanding of moral rules, however much that standard happens to be compatible with normal social and commercial interactions.

Deference is another universal emotion that is also a special case of politeness. It is the politeness observed by inferiors toward their social superiors rather than the politeness observed between people who are equals under the law or because of their spiritual standing as equals whatever their actual circumstances. You rise when the Judge comes into the courtroom. You call your mother “Mom” until her dying day. Etiquette guides who is to speak first in a job interview, and who is to end it: the one doing the hiring. People in higher class positions dress more carefully than do the people from an inferior class and it is only the eccentric corporate executive who dresses in a more casual manner than does his more important aides.

Deference is also invoked in matters more important than those that merely set the scene for an interaction or where politeness gives away that the interaction was or will be trivial. The opinions of a superior are deferred to even if the superior knows less about the matter than the subordinate unless the superior commands or allows dissent. The superior determines when a decision has become final. The superior determines what basic values all members of the team are supposed to share. That is the case whether or not the subordinates are better educated or more articulate than the superior. That they mind their words and tamp down the power of their arguments is regarded as a matter of etiquette rather than directly a matter of morals. You don’t tell the older relative who is blowing off steam at Thanksgiving that he is a racist for the reason that you have respect for his position as an elder. The polite response is to mildly demure or else you will be the one who is thought to have broken decorum.

The Golden Rule abrogates deference by imputing a presumption of equality to everyone. Yes, I doff my hat to a social superior, but in my heart of hearts I know I am his equal under God and so the forms of deference are merely forms of politeness. I act towards him as if he is my superior because he would prefer to think of himself that way and I don’t, as a good Christian, want to give offense. It is also prudential to act in a deferential manner because, in fact, a superior can enforce his superior position and I cannot enforce my spiritual equality. Christian morality therefore allows people to be both practical and arch: they know what they are and yet they act with the deference of those who are in fact if not spirit inferior. The Christian, in following the Golden Rule, is comfortably ensconced in his double universe of this life and the spiritual life and so does not have to go out of his way which is just what a Titanium Rule might require: I tell you off to your face because that is more than I could politely ask people to do to me.

Deference to superiors, whether of age or rank or bureaucratic position, therefore, shares with other forms of politeness a concern with the trivial, a policy of not making waves, of restoring whatever, in that office or that family, seem to be the rules of the road, rather than a challenge to the rules of the road. It is the equivalent of the Golden Rule as that is modified to say, “Do unto others as you would do unto them if you were in their position.” If I were the boss, I speculate that I would be a more humane boss and I would at least listen to the advice my subordinates gave to me. I am polite but I make mental reservations that amount to a judgment about how superiors conduct themselves, not that anything much comes of that, because I am thinking about behavior I will exhibit ten or twenty years in the future, promises I have made to myself about the future, such as not to forget where I came from, or to endow a scholarship at the elementary school I went to.

It is much more difficult, where deference is concerned, to follow an equivalent of the Titanium Rule. That adage, well known in our time, is “Speak Truth to Power”. People do that in political demonstrations, or when they meet a Congressperson for the first time at a meet-the-constituents occasion. People do not do it at PTA meetings because they do not want to offend their fellow parents or the teachers who they believe might hold a grudge against the children of parents who said something offensive; they do not do it with their doctors, much less with their bosses, because they might be putting their jobs on the line. They do not even mumble under their breaths. They just go home and take it out in indirect ways on their families. So, by contrast, the Golden Rule, whether applied to equals or superiors, is council to be prudent and not rock the boat and keep things going as they are, even if enunciating the rule allows you to feel more pure than you really are. But that is what Christianity is up to, isn’t it? You may wander through this life not doing much better than getting by and only middling nice to people, but it all gets transformed so that you are a saved sinner, which means your heart is in the right place, and everybody knows that because you go through the appropriate religious ceremonies and invoke the Golden Rule as the highest of all moral standards.

The Golden Rule is generally inferred to mean that people should be nice to one another, without the meaning of that specified. That is an understandable inference if the Golden Rule is indeed the invocation of etiquette because that always and only means making people comfortable with one another, the rules of etiquette no more than rules of the road for accomplishing that rather than being strict rules of decorum. Table manners differ from tribe to tribe and class to class and a visitor is being asked to do no more than respect the hosts by fitting in. Table manners are onerous only for people trying to fit into a social class or an ethnic group not their own.

Read literally, however, the Golden Rule is something different entirely. It does not focus on customs or making people feel comfortable. Rather, it is an instruction to make a calculation about another person’s behavioral preferences. That is so because in consulting how one would oneself want to be treated by another, a person has to figure out what that other person would be comfortable with. Would they get hot and bothered if you used the wrong spoon? In that case, try to remember to use the right spoon, just as they should try if they were concerned about pleasing you. That is very different from seeing the Golden Rule as selfish because it uses self-interest as the basis for how to treat other people, which would seem implied by the fact that the first part is about others and the second part is about self.

But The Golden Rule asks a person to worry about what others would think so as to satisfy a person’s own self interest rather than just the seemingly selfish question of how it is to my advantage if other people take my point of view as to how I should be treated.  It is a reciprocal relationship in that both parties have to be satisfied if the Rule is being obeyed. The Golden Rule is therefore a matter of negotiation and reason rather than simply a call on good feeling even if it involves calculations about feelings: how to make a good impression. How would you feel if you were about to be executed? You would feel badly about it and so you would implore the executioner to have mercy and spare you because you too could be implored to in that way if you were the executioner. Jesus asks those who would stone the adulteress how they would feel about being in her place, given that they too have probably sinned in some way or another. Consult the worst situation you might be in before acting all high and mighty.

But if that is the case, then the hallmark of moral life is a respect for the moral life of another person and that person having respect for your moral life. That definition of moral life is a good way to explain the moral climate of a secularized world even if philosophers like Kant try to find a transcendental morality shorn of its religious roots that is nonetheless just a version of a Protestant view of life and even though revolutionaries like Hitler and Stalin construct moral ideologies that are anything but paeans to the sentiment of niceness.

The Golden Rule is a morsel of Biblical Christianity that soon goes into eclipse, not to be revived until, let us say, Erasmus, for all of the reasons usually cited for why the medieval world turned into the modern world. The Golden Rule is morally congruent with the idea of tolerance, which is itself thought to emerge later on because of a need to settle the religious wars of the Sixteenth Century as well as for the ideological reasons put forward by Roger Williams and John Locke. It gives rise, in its modern guise, to a morality of relativism by which every person is their own judge of what is morally appropriate for them to do. People in the modern world are expected to make any number of significant choices on their own, these choices not subject to the veto of family or friends or advisors. People choose who they will marry, who will be their friends, whether to have children, whether to abort unwanted fetuses, what occupations to pursue, when they will say they have enough education, what consumer goods to purchase, what loans to contract, whether or not to join the military, and when it is time to pull the plug for oneself or a loved and now helpless old person. It would be rude to tell anyone how to decide anything important about their lives-- or anything unimportant, for that matter, as would be the case if you told a person to their face that you didn’t care for their taste in wallpaper.

This is the substance of freedom in the modern world. People are unencumbered by a universal moral law because, when you get down to cases, it is always a matter of taste, however much rude people will shout out their disdain for your choices about abortion or candidates for political office. This is so however much people may also accept the loose version of the Golden Rule which enjoins them to be nice to people. What being nice means is left to the individual. If religion is reduced to its moral dimension alone, is that all that is left to Christianity, that people are free to all go their own way?