Ethik-Werkstatt - Volltexte im HTML-Format - kostenlos
-->Übersicht -->Alphabetische Liste aller Texte -->Info zu dieser Website -->Lexikon -->Startseite
The Golden Rule
I. Presentation of the Golden Rule in its Negative Form
II. A Justification of the Golden Rule
III. Critical Examination and Limits of Applicability
IV. The Positive Form of the Golden Rule and its Critique
I.) Presentation of the Golden Rule in its Negative Form
The "Golden Rule" for treating other people - regarding what one ought not to do (the negative form of the rule) - runs like this:
do to others what you don't want them do to you!" or
"Do not treat others in a way that you do not wish to be treated by them."
By applying this rule the
moral admissibility of
treating others in a certain way is tested by asking, whether oneself wants
to be treated in this way by others.
By using this rule everyone can derive the moral limits to his actions from his own adversions. If e.g. I do not want to be shouted at, then I ought to abstain from shouting at other people.
II.) A Justification of the Golden Rule
The question is, how one can justify the Golden Rule as
an ethical principle. Often the rule is formulated without seeing any
necessity of justification.
A possible foundation of the rule is given by the following premisses and conclusions:
1. If I do to a person something she does not like, there will be a conflict between us.
(This results from the very meaning of the term "conflict".)
2. If I want to avoid conflicts with others, then I must not do to anyone something he does not like.
(This is concluded from 1.)
3. I want to avoid conflicts with others.
(By this the presupposition of avoiding conflicts is stated.)
4. Everyone has the same adversions regarding the way he is treated.
(By this an assumption of equality of all men is made regarding the way they do not want to be treated.)
5. I ought not to do anything to anyone that I do not want to be done to me.
(This is concluded from 3. and 4.)
If one assumes that everyone has equal needs and desires, everyone will get the same results when applying the Golden Rule to a certain case. Thus everybody is able to know what is forbidden in treating other people. In this respect we are indeed dealing with a "golden" rule. It is an ingeniously simple rule of thumb, which therefore is especially helpful in moral education.
III.) Critical Examination and Limited Applicability
1.) The main weakness of the Golden Rule consists in the factual premiss that everyone has the same adversions regarding the treatment by others. Though there are many cases in which the conclusion from myself to others is justified, adversions may differ sharply. Adversions are depending on the actual situation, on age, sex, state of health, previous experiences and other factors.
Therefore the Golden Rule can only be a rule of thumb easily to apply, which in the majority of cases leads to useful and intersubjectively identical results.
If however a person used to get up early in the morning asks himself, whether he should call a friend at 8 a.m. on Sunday, he will get a different result from a person being fond of an extended sleep in the morning. The conclusion from myself to others - though being helpful in many cases - in this case fails. The person used to get up early in the morning disturbs the sleep of the other person who is accustomed to sleeping up to 10 a.m. He does this in conformity to the Golden Rule. At the same time the person fond of sleeping is protesting against this sort of action - by referring to the Golden Rule, too.
Now one could try to solve the problem by describing the action not as "calling somebody on Sunday morning at 8 a.m." but as "disturbing someone else's sleep". By using the latter description for the action both persons will get identical results by applying the Golden Rule, if both do not want to be disturbed while sleeping.
A certain behaviour may thus be interpreted by numerous different terms of action. For instance I may describe a certain behavior by the words: "Person A makes lines on a sheet of paper". Yet I may describe it as well by the words: "Person A signs a judgment of death".
Both descriptions may be true at the same time.
So there is always the question which interpretation of the action it is reasonable to choose. In order to answer this question one must have more knowledge about the specific situation and needs of the other one. By this, however, the application of the Golden Rule becomes much more difficult to apply and more debatable in its results.
2.) A different argument against the general applicability of the Golden Rule runs like this: If I ought not to treat other persons in a way that I do not want to be treated by others, then e.g. a policeman ought not fine anyone disobeying the rules for parking a car, because the policeman himself does not want to be fined. Problems of this sort appear, whenever the situation is already defined by binding rules.
Yet this objection, which already Kant had raised against the Golden Rule, can be solved easily by the following argument: If I consider the political body as legitimated to formulate and realize rules for parking cars, then I must accept, that offences against such rules should be punished. This includes that I myself ought to get a sheet of penalty, if I offended the rules for parking. Thus as driver of a car I do not "want" to get a sheet of penalty, but as a citizen of a political body that I sustain, I eventually accept the "earned" sheet of penalty as justified.
3.) Another difficulty is demonstrated by the following example:
I ask myself, whether I am allowed to mow the lawn of my garden. I do not like it, when my neighbour is mowing his lawn because of the noise produced. Yet this certainly is no proper argument against my own mowing of the lawn.
Apparently the Golden Rule fails in those cases, where the action of someother person goes along with disadvantages for me (a certain noise), but where the advantages of the action for the other one (a nice garden) are generally ranking higher. For both of us it is more important to keep one's garden well tended than to avoid a certain noise. That is the reason why mowing the lawn normally is permitted.
IV.) The Positive Form of the Golden Rule and its Critique
The positive form of the Golden Rule is:
"Treat everyone in the way you wish to be treated by him."
From this formula one can derive imperatives for one's own actions.
For instance one could ask, wether one ought to treat others politely. If oneself wants to be treated politely, then according to the Golden Rule one ought to treat others politely, too.
Yet the positive form of the Golden Rule produces even more unacceptable resuls than the negative form.
For this an example: Perhaps I would like it if my wife would serve me the breakfast in bed on sundays. Then according to the positive form of the rule I myself ought to serve her the breakfast in bed on sundays. Or an example a bit more striking: I would like it, if my neighbour donates me 1000 € each month. Then according to the positive form of the rule I myself ought to donate him 1000 € each month. But shurely this is no generally acceptable moral rule.
die folgenden thematisch verwandten Texte in der Ethik-Werkstatt:
Alphabetische Liste aller Texte
Ethik-Werkstatt: Ende der Seite: "The Golden Rule"
Letzte Bearbeitung 16.12.2008 / Eberhard Wesche
If this website was interesting for you, please inform also your friends and colleagues about the Ethics Workshop.