Tract #21: Should I Follow the Golden Rule?

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Should I Follow the Golden Rule?

The Golden Rule states that you should treat others in the way you would like them to treat you. This sounds like a good piece of ethical advice, but should the moral atheist rely on it?

The Golden Rule has been around for centuries and it has been used in one form or another in many cultures. Unfortunately, it has a problems.

Because it is a little vague, the Golden Rule has the potential to be misleading. For example, by a literal reading of the Golden Rule:

If parents would not want to be treated like children, they should not treat their young offspring like children.

If a man wants a woman to hug him, he should hug her.

A Christian should treat an atheist like a Christian (and vice versa).

A woman should treat a man like a woman.

A masochist should act like a sadist.

A self-destructive person should attack people.

Some of these examples point out that projecting your desires onto other people isn’t always the correct path to acceptable behavior. This is because the Golden Rule deals only with behavior and not with the thought behind that behavior.

Perhaps the Golden Rule would be more globally valid if it were phrased, “You should treat others in the way you would like them to treat you if you were in their place.” That’s a little more difficult to wrap your head around, but it leads to far fewer problems.

One Response

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  1. Written by James Abbott
    on December 16, 2010 at 10:02 pm
    Reply · Permalink

    This reply is right on the mark. We need to consider not only the behaviour addressed, but, also, the “intention” behind the action.
    The GR, if left unqualified in the way suggested, can lead to actions which we would certainly not want to endorse as morally appropriate. The “masochist-sadist” example is a perfect example of why the unqualified GR is inadequate as a guide for our moral actions.
    James E. Abbott

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