How golden is that rule after all?

In a recent post I mentioned Jesus’ formulation of the Golden Rule. It shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone that even this principle has come under attack.

For one thing, it’s common to hear someone point out that the reciprocity principle behind the Golden Rule did not begin with Jesus as though this in some way impugns Jesus’ wisdom or authority for not having been the first to teach something like this. There is an understandable tendency among Christians to expect Jesus as the Word of God incarnate to have taught things that were entirely new and unique, before his time; no doubt that is true, but of course, laying aside that the version attributed to Jesus seems to have been his own special take on the concept (positive rather than negative), surely no one would expect everything he taught to have never occurred to anyone before him. And then there are those who doubt Jesus said it because, characteristic and distinctive as it is, we only have record of Jesus teaching it in one of the Gospels (Matthew). Who knows–but as you’ll see below, it’s obvious why it got attributed to him, and why he almost certainly wouldn’t mind it being attributed to him.

Another criticism regards the ethical implications of the Golden Rule itself. The idea is is that acting on this rule requires us to presume a compatible set of moral preferences between ourselves and the “others” involved, even where that presumption is not valid. Most us can probably remember scenarios in which someone has attempted to do something for our benefit that we wish they hadn’t: maybe someone in an unfamiliar environment tries very hard to engage you because they don’t want you to feel awkward, but it’s being paid all the attention that makes you feel awkward in the first place. And so on. The practical outworkings of the reciprocity principle are based on the supposition that what you would “have them do to you” is actually something they would have you do unto them, and we know that is by no means universally true.

Sometimes this sort of invalid projection of our preferences onto others really does happen, but it’s hardly through a conscientious effort to enact the Golden Rule per se; indeed, the rule of reciprocity when followed completely would actually prohibit such impositions on the grounds that we ourselves generally dislike being imposed upon. If those we can remember inconveniencing or bothering us by projecting their own desires on us out of the best of motives had actually put enough effort into empathizing (the more fundamental Christian ethical principle behind the rule), they would have avoided doing that thing that bothered us.

Moreover, the scope of this behavioral guideline was probably not intended to extend beyond the most basic and universal of preferences, such as pain avoidance, fairness, etc., and the people we typically interact with share those basic preferences.

The purpose of the Golden Rule is therefore not to serve as a fundamental law of ethics but to inform our ethics with the principle of empathy. This principle of empathy as modeled by Jesus is the hallmark of the Christian faith.

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