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Thursday, December 16, 2010

Why Following the Golden Rule Isn't Always a Good Idea

The German philosopher Immanuel Kant believed we could derive a supreme principle of morality solely through the use of human reason. He offered several versions of this principle, which he called the categorical imperative, all of which he believed amounted to the same thing. One version argued that we should only act "according to the maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it become a universal law."

Now you might have noticed that Kant's maxim sounds a whole lot like what is generally referred to as the Golden Rule ("Do unto others as you would have them do unto you"), variations of which show up in a number of different religious traditions:

Buddhism
"Hurt not others that you yourself would find hurtful" (The Tibetan Dhammapada).
Christianity
"So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets" (Jesus, Matthew 7:12).
Confucianism
"Never impose on others what you would not choose for yourself" (Confucius, Analects)
Hinduism
"One should never do that to another which one regards as injurious to one’s own self. This, in brief, is the rule of dharma. Other behavior is due to selfish desires" (Brihaspati, Mahabharata).
Islam
"Hurt no one so that no one may hurt you" (Muhammad, The Farewell Sermon).
Judaism
"That which is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow. That is the whole Torah; the rest is the explanation; go and learn." (Talmud, Shabbat 31a).
Despite the similarities of the golden rule with Kant's categorical imperative, there is a slight (and very important) difference between the two.  Kant (correctly) recognized that the golden rule doesn't take into account our personal preferences. Because of this, as Thomas Cathcart and Daniel Klein point out in their book, Plato and a Platypus Walk Into a Bar: Understanding Philosophy Through Jokes (p. 84), there are some problems with the rule.

This problem is illustrated by English playwright  George Benard Shaw rewriting of the rule: "Do not do unto others as you would have others do unto you; they may have different tastes." Or as Cathcart and Klein like to say, "A sadist is a masochist who follows the golden rule."
In inflicting pain on others the masochist is only doing what the golden rule requires: doing what he would like done unto him, preferably with a whip. But Kant would say that there's no way that a masochist could honestly claim that the moral imperative, "inflict pain on others,"could be a universal law for a livable world. Even a masochist would find that unreasonable.
Put differently, Kant's universalizing test is a way of checking to see if the action we are about to undertake puts our interests ahead of everyone else's.

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