The Golden Rule: Objections Considered

Jesus said that there are two commandments that are paramount and sum up the whole Old Testament law (Mark 12:30-31)

Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.

The same passage can be found in Matthew 22:38-40, where Jesus adds, “All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”

In a previous post, I spent some time looking at these two commandments and how the second commandment to love your neighbour is often neglected. Given that loving your neighbour as yourself is considered by the founder of our faith as being the second greatest commandment, it is important to think about its implications.

Loving your neighbour as yourself is sometimes thought to be a version of the Golden Rule, which is broadly that you should treat others as you would want to be treated. The Golden Rule, in the more popular formulation, is also found in the Bible, also taught by Jesus, such as in Luke 6:31 and Matthew 7:12. But is loving your neighbour as yourself just a version of this rule? It is certainly similar, but there are important differences between this formulation and the normal way the Golden Rule ( GR for short) is formulated ( even though both intend the same principle). Firstly, the difference can be illustrated by replacing the word “love” with an action-word like that in the normal GR formulation: “treat.” “Loving your neighbour as yourself” becomes “treat others as you treat yourself”, which is slightly different than “treat others as you would want to be treated.” The former rule goes a little bit further than merely that you treat others as you would others treat you. There is a difference between how you treat yourself and how you would want to be treated by others. There is a difference between how you love yourself and how you want to be loved by others.

Secondly, the inclusion of the word “love” changes the meaning once again. Loving others as you love yourself is not the same as “treat others as you treat yourself”, because you might treat yourself terribly. Loving others as you love yourself then means treating others as you would treat yourself at your best moments, in a way that you know is best (even if you don’t always do that). Put differently, it means doing to others only what you know you should be doing to or for yourself, plus all the other nice things you do for yourself. In other words, you may not think it is a good thing to eat too much, drink too much, engage in sexual promiscuity, and do other things which you know are actually harmful to yourself. When you do these things, you are not actually loving yourself (properly). An easy way to see this is to use Jordan Peterson’s maxim that you should treat yourself as “someone you are responsible for helping.” This is a very useful way to see it, because it highlights the importance of what we might call “virtues of self-respect.” The people that you are responsible for helping in the most absolute sense are your children. Would you think it’s okay that your children eat too much, drink too much, or are sexually immoral? If you would not want your children to do that (because you know it would be harmful to them), then you should not either.

In what follows I will consider objections to GR conceived of broadly. I will try to defend GR generally, but will focus my defense on a particular formulation of GR found in Matthew 22:39 and Mark 12:31: “Love your neighbour as yourself.” We will also look at two different ways to conceive of GR. The first way is as a “moral calculus” like Utilitarianism and Deontologism (the Categorical Imperative). A moral calculus is just a rule or formula. You put your circumstance or situation “into” the rule and it tells you what’s right to do in that situation. But another way to conceive of GR is as an attitude or posture to adopt rather than a formula which tells you what is technically correct in each and every situation. All the objections assume that GR is a moral calculus, which means I’ll begin by defending it and considering it as one.


Two of my ethics professors raised the following objection to GR. They maintain the rule does not work because a sadomasochist wants to be hurt by others, which means that the rule tells him to hurt others. But this is a bad objection against the rule for the following reason. The sadomasochist probably knows that not everybody is a sadomasochist, which means he knows that not everybody wants to be hurt as he does. Then an application of GR would be that he should consider the interests and wants of others in the same way that he would want his own wants and interests to be considered. This would mean that he would not hurt people who don’t have his inclinations. Moreover, even the sadomasochist would not want to be hurt beyond a particular threshold or “comfort zone” which means that he can appreciate the unpleasantness of being hurt or being subjected to something you do not want. Since he understands being subjected to something you do not want is unpleasant, and he knows that some people do not share his wants and do not want to be hurt at all, GR then implies that he should not hurt others at all, unless he knows that they want to be subjected to it. So in order to make this clearer, we can formulate GR as follows: have the same regard for the interests of others as you have for your own interests, or regard the interests of others as you would want your own interests to be regarded. In addition, we can say that no moral formula or calculus works when somebody lacks a relevant fact or crucial information. If somebody thinks that pain is actually pleasant for everyone and not just himself as part of a select few, then he would act wrongly based on any moral calculus ( including Utilitarianism and Deontologism) not just GR.

If we formulate GR as loving your neighbour as yourself, this dilemma does not hold any water at all. Loving others as yourself just implies having the same regard for others as you have for yourself, for your interests and life. Given that the sadomasochist knows that not everybody wants to be subjected to pain, he knows that that he must have regard for their interest not to be subjected to pain. Also, this GR formulation arguably forbids the entire practice of sadomasochism even in its voluntary, consensual form. It is not necessary to engage in some complex process of moral reasoning to see that there is something disordered about desiring to be hurt and desiring to inflict pain on others. The masochist is not loving himself properly insofar as he indulges such impulses, and the sadist is not loving others properly insofar as he indulges such impulses, even if he only inflicts pain on those who have voluntarily submitted to it. As a thought experiment, ask yourself whether there would be any sadism or masochism (voluntary or not) in a perfect, morally ideal world, in heaven? I think the answer is clearly not.

While the sadomasochist objection is unreasonable, even though it seems to be popular in philosophy academia, there are some other ways you can object to GR by looking at scenarios where it seems infeasible or absurd. We will then consider what this might mean for the rule.

Scenario 1: Someone asks you to go on a date or marry them. If you have to do to others as you would have them do to you, then it means that you must say yes to anyone who asks you to marry them or go on a date. You would want someone to say yes if you asked, right? So then you must always say yes too.

Scenario 2: You are at work and a fellow employee has made a mistake. In order to complete your work, you have come to the stage where you must seek an approval from a manager. But you know that if you ask for that approval, you will have fill in the manager on the mistake of that fellow employee, which may get them in trouble. So GR seems to indicate that you must circumvent the normal process and disobey your manager.

Scenario 3: A judge tries to live according to GR in his daily life. He is about to pass a sentence on a criminal and realizes suddenly the following. Would he want that sentence inflicted on him if he had committed a crime? If he were in the criminal’s position, wouldn’t he want to be acquitted? GR then seems to indicate that that a judge must never pass a sentence on any criminal, no matter what they’ve done, and always acquit them.

Let’s look at scenario 3 first and work our way backwards. You can respond to this dilemma by saying that the judge is loving his neighbours by passing sentences on criminals. If he were to let each criminal go free, then that would mean innocent people will suffer and be victimized. So it is important to realize that when you love your neighbour, you aren’t just looking at the person who is most directly bearing the consequences of what you do, but also at those bearing consequences indirectly. But what then if it could be established that the criminal would never commit a crime ever again? Establishing the rule of law or undermining it always has consequences. It is not just about whether the individual would commit any crime again. Scenario 2 and 3 both appeal to situations where there are other duties operative in the situation. The employee has a duty to his manager and to the company more generally (and ipso facto, to every employee in that company who could be harmed by proper processes not being followed). The judge has a duty to the public and to uphold the law.

Love and Preferences

But is loving one’s neighbour just a matter of indulging preferences? All three scenarios derive their absurdity or irrationality from the idea that the preferences of others have to be indulged in every circumstance, because you would want your own preferences to be indulged every time, wouldn’t you? But loving your neighbour doesn’t necessarily mean indulging all their preferences. Loving yourself also does not mean indulging all your own preferences. Loving others will involve at least considering their preferences in each situation, but not necessarily indulging it. In many circumstances, especially in trivial, mundane issues, loving others does mean indulging their preferences. How do we know when to indulge preferences and when not? I will argue that this is implied by the rule as well ( at least the formulation which includes “love”). The command to love neighbour as self depends on a prior moral notion of “love.”  We can formulate the command as follows, which is implied by the command’s reliance on the concept of love: “Expect from others what you expect from yourself”, or “Do and expect from others  what you should do and expect from yourself, everything else being equal.” Have regard for the preferences of others insofar as you think you should have regard for your own preferences. And how much regard should you have for your own preferences is once again limited by the impact you know your preferences have on others, and by the long-term impact on yourself. So GR is used to determine the extent of GR. GR teaches you how to appropriately love yourself in the same way that it teaches you how to love others. It teaches you that you must love yourself in a way that loves others. This will include indulging your own preferences but not doing so in a way that impedes or deprives others, or in a way that gives undue priority to your own preferences. And once you have that concept of self-love, you have the ideal self-love which becomes your standard for loving others.

An ideal self-love then has three components:

  1. Not doing things you know now (even if you didn’t before) to be harmful to yourself even if you desire them in the moment (“virtues of self-respect”). This is why, if you are a drug addict, loving your neighbour as yourself does not imply giving drugs to your neighbour, or giving an extra drink to someone who has already had too much, if you are an alcoholic. It also arguably means that a sadomasochist will not inflict harm on others, or allow harm to be inflicted on him, not only because he knows that not everyone has such preferences, but also because he knows that indulging such impulses is bad for himself ( for his relationships and psychology and his community). So he would not want others to indulge such preferences if they have them.
  2. Indulging your own preferences in a way that does not harm others or that does not give undue priority to your own preferences. In this way, we said that the self-love that the principle appeals to must itself be informed by the principle. In other words, the self-love which is the standard by which you love your neighbour is tempered by a general concern for other’s preferences, which means it cannot be used to make unreasonable and exploitative requests from you. (We will consider what “undue priority” is when we consider the “impartiality component” below). To put it another way, you would not love yourself in a way that caused you to make unreasonable and exploitative requests of others and think them obligated to acquiesce. You might make such requests and hope they acquiesce but you do not think them obligated to do so and would not blame them for not doing so. Given that you don’t love yourself in such a way, you do not have to listen to the requests of someone who loves themselves in that way.
  3. Indulging your wants when they do not conflict with 1 and 2.

Once we have an ideal self-love, we have the ideal that can be used to measure our behaviour toward our neighbour. A simple way to put this is to say “Expect from others what you think is reasonable to expect from yourself, all other things being equal.” What you think is reasonable to expect from yourself is informed by the 3 elements above.

If we formulate it that way, we can see why scenario 1 does not really obey the command to love one’s neighbour as one loves one’s self. Why does loving neighbour as self justify saying no to someone who wants to marry you or wants to ask you one a date? You would not expect someone to marry you if they didn’t want to, which means you shouldn’t expect it from yourself. Alternatively, you can indulge the preferences of others insofar as you think you should indulge your own preferences. You should not indulge your own preferences to marry someone else if you know it was not their preference to do so, which means you do not have to do it. You can reverse the rule in your own favour. It doesn’t just work in the favour of your someone else. The rule appeals to your self-love, so it must regard at least some of that love as right. So, loving others as you already love yourself does not mean always sacrificing your own preferences in favour of your neighbour’s preferences. On the contrary, the the rule insists on seeing your life and your neighbour’s life equally. This brings us to what we can call the “impartiality component” of GR.

Empathy Component and Impartiality Component

Loving your neighbour as self means both that you put yourself in your neighbour’s shoes and that you weigh your interests against that of your neighbour in the same situation. For example, as in the Parable of the Good Samaritan, if you are walking down the street and see someone bruised and beaten lying by the side of the road, should you help? The normal way to apply GR is to imagine yourself in the place of the beaten-up person. Would you want to be helped in that situation? Then you should help. But there is a further consideration that is often overlooked but that is also implied by GR. In addition to imagining yourself in the place of the person suffering, you weigh your own preference against theirs. You want an uninterrupted walk. The person who was beaten up needs medical care and is in pain. Weigh your current preference against the preference you would have in that situation. Which preference then is more important? In other words, you imagine yourself having both preferences and then determine based on that which preference is more pressing or more important. It is clear, that if you imagine yourself having both preferences, you can see that the preference for medical care and to relieve pain takes precedence over the preference for an uninterrupted walk. The rule says to “love your neighbour as yourself”, i.e. equally to yourself. An easy way to do this is to weigh your preference in the particular situation against the preference of the other person(s) as though you had both of them, and then to decide which you would regard as more important. You imagine that you have both the preference you really have and the preference your neighbour has, and then determine which you would indulge if you had both. We can now apply the impartiality component of GR to scenario 1. Scenario 1 applied the first component ( the empathy component) of the principle, but not the second component ( the impartiality component). So weigh your preference in that situation against the preference you would have in the other person’s situation. Your preference is not to go on a date with or marry that person, or not to feel the pain associated with that, while your preference in the other person’s situation would be not to feel the pain of rejection. Would you rather feel the pain of rejection or feel the pain of being in a relationship you have no desire for? The latter is worse than the former. But this isn’t just about pain and pleasure, because being forced into a marriage or romantic relationship subdues your autonomy in a way or to an extent that unrequited love does not. The equality component reminds us that the principle does not call for always ignoring your own preferences, only doing so when your own preference is truly less important.

You may object that it may not always be possible to imagine what you would feel like in each situation, and there may sometimes be no clear winner in terms of preference between the two preferences, when we apply the impartiality component. But then, any moral calculus you can point to has this problem. Utilitarianism has the same problem, because you’re also forced to have some sort of God’s eye view of the world, and know things about many people’s desires and emotional states, and about the consequences which certain events would have on many people’s emotions. A lot of this you could not possibly be expected to know or foresee. Similarly, the Categorical Imperative also places too great a burden on the imagination, assuming it can always accurately imagine the consequences of “universalizing” a particular action. We can call these “indeterminacy problems.” So, if anything, GR has less daunting indeterminacy problems than Utilitarianism and Deontologism, because you only have to make a judgment about your own mental state, not the mental states of many people ( as in Utilitarianism) or about the large-scale social consequences of various actions ( as in the Categorical imperative). Also, Utilitarian reasoning dehumanizes others by, for example, justifying lying to others, since you make the value of human life a function of happiness and pleasure. GR reasoning humanizes others by using the self as a check. If you asked, you would want someone to tell the truth even if it hurts you. GR reasoning then obligates you to tell the truth. Utilitarian reasoning can still justify your lie by placing the burden on you of trying to determine whether it will have a net negative effect on the person’s life in terms of their happiness. And this, in turn, implies that you think you know what is best for someone better than they do. So you remove their autonomy. GR and especially Voluntarist GR (discussed below) does a better job of incorporating the moral significance of autonomy or will. If you violate someone’s will in a way that’s unjustified, the wrong you commit goes beyond inflicting pain. Or, violating someone’s autonomy without good reason is wrong beyond merely the fact that it is usually unpleasant.

Voluntarist GR and Sensualist GR

A common modern way in which to express the Golden Rule is to say: “How would you feel if that were done to you?” This is misleading because it makes feelings or emotions the locus of GR reasoning, even if it may be useful to do this in certain circumstances. It is precisely this “Sensualist GR” that may yield some absurd results. The Sensualist GR implies that you cannot do anything to anyone that would be unpleasant or have unpleasant consequences (if you leave out the impartiality component). You can use the Sensualist GR perhaps if you remember to apply the impartiality component of GR. A Voluntarist GR, by contrast, that sees the will or autonomy as the locus of GR reasoning, does not have that problem. So we ask, not “how would you feel if that were done to you” but “would you be willing that that be done to you in the same situation, all else being equal?” The Voluntarist GR does not exclude emotion, but merely recognizes that it is not the locus of moral decision-making. Emotion may be more relevant in certain situations, but it is the will or autonomy of the person who will assign emotion the importance that is relevant in each situation. Harry Gensler, in Ethics and the Golden Rule, once formulates GR this way: “I condemn how I treat another, if I condemn the same act when I imagine it done to me in the same situation.”[i] The word “condemn” here is important, because it is not (primarily) a matter of emotional unpleasantness but about what you think would be fair if done to you. For example, say someone asks you for 10,000 dollars just because they want $10,000. The Sensualist GR ( without the impartiality component) seems to imply that you must give the $10,000 immediately. If you were in the person’s shoes you would not blame someone for not giving you the $10,000. You would hope that they give it to you, but you would not think them obligated to do so. Given that you would not think them obligated, you are not obligated. Similarly, in the case with the judge, the judge can say that if he were in the position of the criminal, he is willing to be treated the same way as the sentence he is passing. This is not about saying that it would be pleasant to go to prison (or to be refused $10,000) but that you can recognize that it would be fair if it were done to you if you had done what the criminal had done, or if you had asked someone for $10,000 just because. Similarly, in Scenario 1, you can easily see that the Voluntarist GR works much better. You would be willing to be rejected if someone didn’t want to marry you, so you can reject the proposition. Even more strongly, you would probably not want someone to say yes if they didn’t want to marry you, which means that it is not merely permissible but obligatory for you to say no in that situation.

One may say that if we change it to “willing” rather than “feeling” it becomes much more easily manipulated. It is easy for someone to say they are “willing” for something to happen to them if they are not in that situation at all. But clearly, no moral calculus will work if you think people are going to try to circumvent its parameters. The Voluntarist GR may also reduce some of the indeterminacy problems we discussed above, of not knowing how you would feel in different situations, or not being able to weigh two emotional preferences against each other which seem equal or inscrutable.

Actions and Attitudes

I have tried to respond to objections to Jesus’s second great commandment, but the above is just my reasoning, not included in the original command. It may not be possible to use the command to love neighbour as self as a formula to determine every single action robotically, otherwise the Bible would only have given us that command and left us to figure out the rest. The Bible gives us a great deal of guidance for what it looks like to obey this command and what it looks like to disobey it. We have to exercise our judgment to fill in the gaps, guided by the Holy Spirit. Perhaps loving one’s neighbour as oneself is a posture or an attitude to adopt, as Bill Puka remarks in his IEP article on the Golden Rule, rather than a formula that produces technically correct actions. This fits with Jesus’s notion that righteousness is primarily an inward condition, not an outward condition. Righteousness is a matter of the heart, of having the right attitudes, intentions and motivations. Not one but two of Jesus’s seven woes to the Pharisees concern the fact that their righteousness is outward and not inward (Matthew 23:25):

Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. Blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and dish, and then the outside also will be clean.

Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of the bones of the dead and everything unclean.  In the same way, on the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness.

I used to wonder how exactly one is to go about cleaning the inside of the cup (apart from trying to regulate one’s thoughts). Perhaps you clean the inside of the cup by adopting the principle to love your neighbour as yourself as an attitude rather than as a formula or “moral calculus” like Utilitarianism or Deontologism. Sometimes, just taking a minute to think about how your actions affect the people around you, and regarding their lives as being equally valuable to yours, is enough, even if you don’t ultimately decide to act in their favour. Nevertheless, I’ve tried to show that the basic principle of GR works at least as well as the other moral formula’s “on the market” in moral philosophy, and perhaps even better.

[i] Harry  J. Gensler, Ethics and the Golden Rule (New York: Routledge, 2013) p. 2

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