The Golden Rule: Fool's Gold?
In his book Mere Christianity C.S. Lewis stated that the Golden Rule “is a summing up of what everyone, at bottom, had always known to be right.” In the Norman Rockwell Album Rockwell explained, “I’d been reading up on comparative religion. The thing is that all major religions have the Golden Rule in Common. ‘Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.’ Not always the same words but the same meaning.”
Indeed, the “Golden Rule” is the name given to the mosaic painted by Norman Rockwell which hangs on the third floor of the United Nations Conference Building in New York. This mosaic, reflecting Rockwell’s view of comparative religion, brings together people from different cultural and ethnic backgrounds with Jesus’ words inscribed: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”
At the re-dedication service in February 2014, the deputy secretary-general, Jan Eliasson observed that in many cultures are to be found ethical statements that approximate to the Golden Rule. For example, some five hundred years before Christ was born, Confucius said: “Do not impose on others what you do not desire others to impose upon you.” The Alexandrian Jewish philosopher Philo remarked, “What you hate to suffer, do not do to anyone else.” Eliasson himself thought that the Golden Rule not only concerned relationships with humans but also with animals, citing from the Yoruba: “One taking a pointed stick to pinch a baby bird should first try it on himself to feel how it hurts.”
But is the ‘gold’ of the famous Golden Rule “fool’s gold”? In effect that’s the view formerly expressed by Oscar Wilde and George Bernard Shaw and now stridently pressed by A.C. Grayling, a Vice President of the British Humanist Association, sometimes dubbed the Fifth Horseman of New Atheism.
In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus taught, “So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets” (Matthew 7:12). This so-called Golden Rule is also picked up by Luke in his Gospel: “Do to others as you would have them do to you” (Luke 6:31).
What’s Grayling’s beef with this? In his book The Heart of Things, Grayling, like Epicurus before him, advocates the pursuit of pleasure. To be fair, like Epicurus, Grayling is not promoting hedonism. Grayling teaches that reciprocity is integral to the experience of pleasure. He explains, “To find pleasure one must know how to give it, and that involves insight, sympathy and mutuality, all of them refinable virtues. Another way of putting the point is to say: there can be little true pleasure in what harms others.” He continues, “This is why Oscar Wilde was right to reject the Golden Rule, for if your rule is that you must do to others as you would have them do to you, then you make your own tastes a standard, and ignore the difference – and thus the real needs and desires – of others.”
Think about that claim: “there can be little true pleasure in what harms others.” Hardly a self-evident truth. It shows little appreciation of the depth of human evil. History is replete with examples of those who do in fact find pleasure in torturing others and see no need to listen to whatever Grayling might consider higher pleasure, his supposed “true pleasure.”
Leaving aside repulsive sadism, is it even true, as Grayling supposes, that there is little pleasure in what harms others? What about when fitting justice is exacted against a mass murderer? Quite apart from any pleasure that might be experienced at seeing such a person suffer, is it not right and proper to derive ‘true pleasure’ from seeing justice done – a justice that does involve harming another?
Then again, how does one work out what it is that ‘harms others’ and what doesn’t? Grayling is persuaded that religion, especially Christianity, harms others and that his brand of secular humanism doesn’t. But if his philosophical materialism is wrong and if people’s eternal destinies do indeed hinge on how they respond to Jesus, then Grayling himself is guilty of doing incalculable harm to others, and, if that is indeed the case, there seems little doubt that Grayling himself, given the vigour of his attacks on Christianity, experiences “true pleasure” in inflicting such harm on others.
Grayling’s claim is that to find pleasure you have to know how to give it. Well, that’s hardly self-evident either. That cat being stroked in my wife’s lap is purring away. Not sure he has much of an idea how to give pleasure. What about that content baby sucking at her mother’s breast? If Grayling’s claim holds up at all it is because he has his own very idiosyncratic understanding of what he means by ‘pleasure.’ It looks suspiciously like the logic involved is circular: Grayling’s ‘pleasure’ is the pleasure you experience when you avoid harming others, whatever that means.
What’s does Grayling have in mind when he commends Oscar Wilde’s rejection of the Golden Rule? He thinks that the Golden Rule actually expresses the very opposite of what it is usually considered to express: that it is not in fact altruistic at all because it shows no concern for “the real needs and desires” of others. On the contrary, so Grayling supposes, the Golden Rule in reality is highly egocentric because it makes my personal tastes the standard for how I should relate to others.
Quite frankly, this line of thought is puerile. When Jesus pronounced the Golden Rule did he mean that I should serve my guest raspberry ripple ice-cream because if I was the guest in his house I would like him to serve this to me? This is to make a mockery of all that is intended by the Golden Rule.
It is time to put the Golden Rule in its context.
In fact, there are two contexts in which Jesus’ Golden Rule is expressed. We find one in Matthew 7 and the other in Luke 6.
Let’s start with the Matthew 7 context:
“Do not judge, or you too will be judged. 2 For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.
3 “Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? 4 How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? 5 You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.
6 “Do not give dogs what is sacred; do not throw your pearls to pigs. If you do, they may trample them under their feet, and turn and tear you to pieces.
7 “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. 8 For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened.
9 “Which of you, if your son asks for bread, will give him a stone? 10 Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake? 11 If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him! 12 So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.
The very first verse clearly provides a lead-in to the Golden Rule: “Do not judge, or you too will be judged.” Jesus here has in mind not mere criticism but final judgment, that is, condemnation. The person concerned may indeed be worthy of condemnation according to the moral standards I hold dear. But Jesus warns me against treating that person as if I myself was fit to be the ultimate judge, because God will scrupulously apply the same moral standards to me at the time of final judgment. I don’t want to be condemned so I would be wise to avoid condemning others. Let's leave that to God.
The verses that immediately precede the Golden Rule involve an analogy between the way a father responds to the requests of his son and the way God the Father responds to the prayers of his children. It is normal for a father, notwithstanding that he like all human beings is a sinful man, to treat his son with generosity. Jesus’ underlying point is that fathers love their sons and that by analogy God the Father loves his children even more. The generosity of a father towards his son is the expression of such love and, as Jesus has elsewhere made plain, it is love that “sums up the Law and the Prophets.” Consequently, the Golden Rule in Jesus’ mouth is merely another way of saying that his disciples should treat people with love because we value being loved by others. Of course, Jesus is not saying that we should love people in order to be loved by others. We would treasure living in a world where all people love each other and in which we ourselves are treated lovingly by others.
Grayling may be excused for making a mistake that many make in their misunderstanding of the Golden Rule. It is commonplace for people to read the Sermon on the Mount as if Jesus was expressing principles that he expected all people to apply. What flick back to Matthew 5 and note carefully how Matthew introduces the Sermon on the Mount: “Now when he saw the crowds, he went up on a mountainside and sat down. His disciples came to him and he began to teach them, saying:” (Matthew 5:1-2)
Who was Jesus teaching? He was teaching “them”, that is, his disciples. He taught them in the hearing of the crowds. The crowds overheard him as he taught his disciples. Read the Sermon on the Mount carefully and it will become abundantly clear that Jesus is not teaching the crowds but his disciples. It is true, of course, that in many cultures we find statements that closely approximate the Golden Rule. Despite this fact, there is no evidence that Jesus intended all people to adopt the Golden Rule as a moral principle. Jesus was not a moral teacher and it is a serious misunderstanding of the Sermon on the Mount to see it is a corpus of universally applicable moral teaching.
There is a sense then in which Grayling is right to reject the Golden Rule. There is little point in him trying to live by this teaching unless he first surrenders his life to Jesus and acknowledges him as his Lord. Grayling rejects the Golden Rule on the grounds that it makes one’s own tastes the standard by which a person relates to others. As should be only too evident from the Matthean context we have considered, there is no way a true disciple of Jesus would operate this way because his concern is to love others in a way that “sums up the Law and the Prophets.”
None of the Gospel writers claim that they are writing down what Jesus said in the order in which he said it and there is no contradiction in what they wrote. This is the context for the Golden Rule that Luke supplies:
27 “But to you who are listening I say: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, 28 bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you. 29 If someone slaps you on one cheek, turn to them the other also. If someone takes your coat, do not withhold your shirt from them. 30 Give to everyone who asks you, and if anyone takes what belongs to you, do not demand it back. 31 Do to others as you would have them do to you.
32 “If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners love those who love them. 33 And if you do good to those who are good to you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners do that. 34 And if you lend to those from whom you expect repayment, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, expecting to be repaid in full. 35 But love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back. Then your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High, because he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked. 36 Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.
37 “Do not judge, and you will not be judged. Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven. 38 Give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over, will be poured into your lap. For with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.”
Yet again note how Luke introduces his recollection of Jesus’ teaching on this occasion: “Looking at this disciples, he said” (Luke 6:20). It is evident that in this context Jesus’ teaching is directed at his disciples and the Golden Rule not only summarises the gist of what Jesus has just said in verses 27-30 but is also reinforced by what follows in verses 32-38. Verse 27 is crystal clear: “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, 28 bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you.” Clearly, Jesus is not addressing all people, but only his own followers. Jesus knows full well that his disciples will be hated, cursed and mistreated. So the Golden Rule most certainly does not mean that his disciples should do good to others so that people will be good to them. Obviously, Jesus’ disciples would prize living in a world where they themselves are the beneficiaries of love, blessing and prayer. What is abundantly clear is that the Golden Rule is simply Jesus’ way of expressing the need of his disciples to love others and the very fact that his disciples are to behave this way in the face of severe persecution makes it abundantly clear that for them the application of the Golden Rule is far from being a case of imposing their own personal tastes on others.
On this matter of personal tastes and interests, Paul exhorts, “Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others” (Philippians 2:4-5). He immediately adds, “Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus”, explaining how Jesus “made himself nothing, taking the very form of a servant” and so on. The Golden Rule was taught to his followers by the One who modelled what it means to truly love people. He is the One who “came not to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Matthew 20:28).
To sum up, Jesus did not teach all people everywhere to observe the Golden Rule. The Golden Rule is not Christian moralism. Jesus taught this only to his disciples as the One who perfectly expresses how to live it out. He sets "the gold standard", and it is the purest gold. Only those empowered by Jesus and committed to doing his will - those living under Jesus' 'golden rule' or reign - are able to live lives that correspond to Christ’s own example.