The Golden Rule, Part 2: The Glitch

The thing that got me thinking about the positive and negative formulations of the Golden Rule was a passage from Kwame Anthony Appiah's excellent book Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers. Here's the passage:

...But even though some version or other of the rule has broad scriptural sanction, the Golden Rule is not as helpful as it might at first seem.

To see why, notice first that when you do something to someone, what you do can be truly described in infinitely many ways. When it's described in some of those ways, the person you did it to may be glad you did it; when it's described in other ways, he may not. Suppose you are a doctor considering saving the life of a Jehovah's Witness by giving her a blood transfusion. What you want to do is: save her life. That, of course, is exactly what you would want done unto you, if your medical situation was the same as hers. It is also, we may suppose, what she wants done unto her. But you also want to do this: give her a blood transfusion. That, too, is what you would want done to you. Unfortunately, it is not what your patient wants. Most Witnesses, you see, interpret Leviticus 3:17--which says, "An everlasting statue for your generations in all your dwelling places, no fat and no blood shall you eat"--as prohibiting blood transfusions. Since obeying the Lord's commands is more important to her than this earthly life, under this description she's vehemently opposed to what you want to do. She'd literally rather be dead. The first problem with the Golden Rule, in any of its versions, in practice, is that to apply it I have to know not just why I am doing what I am doing unto others--the descriptions of the act that matters to me--but also how the act will strike others.

So what should you do?

This passage gave me pause. It struck me that inside the positive formulation of the Golden Rule there is this odd little quirk that can quickly lead us astray. Specifically, once I identify what I would like done to me I can too quickly assume that you'd like the same done to you.

Don't you think Christians have made this mistake time and time again?

For example, try this:

If God considered me to be an abomination I'd want someone to tell me about it. Thus, I'm loving these people by informing them that God hates them.

If I was going to hell I sure wish someone would tell me that I was going to burn in hell for all eternity. Telling people they are going to hell is loving them.

If I was a pagan and going to hell I would wish for some Christian nation to invade my country so I could have access to the gospel.

I'm really not trying to be political in these examples (as you might tell from my blog I detest politics and rarely speak about it). I'm just pointing out that the positive formulation of the Golden Rule (the one 80% of us preferred) is kind of, well, glitchy, morally speaking.

Which again makes we warm to the negative formulation. True, it is very passive. But it seems less glitchy to me, less susceptible to abuse.

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21 thoughts on “The Golden Rule, Part 2: The Glitch”

  1. Richard,

    The one thing I disagree with is that the positive formulation usually takes perspective into consideration. The masochist does not generally think, "I like pain; therefore, I should cause pain to others." One ought to consider what sorts of things would be considered "good" for that person. In fact, I think consideration is one of the keys to living out the Golden Rule appropriately.

    On a related note, do you think "Love your neighbor as yourself" is a bad formulation? Because I think the similarity is rather striking.

  2. Richard,

    Thanks for this revelation on the problem inherent in the Golden Rule. How often do we act in just this way -- assuming what is right for me is what is right for you.


  3. Hi Richard,

    Anthoer great pursuit. I enjoyed this quite a bit as it has come up in conversation amongst a few of us on another blog.

    there is the link if you want to glance at it, more data for your experiments maybe.

  4. Hi Brody,
    Oh, I'm all for the Golden Rule and Love your Neighbor. I think some readers (not you, I'm speaking broadly here due to some recent chatter about my blog at ACU) tend to think I'm trying to undermine good, moral notions. I just like to think about the psychological glitches in things (e.g., moral formulations, family values, theological configurations). It's an occupational hazard. My profession specializes in the prolonged meditation upon on how things go very, very wrong with people:-)

    I also need to keep reminding people that I am working under the title "experimental" (plus have that Caute seal up there and call the blog a "laboratory"). My posts are intended to start reflection rather than solicit agreement. Which is weird, I know. So, for a post like this I don't what this reaction:

    "Beck is trying to screw around with the Golden Rule! What kind of God-forsaken heathen would attack the Golden Rule?!"

    But I rather hope to get a reaction that is something like this:

    "Hmmm. I wonder how people might use the Golden Rule to justify being nasty? Further, have I ever done this? Hmmm."

    Anyway, I know you weren't asking for all this, but I like to clarify from time to time what "experimental theology" means for me.

    Take care and speakeasy,

  5. Richard,

    Our problem lies within the misnomer "golden rule". When we make it a rule [law]--it becomes part of a new law system that is more difficult to keep that the old law. Woe for us! That is not what Christ died for!
    If it is a rule in our rule book--then we make rules like the scribes and pharisees and so we come up with examples of application like the 3 glitches you suggested.
    If we look at the account in Luke--we see Christ saying you would like your enemies to love you rather than hate you and the accomplishment of that begins with you loving them instead of hating them. When we go beyond context and apply it as a rule---problems.

    I am glad that we are saved by grace!

    David Dallas

  6. Richard, and other fellow glitchers:

    How I (we) respond to guidelines or rules is a learned behavior about relationships and social contexts which over time must become nuanced and incarnated for the sake of evolutionary progress, i.e. for human survival. How I respond to father and mother, wife, adult children, children, grandchildren, other family members, colleagues, friends and/or strangers is, at best, conditioned by my understanding and actions informed by agape mediated through a variety of sources. In a very real sense, what I (we?) think and do is an experiential trial and error experiment over a lifetime--a pilgrimmage of my (our) spirit with the Spirit of God, an evolutionary process which hopefully over the course of time raises my awareness and conditions my behavior so that they imitate the God of all compassion.

    Like any profession, life in the Spirit of God is one of practice--a practical learning process at which we become skilled, maybe even masters, but not perfect. Guidelines and rules, law and nomos, principles and traditions are important but not the final substance. The map, as accurate and helpful as it is, is not the enchanted landscape. And beside us walks One who will guide us with wonder and courage if only we have eyes to see and ears to hear.

    My sermonizing for the dark hours. Selah.


    George C.

  7. So what if the formulation were, "do unto others as they would have you do unto them?"

    Does that solve the problem, or exacerbate it?

  8. George, David (and Aric and Paul from the last post),
    Your comments make me think that the glitchy part in not the content of the Rule per se, but its formulation as a rule that makes it glitchy. You think that's right?

    You know, I think that switch really helps. Has anyone ever seen that particular phrasing of the Golden Rule in another world religion?

  9. Richard,

    An old constitutional lawyer once said: "Hard cases make bad law" by which he meant that applying a general rule to certain difficult situations undermines the rule and ethically should be avoided: hence the need for specificity. It's a spirit versus the letter thingy.

    With the above in mind, I don't think the formulation of a rule is necessarily glitchy but its interpretation and application.


    It seems to me that your re-working of the Golden Rule as "do unto others as they would have you do unto them" might be an invitation to ennabling if the others are dysfunctional or their behavior is destructive or their mental status is compromised. Getting others' take can be helpful, but giving folks what they want may not be the "golden" response.


    George C.

  10. Richard,

    I've been following your blog for a little while now (lurking in the shadows!), so I understand what you mean, but thank you for the clarification. It does make things a little different to say that the positive formulation gives room for error, not necessarily that its formulation is always strictly followed (which is part of why I think the positive formulation is okay - most people seem naturally to interpret it as "Put yourself in the other person's shoes before you act").

    I still would like to see what your thoughts on "Love your neighbor as yourself" are as far as its formulation. Does it commit the same sort of error as the positive formulation of GR because it invites the adherent to think of themselves before acting rather than the person upon whom the action will rest? Would it be better stated "Love your neighbor as if you were them?"

  11. I'm new here and new to this Christianity thing, but it seems a little wierd that a teaching that comes from Jesus would be glitchy. I would have to say that our interpretation of it is probably glitchy and not what Jesus was trying to teach us. It seems to me that the Golden Rule is to treat people with respect, kindness and dignity, to love someone is to do what is best for them. Hebrews 12 talks about how God disciplines those he loves for THEIR good while our earthly parents discipline us as best they can. There is a difference. To love someone isn't always easy, it isn't always nice and warm, sometimes we have to be tough, we have to discipline, we have to do something that is hard for them but it is for their good. Jesus always taught God and others first before self. One must loose their life in order to find their life. We must deny our rights and make sacrifices. See, I think Jesus was saying that we need to treat people like people and not like trash. The golden rule like everything else can be abused and used for our own glory rather than for the glory of God. We can rearrange the words all we want but it's what Jesus was trying to teach us and that is what it means to be a human and how God designed us to be and since we live in a world full of sin we need to watch out for eachother and give a little light in a dark place. I want to be treated with respect and dignity and I should treat others that way too, I shouldn't use this teaching of Christ to get my own way or to manipulate others. To treat others they way I want to be treated doesn't mean I go around giving the world flowers and money, I think it boils down to just love, respect and diginity.

  12. yes, Richard, I believe that our time honored terming the statement "the golden rule" and thus making it a part of a legal system is what makes for glitches. Making extra applications to this 'rule" means that it is interpreted to apply to situations that Christ never intended for it. [The 3 glitches you mentioned are examples of doing so]

    Instead of an interpretation of the "golden rule"--Our motivation for telling others about God and Christ comes from the great commission--we are disciples and we are teaching others to become disciples also. This flows from our discipleship not from rule following. We approach the lost with kindness, love, compassion, and consideration because we have Christ's example to follow. Further, we do so because we know that without Christ we are doomed--we are sinners cleansed by Christ's blood. Over and over in the jail--we said we are sinners coming to you to tell you how Christ has saved us from ourselves.

    Roxannne is correct in stating: "I would have to say that our interpretation of it is probably glitchy and not what Jesus was trying to teach us."

    David Dallas

  13. Many Christians attach a bunch of assumptions and exceptions to The Golden Rule. For example, many Christians believe that deep in their hearts all people want to be "saved" whether they know it or not. So, therefore they often justify their judgments of others and efforts to "save" others by thinking that they would want someone to do the same for them if they hadn't found Christ yet. However, I can assure you that most religious people who are NOT Christians feel the EXACT same way about spreading their own religion. But, most Christians would be rather offended (or at least slightly put off) if a Muslim tried to convert them to Islam. Therefore, I'm sorry to say, since they would not like a Muslim doing the same to them, they are not really following The Golden Rule. Or how would Christians (at least the straight ones) like it if all the homosexuals kept trying to get them to give up their heterosexual ways and live like a homosexual? How do you think that would go over? Many Christians keep looking at it the convenient way, by saying once again, "Well, if I was gay, I'd want someone to set me (forgive the pun) straight". But once again, they're not really following The Golden Rule.

    To put it plainly, it's not enough to simply imagine how YOU would feel walking in another person's shoes; you must actually try to imagine how THEY would feel walking in those shoes.

    And that's not so easy to do.

  14. Interesting link:

  15. How many of us would really want someone to tell us we are going to hell...wouldn't we prefer they tell us about Heaven instead? It makes perfect sense what you described. It is obviously and extreme form of the Golden Rule, but someone could contort its meaning to such extreme in order to do what they want to do. It's real message, to love others, even those we don't love, is more a thing of action than of words.

  16. I think that's the big difficulty though, "loving". This word has a very contested meaning. Lots of people do all sorts of things as mentioned above and justify them as "loving" the other. I think it is helpful to see that defining love as living by the golden rule has some problems as Richard has pointed out. It seems to me that if we use our own desires or even our own understanding of reality as a guide to loving others, doesn't this boil down to selfishness?

  17. Brody,
    I'd say that "loving your neighbor as yourself" has the same interpretive glitches as the Golden Rule due to the "as yourself." That is, as hineini, gioietta, meb and David have pointed out, we can too quickly make MY feelings the guiding impulse for my behavior. The hard work, ethically speaking, is my being motivated by YOUR feelings. That takes lots of effort and often a lifetime of practice. For example, in my home I have to struggle constantly to see how things appear to my wife. What seems "good" and "right" and "obvious" to me does not predict (with depressing regularly) how she will see things. Psychologists call this work variously empathy, understanding, or perspective-taking.

    My point is that the Golden Rule is often phrased in such a way that can, upon superficial inspection, imply that the actor only needs consult his/her own feelings.

    The negative formulation of the Rule is less susceptible to this bias as there appears to be a more universal consensus about what harm is. That is, we may disagree across cultures about what is "good" or "best," but we find remarkable agreement about what we consider to be noxious, aversive, or harmful (e.g., no one likes being hit).


    The following website summarizes over 165 lawsuits filed by Jehovah's Witnesses against their Employers, and/or incidents involving problem JW Employees:


    The following website summarizes 300 U.S. court cases and lawsuits affecting children of Jehovah's Witness Parents, including 100+ cases where the JW Parents refused to consent to life-saving blood transfusions for their children:


  19. Hello Richard,

    I've very much enjoyed your musings on the positive and negative Golden Rule.

    A few years ago I wrote an essay on the Rule that grappled with that question, as well as with the notion that moral behavior counter to our Darwinian nature. I would like to send you the essay, but there's no e-mail address on this site as far as I can tell. If you would like to see the essay, please e-mail me: amba12 AT .

    Annie Gottlieb
    amba @ AmbivaBlog

  20. There is no problem here.

    (Galatians 5:22-23) ". . .the fruitage of the [holy] spirit is love, joy, peace, long-suffering, kindness, goodness, faith, mildness, self-control. Against such things there is no law. . ."

    You cannot "lovingly" FORCE your views on another. You CAN explain why God's ways (regarding sexual morality, ethics, etc.) are de facto superior to human ideas, but even as God respects free will in allowing people to CHOOSE to serve Him, we cannot pressure others to conform. We can only lead by example.

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