The Golden Rule, Part 1: Primum non nocere

Thanks to all of you who voted in the Golden Rule poll. As of this writing:

65 total votes

80% prefer the positive formulation

20% prefer the negative formulation

Those who preferred the positive formulation tended to cite its relative activity over the passivity of the negative formulation.

Okay, why the poll? Well, I, like 80% of you, have tended to favor the positive formulation. I've favored it because it is the Christian formulation and, like many of you, see its active nature as essential to Jesus' vision of aiding the stranger (e.g., the parable of the Good Samaritan).

But I've also been intrigued by the negative formulation. The negative formulation is more common in Eastern religions:

Do not do to others what you do not want them to do to you.
--Confucius, Analects 15:23

My personal favorite example of the negative formulation comes from the Buddhist tradition:

All beings tremble before violence. All fear death. All love life. See yourself in others. Then whom can you hurt?
--from the Dhammapada (my favorite Buddhist text)

An easy way to phrase the negative formulation is the famous ethical dictum: Primum non nocere.

Primum non nocere means "First, do no harm." In Eastern religions this idea is captured by the notion of ahimsa (non-harming). Mahatma Gandhi was the foremost modern prophet of ahimsa:

An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.

There are many causes I am prepared to die for, but no causes that I am prepared to kill for.

In my opinion, noncooperation with evil is as much a duty as is cooperation with good. But in the past, noncooperation has been deliberately expressed in violence to the evildoer. I am endeavoring to show to my countrymen that violent noncooperation only multiplies evil, and that as evil can only be sustained by violence, withdrawal of support of evil requires complete abstention from violence.

So, here are my questions for this Part 1 (of 2) in this series:

Has the Christian witness been hampered by not pounding away more forcefully about the negative formulation?

Is there a moral hazard to the skewed 80% of the poll? (And remember, I cast the first vote in the poll for the positive formulation.)

Should we instill more deeply into the bones of church-going folk the idea that our first obligation to others is to do no harm? For example, should children in church first be reared on "First, do no harm" before graduating to the practices of the positive formulation? Would this training be an improvement over our strict adherence to the positive formulation in Christian churches?

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12 thoughts on “The Golden Rule, Part 1: Primum non nocere

  1. Richard,

    Silly me, this is easy, I thought.

    And so my first inclination was to choose the "positive." But then I thought, "Why choose at all when I am rarely called on to make this type of decision in the abstract?" So I did not.

    My experience over the years has been that human interactions are relational and contextual. So with one person and set of circumstances I may best, most lovingly respond primum non nocere. In another set of circumstances and with another person I may respond doing what I perceive to be the good for the other which I believe is also good for me--knowing full well that the road to Hell (others and mine) is often paved with good intentions.

    In Matthew 18:1 ff, Jesus tells us to open our arms to children for his sake and not to cause a child to stumble, not to skandalize the child. That is a clear form of acceptance as well as a clear "do no harm." My sense is that it is best to nurture a child's generosity, curiosity, capacity to love, imagination, individuality, and need to belong by being healthy incarnations of both positive and negative principles.

    So which one is it: "Fools rush in where angels fear to tread" or "s/he who hesitates is lost"?

    Alas, it ain't easy being me.

    Peace (maybe),

    George C.

  2. You make a good point about the importance of the negative, especially the principle of "do no harm" before moving to the positive. I'd not thought of it such a way.

  3. In general I am wary of rules. Therefore I highly prefer the negative formulation of this "rule" as it is more limited. Rules, in my experience get abused and lead toward results which are often not consonant with the original intention of the rule. Therefore it is wiser and simpler to keep one's rules straightforward.

    Now, when Jesus commands us to love our neighbor - this to me is qualitatively different because it does not prescribe a specific kind of action as the golden rule stated positively does. Love is open to interpretation and outside critique. One can say - you're actions don't seem loving to me. One cannot say - you aren't treating him the way you'd want to be treated because we each differ in how we might like to be treated.

    Essentially - with rules, keep them simple and few and phrase them in such a way that they are measurable and open to outside critique.

    Otherwise, go in the opposite direction and phrase them abstractly and leave them open to interpretation, but then you're not really dealing with "rules" any longer, but something looser. Perhaps, guidance.

  4. I am not sure if I agree with the idea of teaching the negative aspect and then the positive but I tend to believe that is precisely what we do teach our children, "Don't hit, Don't steal, Don't tease...etc." before teaching them about doing good. In my experience as a mom, my children are likely to do what I tell them NOT to do. As soon as I say to my son don't hit your sister because it's wrong that's the first thing my son does when he gets angry. But when I focus on the positive behavior it seems to give better results. IN the church, and I do have little experience with it, is the same way. When we have preachers always telling the sheep "Don't" and How bad we are, well the results are negative. As soon as the preacher says we 'shouldn't say such and such' I suddenly have a desire to say it more. The more you talk about sin the more I think about sin and the more I think about sin the more I am going to do it. Not saying we shouldn't talk about sin but I think the concept of teaching good first and focusing on the positive will result in postive results...

  5. Good thoughts Richard. As one who thinks Gandhi was right about a lot of things I would certainly like to see the Church emphasize not harming others.
    But there's an easy way to distort the negative formulation as well--let it become a principle of 'live and let live'... all well and good, but how is that Christian?
    I do think it's somewhat ironic that Christians claim to follow Jesus but see no conflict of interest when they serve in the military... isn't there something wrong when loving your enemy is compatible with killing them? Perhaps this is where the negative formulation would be best employed...
    My two cents.

  6. Mark Twain wrote a short story that applies here, but alas, I can't remember the name of it. It is about a man who walks into a church who is sending its sons' off to war and praying for them. The man, upon hearing their prayer, interprets it for them. When they send their children to war and pray that God spares their lives, they are really asking that their bullets reach their enemies before their enemies bullets reach them (of course, my recall of the story is not as prosaic as Twain's writing).

    I wonder how often we hope and pray for success when--if we thought about it--it means the oppression of others: socially, politically, or economically. Is my good life predicated on the harm of others, be it the environment, developing countries, or my competitors?

    Just some thoughts.


  7. This is a little off topic, but it has to do with what Dave and Daniel commented on as well. I've been preplexed in recent years of the Christian support for war. I do not understand how people can claim to follow the ten commandments and also support an endeavor in which it is the goal to destroy your enemy.

  8. There has been a lot of scholarship comparing the Golden Rule to Kant's
    'categorical imperative' - are they equivalent propositions? To me, I find the formulation of Kant: "Always treat other human beings as ends and never means (and that end should always recognize the moral dignity of the person)" to
    capture what I believe to be the spirit of the teachings of Jesus and possibly avoid some of the unpleasant consequences of either of Richard's formulations.
    This formulation seems to incorporate both 'positive' and 'negative' statements.

    Though, I suspect my friend Richard has something else up his sleeve and I await
    with attention transfixed.


  9. What about the Old Testament specifically Joshua where they were told by God to kill their enemies, women and children included?

  10. One more thought about not doing harm...
    Because I am a follower of Christ and someone comes into my home and they threaten to kill my children I am to just stand and not defend my children? Are we to let opression continue to those who are incapable of defending themselves? Doesn't God want us to seek justice?

  11. Those are good questions Roxanne, but I think there is room for a lot of options between actively harming someone who enters your home and standing and doing nothing. The woman in Atlanta last year(I forget her name) responded to the crazed gunman in her apartment by talking with him about his life and making him pancakes and this ended up descalating a potentially awful situation.

    I guess the key point, given this discussion, is how do we develop faithful imaginative responses predicated on doing no harm (or loving one's enemy to put it more strongly)? Forty years ago who would have thought that kneeling on a bridge and allowing police to beat you would absolutely unmask the powerlessness of violence? MLK could imagine faithful responses to violence in ways that I cannot (but I wish to). For me, I just cannot get around the Cross as pointing us to the defeat of violence through sacrificial love, but I have yet to "embody" this well.

  12. Roxanne,

    Somehow Joshua keeps popping up in my life. I just completed an exegesis paper on the book of Joshua which I will soon publish on my blog. Until then, may I humbly recommend this set of propositions as an interpretation of Joshua and other books by a pacifist:


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