Philosophical perspectives on the Golden Rule typically focus on the Golden Rule’s well-known flaws and may even have a dismissive tone.
The philosopher Dan Flores recently wrote:
“If ethics is the inquiry into the basic claims of morality, then upon philosophical scrutinization of the Golden Rule, we find that, in the words of Quine, ‘there is nothing to scrute’ after all. We should focus our attention on ordinary moral principles instead.”
As an admirer of the Golden Rule, I took offense on its behalf. In response, I will both defend its permanent cultural usefulness and argue that it points us to a universal moral principle.
Rather than there being “nothing to scrute”, the Golden Rule, particularly in the form “Do to others as you would have them do to you”, may be the most culturally useful heuristic (a usually reliable, but fallible, rule of thumb) for moral behavior in existence. We will see there are good reasons that Jesus is quoted in Mathew 7:12 as saying the Golden Rule summarizes morality and even present-day secular people commonly quote it as their primary moral guide. Despite the Golden Rule’s flaws, it has remained a popular and useful moral principle since ancient times and in cultures around the world.
Building on insights into the origin and function of morality by the Greek philosopher Protagoras and Charles Darwin, I’ll argue we can understand why the Golden Rule’s specific flaws exist. Understanding when the Golden rule will advocate immoral behavior is a useful result on its own. In addition, this knowledge plus a bit about cooperation strategies leads to a perhaps even more surprising result. We can identify the cross-species universal moral principle that the Golden Rule is a heuristic for. These are the potential payoffs for scrutinizing the Golden Rule.
In one of Plato’s dialogs, the philosopher Protagoras explained to Socrates that morality’s function, the primary reason it exists, is it increases the benefits of cooperation. (Protagoras illustrated his argument with the Greek myth that Zeus gave all people a moral sense to enable them to cooperate in groups. The existence of this myth implies that “morality as cooperation” was a common understanding of morality among people in Protagoras’ time and likely well-known to Socrates.)
If the function of morality is to increase the benefits of cooperation, then how might we describe immoral behavior except as acting to decrease the benefits of cooperation? Then when might the Golden Rule’s guidance be expected to decrease the overall benefits of cooperation? Such circumstances include the Golden Rule’s commonly recognized “failures” when 1) a judge does not punish a criminal because the judge would like to not be punished in the same circumstances, 2) a soldier acts generously toward an enemy soldier in time of war resulting in the enemy soldier killing the generous one, and 3) people’s “tastes differ”, as Bernard Shaw pointed out, regarding how they want to be treated. Protagoras’ 2500-year-old perspective on morality as cooperation reveals the “why” of the Golden Rule’s standard failure examples. Those failures occur when following the Golden Rule would likely decrease the benefits of cooperation and thus be immoral.
If the function of moral behavior actually is increasing the benefits of cooperation, then we have an explanation for the flaw that produces the Golden Rule’s failures. But given this flaw, how has the Golden Rule remained such a useful moral norm?
“Do to others as you would have them to do to you” advocates initiating cooperation based on the generally reliable assumption that both parties like to be treated similarly. For example, following the Golden Rule would advocate sharing food, coming to other’s aid when they need help, and treating other people fairly, even when one has the power to treat them unfairly. Such cooperation was critical for survival in pre-civilization societies and the material and psychological benefits of cooperation remain, even now, the overwhelming reason we form and maintain societies and moral codes.
However, the Golden Rule does not advocate mere reciprocity – I help you and you help me. There is no hint in the Golden Rule that people helped will directly reciprocate. If the people helped also follow the Golden Rule, then they will help whoever in the group needs help. Radically more benefits of cooperation are made possible when “all help all” in a large group rather than when help is dependent on pairs of reciprocators (pairs of cooperating people).
The sophisticated form of cooperation initiated by the Golden Rule is called indirect reciprocity. It is perhaps the most powerful cooperation strategy known. The Golden Rule has remained a central moral principle since ancient times because the behaviors it advocates can so effectively increase the benefits of cooperation. (Note that the Golden Rule only initiates indirect reciprocity. Maintaining indirect reciprocity requires exploiters and freeloaders be punished, perhaps just by ceasing to cooperate with them. Our evolved moral sense is generally eager to punish ‘immorality’. We can think of indirect reciprocity as being initiated by the Golden Rule. But indirect reciprocity must be maintained by freeloaders and exploiters being “punished” as motivated by our moral sense’s indignation about other people’s immorality, our own guilt and shame at our own immorality, and by cultural punishment norms for immoral behavior.)
But was Protagoras right? Is the function of morality merely to increase cooperation? If this is true, then Protagoras’ hypothesis faces a daunting task. It must explain, as elements of cooperation strategies, virtually everything we know about our moral sense and cultural moral codes.
After Protagoras, Charles Darwin in The Descent of Man (1871) proposed the next important insight into morality as cooperation. He speculated that biological evolution selects for altruism toward others (“altruism” here referring to helping without expectation of direct reciprocity) and moral behavior in general, because more cooperative groups can outcompete less cooperative groups. Darwin was right. By pointing out that evolution selects for increased cooperation within groups which are sometimes in deadly competition with other groups, Darwin explained two puzzling phenomena: altruism and, perhaps unknowingly, why moral norms in different cultures can be so diverse, contradictory, and even bizarre.
If groups are in competition, it can be a matter of life and death to know who is committed to your group and who might be in a competing group. This can be a problem in large groups such as tribes where individuals may not know everyone well. Markers of membership in and commitment to a cooperative group, such as hair and dress style (which are immediately obvious), circumcision, food and sex taboos, and allegiance to one god versus another (which are more hidden, but still important for distinguishing “us” from “others”) were readily adopted and enforced as “moral norms” because they were effective at increasing the benefits of cooperation within groups.
The diversity, contradictions, and bizarreness of cultural moral norms can be understood as due to two primary causes. First, as described above, groups will use different “markers” of membership and commitment to the group to clearly distinguish themselves from competing groups. Second, societies will use different definitions of who deserves full moral regard (perhaps only men or only one tribe) and who is worthy of less or even no moral regard (perhaps women, slaves, or an enemy group).
Thus, Darwin’s idea that morality is selected for because it enables groups to outcompete other groups largely explains why past and present moral codes can superficially appear to be such a chaotic mess. Indeed, Darwin’s evolutionary explanation, plus a little modern knowledge about cooperation strategies, explains virtually everything we know about our moral sense and past and present cultural moral codes as described here and here.
But a well-functioning moral system must include answers to questions such as “Who will be in favored in-groups? Just family, friends, countrymen, or everyone?” and “What interactions between groups are moral?”. Can an evolutionary perspective illuminate these questions?
There has been a lot of progress in the science of cooperation and moral behavior in recent decades. That science supports a claim about what is universally moral which may help answer these questions. This principle is “Increasing the benefits of cooperation without exploiting others is universally moral”.
The word “moral” here is used in the normal cultural and scientific sense to refer to right and wrong behavior, meaning judged worthy of praise or condemnation by our moral sense and cultural moral codes. “Universally moral” refers to what is universal about all the diverse, contradictory, and bizarre behaviors our moral sense and cultural moral codes motivate and advocate. The claim is ‘true’ in a scientific sense because “cooperation without exploiting others” is a necessary (universal) subcomponent of all cooperation strategies (moral behaviors) relevant to human morality. For example, even cooperating in an in-group to exterminate out-groups relies on people following the above principle and thus maintaining this cooperation by not exploiting others in their in-group.
I know of no philosophical argument that this moral principle is what we somehow imperatively ‘ought’ to do regardless of our goals. But no such argument is generally accepted for any moral principle. Since none have been shown to exist, traditional philosophical “imperative oughts” cannot be the basis of a society’s rational choice for moral references for refining their moral codes. But moral references can be rationally chosen based on whichever moral principle is believed to be most likely to aid in meeting shared needs and preferences.
The cultural usefulness of this universal moral principle is due to its ability to directly and powerfully help us achieve shared goals, its innate harmony with our evolved moral sense, and our intellectual recognition of its mind independent, uniquely “universally moral” status.
This essay is part of an exploration of different approaches to explaining this evolutionary perspective on morality. The approach I personally prefer begins with first principles about cooperation that are innate to our physical reality and independent of human existence. But tastes differ.
If adopting and practicing this principle can be rationally justified simply by a society’s desire to best meet their shared needs and preferences, would that leave moral philosophers out of a job? No, of course not.
First, moral philosophy’s tools and insights would be needed to build, on the bare foundation science provides, coherent, well-functioning moral systems. Such systems must address issues such as abortion, human rights, and relative moral obligations to family, friends, people you will never meet (including future generations), animals, and eco-systems. Second, philosophical answers to larger ethical questions such as “What is good?”, “How should I live?”, “Why should I act morally?”, and “What should our goals be?” range far beyond mere cooperation and science’s domain. Moral philosophy’s traditional methods and wisdom remain as relevant and critical as ever. Moral progress resulting from recognizing morality’s grounding in science might even give moral philosophy’s reputation a substantial boost.
Will all such cultural moral systems then be the same if they are consistent with the proposed single universal moral principle? No. Such cultural moral norms would be merely heuristics (usually reliable, but fallible rules of thumb) for the universal moral principle. Depending on a group’s history, environment, and sometimes different goals, the cultural moral norms that are most likely to achieve those goals by “increasing the benefits of cooperation without exploiting anyone” could still be diverse, contradictory, and perhaps even bizarre to other cultures.
Despite such potential diversity, one moral norm will almost certainly have a prominent place in every such morality. That moral norm will be some version of the Golden Rule. Despite its known flaws, the Golden Rule’s ability to initiate the powerful cooperation strategy indirect reciprocity insures it a permanent place in human morality.
The Not So Golden Rule, https://philosophynow.org/issues/125/The_Not_So_Golden_Rule
Found: a Universal Moral Principle, https://scienceandmorality.com/2017/10/27/found-a-universal-moral-principle/
Moral Universals from An Evolutionist’s Perspective, https://scienceandmorality.com/2015/08/13/moral-universals-from-an-evolutionists-perspective-3/
A Universal Principle Within Moralitys Ultimate Source, https://evolution-institute.org/a-universal-principle-within-moralitys-ultimate-source/