We all know the Golden Rule, taught supposedly by the Jewish Rabbi Jesus in the West and the Confucian scholar Mo Tzu in the East: “do to others as you would have done for yourself.” Or as the equally ancient Rabbi Hillel, or Confucius himself, said, “do not do to others what you would not approve being done to yourself.” Due to the contra-positive law (and contrary to Christian apologists), these two statements are logically identical. For example, you would not want your neighbor to neglect you if you were starving, therefore “do not neglect a starving neighbor.” This is not doing what you would not want done to you, yet amounts to positively doing what you would want done for you. Every positive action can be reframed as a negative being avoided. “Be generous” and “do not fail to be generous” are identical statements. That one is positive and the other negative is wholly irrelevant.
Similarly, the Golden Rule is a convenient articulation, but does not automatically answer all moral questions, because it can be inadvertently (or even deliberately) applied inconsistently. You might want something done to yourself that someone else would not want done to them. Thus, an effective deployment of the Golden Rule requires not treating everyone as if they were identical to yourself, but as if you were them—as in, as if you were different from yourself in all the ways they are different from you (in their abilities, knowledge, preferences, circumstances, and so on). This in fact follows from the rule itself: you would not want done to you what someone else likes done to them but that you do not like done to you; therefore you would want others to consider your perspective in deciding how to treat you; therefore you ought to consider their perspective in deciding how to treat them. By now it should be evident that the Golden Rule seems simple, but actually entails a very complex and deep analysis to apply correctly—as in, consistently. For example, ignoring the perspective of others is a violation the rule; yet you might not realize that in applying the rule egocentrically, and just doing to others what you like done to you.
From Folk Wisdom to Philosophy
In later centuries, analysis of moral reasoning became more fragmented and sophisticated. So-called “deontological” ethics (morals that derive from the nature of the act itself rather than its consequences) were first formally defended by Immanuel Kant, who declared the true moral rule to be that you ought to “act only in accordance with a rule that you can at the same time desire that it become a universal law.” Like the Golden Rule, this also leads to error when applied superficially. For example, some Kantians imagined this ruled out killing in self-defense, but in fact we “can at the same time desire that it become a universal law” that everyone be allowed to kill in self-defense. In fact, we probably would all will that to be the case. The notion that circumstances and consequences must be disregarded is contrary to the Kantian principle itself, since we would never will to be a universal law that circumstances and consequences be disregarded.
Kantian ethics has been posed against J.S. Mill’s “utilitarian” or “teleological” ethics (morals that derive from the consequences of the act and not the nature of the act itself), which is that you ought to “act so as to produce the greatest happiness for the greatest number.” Innumerable problems were found to follow from this rule, too, resulting in many revisions of it, including the development of desire utilitarianism, rule utilitarianism, and so on. And yet all the merits and problems of Mill’s system are analyzable with Kant’s rule: contrary to Kant, who actually was trying to overturn teleological ethics, we “can at the same time desire that it become a universal law” that we “act so as to produce the greatest happiness for the greatest number.” Thus, for all we know, Kant’s rule entails Mill’s. And vice versa! (Indeed, really, All Moral Theories Are the Same.)
Similarly, when we look at problems with Mill’s rule (e.g. it can lead to “the ends justifies the means” thinking which can result in causing widespread harm in the name of a “greater good,” an outcome we don’t like and don’t want to be on the harm-receiving end of), the same follows: we do not will that it be a universal law that the ends always justifies the means, therefore we do not in fact will that it be a universal law that we “act so as to produce the greatest happiness for the greatest number,” but that we act in respect of all individuals so far as we are able, because as individuals ourselves that is how we would want to be treated. Sometimes that requires causing harm as the lesser of two evils, but only when there is no third option (and even then it is not desirable but a forced necessity we have no reason to like).
But now notice how Mill reduces to Kant, and Kant reduces to Mill, such that they are no longer in opposition but are simply describing different aspects of the exact same thing, and the resulting reduction reduces to the Golden Rule, whose application is more complicated than we may have originally thought (Jesus, not really being a philosopher, probably didn’t know this; after all, his applications of it were all absurd and ignorant of social, economic, and psychological reality). Even at the level of agent-becoming this is the case: Kant might say that in doing a certain act (e.g. murder), we become a certain sort of person (e.g. a murderer), which is a consequence in and of itself that we would not like (were we to honestly admit the fact). But this is teleological thinking, and thus in accordance with Mill: part of the consequences to human happiness are indeed the consequences to the individual of becoming a certain sort of person in their actions (e.g. a mass murderer for “the greater good”), and the consequences to the society of endorsing it (e.g. a society that allows mass murder for “the greater good”), which may in and of themselves damage human happiness and thus run afoul of Mill’s own rule. Thus, no matter how you turn it, Mill and Kant were really just saying the same thing, and really just trying to explore the implications of the Golden Rule from different perspectives, neither in themselves complete.
Usually when ethics is taught in college courses you learn there are three different and incompatible ways of understanding “the true moral standard,” the deontological (e.g. Kant), the teleological (e.g. Mill), and virtue ethics. The former two I’ve just mentioned. The latter derives from the first logic-and-science-based moral philosopher whose work substantially survives for us to read it in its entirety: Aristotle. Aristotle would say that we ought to act in accord with those virtues of character the pursuit of which will lead to a life of personal satisfaction and fulfillment, and not in accord with those vices that will lead to a life of discontentment and dissatisfaction. Doing so will in turn produce a harmonious society, and we will enjoy the company and community of those behaving the same way.
This is again the same thing, only now we are looking not at rules of behavior but at their motivating dispositions (which David Hume would likewise focus on). This is therefore one more level deeper in analysis. It in turn reduces to the Kant-Mill reduction to the Golden Rule when we think of the best virtue-state to cultivate and pursue as that which produces behavior in line with the Golden Rule, which will produce the best outcomes for the social system, and therefore for yourself. But now the matter is far more complicated, because now we have to take into account developing the motivations and dispositions to behave this way. But since we always would have had to do that anyway, this is not a defect, but a realization of the actual complexity of moral motivation and behavior.
From Aristotle to Foot
One can speculate as to why philosophy courses only typically teach these “three” systems proposed by three men, when there is a fourth model developed by a woman in the latter 20th century that is as important, if not more so. This is the model developed by Philippa Foot. Foot concluded that we ought to act in accordance with true facts of the world in such a way as to maximize our ability to love our life and get along with other people. Morality is therefore a system of hypothetical imperatives, aiming at the most efficient achievement of an over-arching goal, which is a fulfilling life within a well-functioning social system. This reduces Aristotle (his virtues are just applications of Foot’s system) and likewise Kant-Mill (what we universally will to be the case, is simply a fulfilling life within a well-functioning social system) and likewise the Golden Rule (a rule which, when applied consistently and fully, produces a fulfilling life within a well-functioning social system). Foot, in my opinion, is the only philosopher who saw the forrest for the trees, and produced the most correct and usable analysis of moral reasoning and its proper roots and motivations. (Hence my own metaethics is built on it: informally in Sense and Goodness without God; and formally under peer review in The End of Christianity.)
To see how all this might function in practice, consider Aristotle’s eight cardinal virtues, which he considered the cultivation of and adherence to as producing the moral person:
- Generosity (with money, time, resources)
- Sensibility (with money, time, resources)
- Self-Regard (i.e. self-respect)
- Achievement (i.e. have goals, make something of yourself)
- Easiness (i.e. be emotionally even-tempered)
- Friendliness (cultivate friendships, be a good friend)
- Honesty (be trustworthy, reliable, truth-telling)
- Charm (i.e. be pleasant company, good guest or host, witty and polite)
Emotions Aristotle treated separately, and as being governed by the virtues. Thus “compassion” was not classified as a virtue, because it is not a thing you do, but a thing you feel. For Aristotle, compassion could be a motivation for moral action, but was not by itself a moral action. Likewise, compassion, like any other emotion, had to be in good regulation: any action motivated by it, to be virtuous, had to be in agreement with the eight virtues just enumerated.
And Aristotle argued that too little or too much of these virtues became a vice. He makes a pretty good case that to achieve greater satisfaction for yourself, and a better society for all, you ought to seek not the perfect maximization of some good, but the most excellent middle balance between two evils. Too much generosity is irresponsible and self-harming; too much sensibility deprives you of the pleasures of life; too much self-regard, is arrogance; too much pursuit of achievement, deprives you of leisure; too much easiness, makes you an ineffective doormat; too much friendliness makes you vulnerable to exploitation and abuse; too much honesty causes all manner of strife and harm; and even too much charm can make you off-putting or unserious.
Such was Aristotle’s system. Foot would say that this is just one model for implementing a system of hypothetical imperatives, such that whoever modulates their behavior according to these eight virtues (assuming that system is empirically correct in this respect, which one can theoretically test with science) will find the social system they interact with will function best for them overall and produce greater satisfaction for them than otherwise. Likewise, a society that follows the same principles will be the most satisfying society for anyone to live in. Such is the hypothesis.
We might now say this in terms of risk theory: the probability of that outcome is greater on that behavior than on any alternative behavior, such that even if the outcome is not guaranteed, it is still only rational to engage the behavior that will have the greatest likelihood of the desired outcome. By analogy with vaccines that have an adverse reaction rate: when the probability of an adverse reaction is thousands of times less than the probability of contracting the disease being vaccinated against, it is not rational to complain that, when you suffer an adverse reaction from that vaccine, being vaccinated was the incorrect decision. To the contrary, it remained the best decision at the time, because the probability of a worse outcome was greater at the time for a decision not to be vaccinated. Analogously, that some evil people prosper is not a valid argument for following their approach, since for every such person attempting that, thousands will be ground under in misery, and only scant few will roll the lucky dice. It is not rational to gamble on an outcome thousands to one against, when failure entails misery, and by an easy difference in behavioral disposition you can ensure a sufficiently satisfying outcome with odds thousands to one in favor—as then misery is thousands to one against rather than thousands to one in favor. This is also why pointing to good people ending in misery is not a valid argument against being good.
Insofar as we think these odds unjust, that thought in and of itself is sufficient reason to re-tool the system so as to tip those odds even further towards what we would like them to be, e.g.. safety-nets for good people who are unlucky (like social welfare) and drag-nets for bad people who are lucky (like the law). Just as we do with nature: we tip the odds against disaster with building codes, safety infrastructure, dykes and dams, alert systems, evacuation plans, emergency services, and so on; and the odds toward prosperity with public education, insurance, transportation and other infrastructure, and so on.
Everything in Relation to Goal Theory
It cannot be known from the armchair if Aristotle’s scheme is the best one or even the correct one. But we can explore empirically how effective it is, or alternatives, modifications, and so on, and we can do this in varying degrees of reliability (personal life experience; aggregate historical experience within a society; scientific research). The question that lingers is what is this “optimal satisfaction” as a goal that moral behavior is undertaken to maximize the probability of. I have debated this with fellow atheist Mike McKay. I suggest the following comes out of that:
There are at least two channels by which behavior maximizes life satisfaction: external reciprocity (beneficial interaction with a social system) and internal contentment (how the experience of being moral elevates your appreciation of yourself and your life).
Reciprocity is both direct and indirect. Tit-for-tat models of optimal behavior in Game Theory are an example of the operation of direct reciprocity. But reciprocity also operates indirectly. For example, the whole system or culture you contribute to normalizing, will in turn treat you back the way you helped build it. Either way, reciprocity manifests in at least three dimensions: prosociality, trustworthiness, and reasonableness. In general, when fully informed and reasoning without fallacy, you would prefer to live in a social system that is prosocial, trustworthy, and reasonable. These are the attributes you would want from every member of a social system you interact with. It follows, first, that such a system cannot exist if you are participating in undermining it. Therefore, if you want such a system to exist (and when informed and rational, you will), and you can only consistently control your own behavior (and you can), it follows that you must endeavor to exhibit these attributes, as often as you would want them exhibited in turn (the Golden Rule again). There can be exceptions, but abandoning the pattern most of the time essentially just concedes to creating the very social system you would not want to live in.
Following this point are some testable hypotheses about how social systems and minds work. They will be posed as truth claims. But we should treat them like all such claims: subject to doubt, examination, and empirical test. For example:
- Prosocial attitudes produce prosocial behaviors. Prosocial behaviors produce a prosocial society, from which everyone benefits, including yourself. You should therefore endeavor to be a prosocial person, and encourage and reward others who are, and call out members of the system who are not, and insofar as possible, isolate, shun, or cordon yourself off from recalcitrantly antisocial members and the consequences of their behavior, so as to maintain a prosocial environment for yourself and others who are as keen on the same. This requires thinking through what it means to be prosocial: how does your behavior help or harm the social system, or make that system work better or worse for everyone, or encourage or discourage people with regard to participating in social interactions (for economic or personal or any other reasons).
- Similarly, a society only functions beneficially to all members when it is based on trust (i.e. when you can trust people in your interactions, trust sources of information, and so on). And a society based on trust requires the honesty of its members. Therefore the same reasoning for pro-sociality follows for honesty, and therefore for your being an honest person. Likewise reasonableness (a willingness “to see reason,” and a desire to reason correctly) is necessary for effective interaction with any social system, as well as for avoiding self-defeating beliefs and behaviors. Reasonableness requires a commitment to self-monitoring, self-criticism, and self-correction according to objective standards of fallacy-avoidance, as well as a willingness to compromise and see things from another’s point of view—all the things you need from others in their treatment of you in order to live a satisfying life within a social system. Therefore, the same reasoning for pro-sociality follows for cultivating in yourself both honesty and reasonableness.
Notably, contrary to some analyses, tit-for-tat does not actually contradict the Golden Rue, but actually correctly realizes it, in the same ways I noted above. To satisfy the Golden Rule, as much and what kind of mercy and forgiveness we would want, must correspond to the amount and kind we give to others. And when we think that through, we’ll realize we would not really want everyone to let us exploit them without retaliation. Because that means letting them do the same to us. And the world that would result would be disastrous for us. We would not will that to be a universal law. Nor would it maximize anyone’s happiness. Nor would we like ourselves if we became the sort of person we loathe: someone who can exploit and abuse anyone without consequence. Which brings us to…
Then there is your internal life: how your behavior makes you feel, and how it could make you feel. A lot of harm is perpetrated in ignorance of the reality of what is being done, or as a result of false beliefs about others and the world. Once you are informed and have correct beliefs, it can become impossible to persist in a behavior, because it becomes personally repugnant to you. Conversely, by the same means, a behavior once improperly abhorred can become personally rewarding to you. Compassion, for example, entails sharing the feelings of others, and therefore sharing vicariously in the joys you produce by helping others, and this adds a dimension of satisfaction to your life that would not exist by any other means. Knowledge of other persons and how they think and feel thus expands your mind to encompass a reality far greater than yourself, one far less stifling and trivial, and more rewarding and fulfilling, than otherwise.
Similarly, as all healthy societies thrive on a love of truth, and any society that scorns the truth will be unhealthy (and thus dysfunctional for all who reside in it, and thus hostile to satisfaction rather than assisting it)—perhaps taking tact and benevolent white lies as exceptions—a love of truth is the only righteousness that inherently improves the quality of life and society. Other forms of righteousness too easily generate misery within the system or even for the individual. Thus, this is one way to feel good about yourself—that you stand always for the truth—that is objectively admirable, because it is always good for everyone (regardless of whether they think it is), because it is necessary to a beneficial social system. Such a person, whenever they realize they have been defending a falsehood, will be shocked or shamed into abandoning it and correcting themselves. Such is the way we would want all people to be. Therefore, such is the way we must ourselves be. Likewise all the same can be said of the virtue of reasonableness.
Personal Sanity as Moral Health
In the end, everyone sane enough to understand the matter wants to be the hero and not the villain in the world. Are you the sort of person you like, or the sort of person that in fact you loathe? The truth, once honestly realized rather than delusionally hiding from, may lead you to loathe rather than like yourself. And no life satisfaction can then be possible. That can only be solved in either of two ways: changing the sort of person you are (which requires a lot of continuous work, contemplation, habituation, and practice); or lying to yourself about the sort of person you actually are. But can you be comfortable knowing that maybe you are the one living a lie? That really, you are an awful person, whom even you would hate? Realizing you could be, may motivate you to check, and check in some way you can be sure is reliable, and not simply prone to reinforcing your self-delusion. And once you start reliably checking, well, the cat’s out of the bag. There’s no going back then. There is only moving forward.
What people all too often try to do is construct a belief system wherein no matter what they do or think, it is heroic and not villainous. But among all persons who do this, some will only be able to maintain that perspective by maintaining false beliefs. Whereas some will be doing this without requiring any false beliefs at all. Only one of these two types of person is telling themselves the truth when they tell themselves they are a hero and not a villain. Thus, as a matter of objective truth, you may be a villain even as you believe you are a hero. And as a matter of objective truth, if you knew that, you would change your behavior, because you do not want to be a villain in the world, you want to be a hero—and once you know it is no longer true that you are the hero and not the villain, you will no longer want to continue being the sort of person you are. You will start to become someone else. Someone you can be proud of rather than horrified or disappointed by.
There is a third possibility that can be just as important. Coming to an honest realization of who you really are and who you really want to be, and the kind of effort and sensitivity you actually want to commit to, may lead you to instead re-evaluate what sorts of people you like or loathe. Such as recoiling from the burdens and miseries of an excessive fastidiousness about morality—with being too good or too pure, punishing yourself for not meeting an impossible standard. Expecting too much of others will not only harm your relations with them, but with yourself, as you begin to expect too much of yourself, until morality becomes a burden rather than a more satisfying way to live. But when you begin to have more reasonable expectations about what it means for you to be a hero and not a villain, you will in turn start to have more reasonable expectation of others, and become less judgmental of both.
This is also true of simply escaping false beliefs about morality. The religiously devout gay man who loathes himself because he is gay, perceiving himself as villainously in alliance with Satan, may come to realize being gay is not villainous. This will obviously improve their own life satisfaction, as they will begin to cease loathing themselves for something they now know is not wrong. But that in turn will have the corresponding effect of changing how they view other gay men—no longer as bad people. No longer as villains. But as likely to be heroes as anyone else.
It is therefore actually in your best interests to make sure your beliefs are true and not false, when you try to ascertain which you are, hero or villain. And also when you try to ascertain what you really think heroism and villainy are, what really is worth liking or loathing, and what isn’t. And that requires understanding how your behavior is actually affecting other people; it requires understanding what other people are actually thinking and feeling; it requires correct beliefs about how such things as social and economic and political systems really work (as opposed to how you might mistakenly think they work); and so on. All of this requires self-reflection, critical thinking, constant learning, paying attention, and a constant acceptance that you might be wrong about anything, and the constant effort of always trying to understand other people’s lives and perspectives other than your own.
This all captures some practical advice about how to be a moral person, that often gets overlooked in the esoteric debate over metaethics and the foundations of morality. I hope you can put it all to good use.