On The Golden Rule
The golden rule, a cornerstone of common sense morality states, “do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” Initially this seems to be a plausible answer to our philosophic and ethical dilemmas. It avoids attaching value to any type of action, and consequently avoids specific criticisms on its assessment of value; provides us with a formula for right action that intuitively seems correct; and implies a reason for acting morally—the moral agent would like to be treated in the same manner in which he or she treats others. Unfortunately, although this rule serves as a useful guide to conceptualizing morality on a day-to-day basis, it can never truly provide rational answers to our ethical dilemmas. The golden rule, in my mind, is subject to both pragmatic and theoretical objections; but in order to fairly assess the rule theoretically, I will ignore the pragmatic objections that cite the competence of moral agents following the rule and assume that those agents are perfectly rational. While these pragmatic objections are relevant and valid, the rule is more fundamentally flawed by its lack of respect for autonomy and its moral presumptuousness.
The golden rule subverts all forms of consent that should be afforded to the individuals that our actions affect. It states do unto others and makes no exceptions for the aforementioned others’ right to govern themselves and to consent to actions performed on them. Allow me to give an example; suppose that a patient visits a physician and the physician finds that the patient will die without an injection of medicine. The golden rule certainly would demand that the physician give the patient the shot, because the physician would certainly want to be saved in a similar situation. However, suppose that the patient is terribly afraid of needles and declares that he would rather die than receive a shot. In this instance, if the physician followed the golden rule, he would be forced to give the patient the shot.
Defenders of the golden rule might argue that the physician would want to have his preferences respected in turn so the golden rule would really have him not administer the shot. However, this is not necessarily true. The physician, with the knowledge of the human body he possesses and his years of giving shots successfully, if perfectly rational would want to be forced to take the shot. Without appealing to any other moral principles, and adhering strictly to the golden rule, moral agents are inexorably forced to violate the autonomy of others.
However, the golden rule can avoid these criticisms with an additional clause; it can dictate that we should “do unto others as you would have them do unto you if you were them,” or rather, “treat others how they would like to be treated.” Unfortunately though, this forces agents to act in a way that is not only impossible, but also morally presumptuous. No moral agent, no matter how rational and understanding he may be, can be certain that he comprehends how another agent wants to be treated. For instance, consider prostitution; a prostitute’s customer may believe that she does not mind participating in intercourse and thus it is morally permissible to make use of her services. However, imagine that this prostitute is forced into prostitution by her socio-economic situation and conceals the fact that she really does not want to engage in intercourse.
If it is reasonable to ask the agent to be familiar with her socio-economic status then it would not be unreasonable to ask the agent to be familiar with any and all aspects of her background that could effect her vocational decisions, and this IS unreasonable. Furthermore, the moral agent, even if he is aware of her background, is faced with compelling evidence that she both does wish to participate in intercourse (she consented to his offer and is prepared to accept monetary compensation) and compelling evidence that she does not (she is forced into prostitution by her socioeconomic situation). It is impossible for the agent to weigh the different factors with respect to the prostitute’s preferences and to do so would be morally presumptuous.
The golden rule, when put into practice and applied to difficult situations, quickly devolves into a command to violate the autonomy of others or an impossibly demanding and presumptuous attempt to understand their perspective. Either way, it is an ultimately inadequate moral principle.