Natalie Solent

Politics, news, libertarianism, Science Fiction, religion, sewing. You got a problem, bud? I like sewing.

E-mail: nataliesolent-at-aol-dot-com (I assume it's OK to quote senders by name.)

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Sunday, July 23, 2006
You'd have them use the brains God gave them.

Norm thinks the Golden Rule needs re-thinking. He writes:
Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

Up to now I've viewed it, unthinkingly, as a sound enough precept. But once you reflect on it, you come to see that it needs qualifying in a number of ways. First of all, the main weight of it should surely be negative: don't do unto others what you'd prefer them not to do unto you. Even there, it doesn't hold absolutely. For example, I prefer not to have fragrant oily substances added to my bath; plain water is what I like. But the women in my family are keen on just such fragrant oily substances being added to their baths. So why shouldn't I oblige? Not that my help is needed in that department, but you see what I'm saying. If we now return to the positive form of the principle, the do rather than the don't, it's not at all obvious that you can, let alone should, do something unto some particular other that you would have them do unto you. For exactly the same kind of reason as before. They may not have the same likes and dislikes as you do. You may need their permission. The golden rule needs to be reformulated.

Shaw made a similar observation and for several years now I've had my response packed and ready to go at a moment's notice in case I get lucky with that time travel slot.

Norm makes two claims: that the rule surely ought to be framed in a negative form, and that positive or negative, the fact that tastes differ means it is unsatisfactory. I'll get to the different tastes issue in a minute. First let's talk about negative versus positive. I'm at a bit of a loss to know exactly why Norm thinks a negative formulation would be better, as the bathtime example he gives did not seem terribly relevant, although it is relevant to his second point. But I'm guessing that he thinks that a negative formulation is less intrusive than a positive one, that it gives you a bit of space - and perhaps he also thinks a negative formulation is more practical, as most people in their daily lives are much clearer about not wanting harm done to them than about what they actually do want done to them.

In the legal sphere I'm all for negative rights (rights such as "freedom of speech" that oblige the state to refrain from interference in certain activities) being exalted over positive rights. Positive rights for A almost inevitably turn out to mean that an unrighteous obligation is going to be imposed on B today, and A tomorrow. I am also keen on nice, sharp negative laws that forbid clearly defined actions but allow everything else. I am not so keen on positive duties that grow like yeast if you take your eyes off them for a moment.

But the legal sphere isn't what the Golden Rule is about. Or rather it's only the starting point of what it is about, just as obeying the law is only the starting point of goodness. The laws should be narrow and, er, legalistic, since they can so easily become instruments of oppression when they attempt to encompass too much. Men, however, should not be legalistic and should encompass much. I've deliberately not mentioned Christianity so far, as the Golden Rule is part of the wisdom of many cultures, but the Good Samaritan is demanding to be mentioned here. The Levite who passed by broke no law but the Samaritan actively did unto his neighbour as he would have been done by. A positive formulation is appropriate.

Well, that's what I think if he thinks what I think he thinks, anyway.

Going on to the different tastes objection, an awful lot of the apparent problem, and some of the positive/negative problem, too, just washes away down the linguistic plughole. Self-interested sophistry aside, "remain faithful to your husband" means the same thing as "do not cuckold your husband." Perhaps in some languages rules we would phrase as negative prohibitions in English can only be expressed as positive injunctions, and vice versa.

The rest of the issue can also be washed away by turning on the Great Hot Tap of Human Linguistic Intelligence. People aren't simple-minded robots who take everything literally. Robbie the Robot, hearing the Golden Rule, might try to plug you into the recharger, but people know better. This isn't a get-out clause; non-literalism is what a proper understanding of language involves. When little children do take things literally we laugh precisely because they have misinterpreted what was said to them. (When I was a kid my mum once told me to "put the kettle on". I duly switched the switch to "on" and was most offended when told off for blowing the kettle up. "If she'd asked me to put water in it as well," I sniffed reproachfully, "I would have done.")

And if you insist on a precise use of words, then it's easy enough to provide one. When buying birthday presents the rule is not to buy your Uncle Harry that nice floaty dress from Next that you want yourself, rather it is "I will try to give you something you will like given your tastes, as I hope you will do for me." Or even more generally, "I will respect your preferences and try to accommodate them, as I would have you respect and accommodate mine."

Norm mentions that "you may need their permission." I started to write quite a detailed paragraph on difficult cases, such as occasions when what one party thinks is help the other thinks is harm. I attempted to refine my rules statements to cover these cases, and the even more difficult cases that I am sure we all can think up. My rules got lengthier and more complex. Writing them down would have taken me all life. "Do as you would be done by" is still the best summing up.