Steve McEllistrem

The Devereaux Dilemma

The Problem with the Golden Rule

Generally speaking, it behooves us to follow the Golden Rule – do unto others as you would have done unto you. This makes a lot of sense. It is a rational, morally correct and ethical way to treat one’s fellow citizens on this spinning and watery orb. No wonder so many religions and philosophies espouse a variant of it for their followers.

But it’s not perfect and here’s why:

The Golden Rule assumes that we will act logically. However, we don’t always act logically. Some would say we never act logically – we follow our desires, then create rationalizations for why we did what we did, and those rationalizations become (in our minds) the logic behind our decision-making.

But even if we do act logically, there’s a bigger problem. The Golden Rule assumes that others want to be treated the way we want to be treated. For most of us and for most of the time, that is a fair assumption. You don’t steal bread from a man who is weaker than you because you don’t want someone stronger than you stealing it for himself.

Makes perfect sense, right? That’s why many refer to the Golden Rule as a natural law. It is natural to us to feel this way. It appeals to our sense of fair play. It carries a universality that most of us understand.

But what about the fanatic, the driven individual who follows a narrow ideology and believes we should all follow that same path?

Here lies the major problem with the Golden Rule. The fanatic seeks to apply the Golden Rule just as much as the reasonable person. The fanatic thinks everyone should think the way he does, and further believes we will be grateful to be taught the TRUTH he knows in his heart.

If only we knew what he knows, we would understand why he does the terrible things he does. We would be thanking him for enlightening us to the TRUTH. He does his terrible deeds not primarily because he hates us (though he may), but because we do not understand the TRUTH he provides and we need to understand that TRUTH. Therefore, anything that might get us to understand that TRUTH is acceptable, no matter how horrifying.

If I were as ignorant as my victims, the fanatic thinks, I would want someone to enlighten me by killing my family, burning my church, raping my daughter, so that I might come to understand the one and only TRUTH that rules the world. Thank you, the fanatic would say, for making me understand that I was following the wrong path. Thank you for setting me straight.

So the Golden Rule needs to be adapted. It requires an amendment – namely, Do unto others as you would have them do unto you, provided you do no harm, either physical or mental. It’s an obvious modification, understood by all but fanatics, so it’s left unsaid when we speak of The Golden Rule because why do we need to mention something everybody understands?

Because, unfortunately, the fanatics haven’t gotten the message. They are so convinced they’re in the right and we’re in the wrong that any action, any harmful act necessary, to “enlighten” us is permissible, even compulsory. We must be made to see their TRUTH. And if we refuse to see that TRUTH, then any atrocity is justified.

So that’s where the Golden Rule breaks down. It was meant for sane, rational people, not fanatics. Maybe there is no way to reach the fanatic, just as the fanatic stands no chance of turning the majority of us to his fanaticism. Maybe we are doomed to be forever at odds with the fanatic.

If that’s the case, we must hope that we can mend our world enough that fanaticism will have no place to grow.


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