How to be good to people has been on my mind for a long time, but especially lately. I’ve engaged in a political debate about treating illegal immigrants and atheists with respect. I had to write for a scholarly journal a review of a book I found lacking in merit, and I was torn between my professional duty to be honest and my reluctance to be mean. I tried to help people who reacted in a way that made me unsure whether or not they wanted my help. Most of us have lots of these moments as we go through life: How can we know what to do to be good to people?
“Treat your neighbor as you want to be treated.” “Do not wish unto others what you would not wish for yourself.” The Golden Rule, with minor variations, is the most universal ethical guideline on the planet. Some form of it is present in the vast majority of the world’s moral traditions. It is grounded in our religions, grounded in our philosophies. It seems such an indubitable statement that often we put it on an ethical pedestal. “Just do that,” we say, “and you can’t go wrong.” And yet, I’ve found over the past several years that I have a problem with that. Living by the Golden Rule, I believe, we can and will go wrong. Let me explain.
First off, I don’t reject the Golden Rule completely. It has a degree of truth to it; it is a good starting point. But like all the commandments in all the scriptures, it is rooted in the times and cultures in which it was born, and it rests on their assumptions about human life and human nature. It is, therefore, not entirely universal. It is becoming outdated. I like to think of it not so much as the Golden Rule as the Wool Rule: the product of its era, it would keep us warm and protected for a while, but it will wear out if we don’t get ourselves a newer version.
If you read into it carefully, you will see that the Golden Rule rests on two basic assumptions: that humans are basically self-centered and that humans are all alike. I am not trying to say that these are offensive, just that the former is incomplete and the latter is no longer true.
Now, we are indeed essentially self-centered in that we can perceive the world only through our own experiences. There’s nothing wrong with that. We don’t know how others feel, only how we feel, and by identifying with others we develop compassion. We call it “empathy.” A degree of self-centeredness is not selfishness, so checking what might feel good or bad to us is a decent way of deciding what might feel good or bad to others, but only in very general aspects of life: pain, betrayal, fear, hunger, grief feel bad; pleasure, friendship, love, comfort, hope feel good. When it comes to more specific experiences, we must either have experienced a similar problem to the person we commiserate with or we need her to tell us how she feels. We can still have empathy because we are not entirely self-centered—we have imaginations, and from our own experiences we can construct the other’s—but with increasing varieties of experience in our increasingly varied civilization, we need help identifying with our neighbor.
This brings me to the second assumption of the Golden Rule, the one that I consider the real problem, the one that’s truly outdated: that people are basically the same. When the Golden Rules of most of the world’s traditions came into being, this was more or less true. Not for people’s personalities, of course, but for people’s lives. They lived in small, local communities, they rarely traveled far, they all spoke the same language, worshipped the same way, wore the same sorts of clothes, ate the same foods, did the same familiar jobs their whole lives without change for generations. They knew each other. When a scriptural verse said, “Treat your neighbor as you would be treated,” most of the time it really meant “neighbor.” It wasn’t a big mystery to know what would be good for your neighbor because it was pretty much what was good for you. We no longer live in that world.
Today, in the West and many other places, we live in a mind-bogglingly diverse culture where people come from all over the globe with ideas, preferences, traditions, lifestyles, and rules that we may not have any clue about, and even if we did, we may not understand. Most people are perfectly nice, but if we try to treat each other based on what WE would want, we will commit one faux pas after another, and we will hurt each other time after time. Let me give you a few admittedly silly but illustrative examples. A kind-hearted Christian sees a homeless Jew, hungry in the street, and gives him a pork sandwich. A benevolent aunt sets up her lesbian niece on a date with a nice man. A banker tries to get a job for his musician friend on Wall Street. A smoker offers a cigarette to his stressed brother. A gregarious teenager drags her introvert roommate to party after party to relax. A Muslim woman gets dizzy on a hot day, and a concerned passerby takes off her headscarf to cool her down.
Of course, we are all still human on a fundamental emotional level, and I still agree with the Wool Rule on its basic framework: Treat others in such a way, as much as possible, that you bring them comfort and not pain, for that is a universal human desire, which you know from your own experience. But we don’t live in a melting pot so much as in a salad bowl now, and what makes us comfortable and happy and upset is so different that we can no longer afford to rely on our own experience for determining the same for other people.
I don’t know what the rule can be now. I don’t know if there is a single rule that can guide our ethical behavior. I would like to say, “Ask others how they would like to be treated, and then do your best to treat them that way,” but that too has its flaws. We cannot always communicate effectively. Sometimes, the way others wish to be treated seems destructive to us and goes against our grain. Perhaps, there is nothing simple for us to rely on. I just find that my own preferences are not a good guide for me in treating others. What do you find?