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Hendrik van der Breggen
February 04, 2016
The Golden Rule
By Hendrik van der Breggen The Carillon, February 4, 2016
Jesus famously set out the Golden Rule as
follows: "Do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums
up the Law and Prophets" (Matthew 7:12).
We Westerners tend to take the Golden Rule for
granted. Philosophically, though, the rule deserves close examination. Let's
look at three positive points, an important assumption, plus a problem.
First positive point: Jesus said it. Because Jesus
is God come to earth as a human being, the Golden Rule is hugely important,
Second positive point: the Golden Rule is hugely
important for doing ethics. To know that what you want for yourself is what
others want for themselves too, and thus what you ought to do, is important
Third positive point: the Golden Rule is not
just found in Christianity. Others such as Confucius and Rabbi Hillel have set
out negative versions of it. Significantly, though, the Golden Rule goes beyond
negative versions—don't do to others what you don't want done to yourself—to the
now-standard positive version—do to others what you do want them to do to you.
As important as these positive points are,
there's also an assumption that should be examined, especially if we are
looking at Jesus' statement of the Golden Rule. (I think this assumption is a
positive, too, but I'll let the reader decide.)
What's the assumption behind Jesus' Golden Rule?
The assumption can be discerned from Jesus' context, i.e., the worldview Jesus
The assumption is that Jesus is the God
described in Genesis, i.e., the God who created human beings in God's own
image. This means that the "others" described in "Do to others
what you would have them do to you" include all human beings. Everyone. Not just those in my tribe, and not just
those who share my religion. Everyone. Infidels included.
(If I understand Muhammad and the Qur'an correctly,
Muhammad's positive version of the Golden Rule applies only to those who are
Moreover, Jesus' worldview holds that "others"
include especially "the least of these." The least of these are human
beings made in the image of God yet who are hungry, thirsty, lonely, unclothed,
ill, or imprisoned—i.e., the poor and needy.
Today, the poor and needy include orphans, the
disabled, the abused, the unborn, the struggling single parent, the elderly,
the sick, the starving, the enslaved and trafficked, the refugee, tsunami
victims, the persecuted, the homeless, the lonely, the depressed, the sexually abused
and confused—the list is long.
In other words, the context of Jesus' espousal
of the Golden Rule presupposes the view that because people reflect the Imago
Dei, people—all people—have real and great moral worth, and equally so. This underwrites
universal human rights.
So what could possibly be the problem with the
Golden Rule? The problem arises from an ill-informed understanding of the
Golden Rule (an ill-informed understanding on our part, not God's).
The Golden Rule prescribes consistency between
my desires for myself and my actions toward others. So far, so good. But, as I
tend to forget, my desires could be defective.
The truth is that my desires often are defective. I could be a masochist,
i.e., a person who likes being abused physically. So for me to do to others
what I want them to do to me puts a stamp of approval on my self-abuse and
abuse of others.
Or I could I like adulterous (etc.) sex. So
because I like adulterous (etc.) sex, I should engage others in such sex.
Or I could want others to kill me. So I should
Get the picture?
The reality of defective desires shows that
Jesus' understanding of the Golden Rule presupposes a moral framework—i.e., the
moral law which the Golden Rule summarizes—to govern my desires. (Jesus also intensifies the moral law when He tells
us not only not to commit adultery or murder but also not even to indulge in thoughts about such things.)
To love self and others truly, then, we need God's
grace to transform our desires into holy
Enter the Good News: by accepting Jesus as Lord
we can be transformed by the Holy Spirit.
van der Breggen, PhD, teaches philosophy at Providence University College. The views in this column do not always reflect the views of Providence.)