It struck me this morning how deep down practical the Golden Rule is as a guide to knowing right from wrong. We know it in its familiar form from the Bible:
Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.
But it’s a commonplace in many cultures, even if often stated in its negative form:
Do not do to others what you do not want them to do to you.
Now, I’ve usually thought about the Golden Rule in terms of my duties toward others. But turn it around; and for this the negative form is more useful. What things shouldn’t others do to me?
I might not have a problem with stealing; but I don’t want others stealing from me.
I might not have a problem with sleeping around; but I don’t want others to sleep with my wife.
I might not have a problem killing people who are inconvenient to me; but I certainly don’t want anyone killing me.
It’s easy to rationalize the things I want to do. (For the record: the three things listed above are not among them.) But I’m always pretty certain about when I’ve been ill-used.
It’s commonplace these days to talk about how social mores very from culture to culture; it’s less common to point out, as C.S. Lewis does in The Abolition of Man, how much they are the same from culture to culture. But in fact, they are—in terms of one’s responsibilities to real people. The culture determines just who is considered to be a real person: a member of my family, a member of my ethnicity, a fellow citizen of my country. This can mask the moral similarity. But when you look at what other people are allowed to do to me, well…things look a lot simpler.