Wednesday, April 04, 2007

The Bankruptcy of the Secular Golden Rule

In comments on this post, I engaged in dialogue with Interlocuter (under various names, although the conversation is easy enough to follow).

Interlocuter originally said:
Most atheists use simple premises to base their morality upon: perhaps even your "golden rule". This golden rule is obviously a common ground/basis for morality between Christian and atheist, is it not? We can agree that this principle will work to accomplish our goal of goodness.
To this, I responded:
No, because the atheist has no reason to follow the Golden Rule. It is alien to his worldview.
Interlocuter finally responded:
What an odd thing to say. My self-interest to be treated fairly would obviously motivate me to follow and implement this rule of morality. The law of symmetry / prisoner's dilemma applies to morality very well: moral systems cannot be one-way streets, and just cooperation (symmetric treatment) is integral.

It makes perfect sense to me.
Since Interlocuter is a fairly “typical” secularist, this provides fertile ground for me to demonstrate the bankruptcy of the Golden Rule in Secular ethics. The Golden Rule, again, is “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” Christian ethics has a reason to hold to this concept: everyone is created in the image of God. Furthermore, as a Divine Command Theorist, I also argue that the bare fact that God commands it establishes its morality already.

However, Interlocuter does not hold to Christian ethics. S/he is a secularist. The question therefore is: how can the Golden Rule be established in secular ethics?

Interlocuter’s shot is to say: “My self-interest to be treated fairly would obviously motivate me to follow and implement this rule of morality.” I’m not sure if by “self-interest” Interlocuter seeks to invoke Rand’s “rational self-interest” (i.e. “selfishness is a virture”) philosophy. Either way, this does not work to establish the claim, as the very sentence contains presuppositions that Interlocuter has not argued for.

Consider it: “My self-interest to be treated fairly” is the reason given for the Golden Rule. Fairness, at face value, seems to be identical to what the Golden Rule requires in the first place, so this is little more than saying, “My desire for the Golden Rule establishes the Golden Rule.” Not a very compelling argument. But let us suppose that “fairness” doesn’t mean simple equivalence to the Golden Rule.

What is “fair” treatment; and even more important, why ought fairness be practiced? Let us examine some possible meanings for “fairness” as used contextually in a moral sense. Perhaps Interlocuter means, “I want to get what I deserve.” The question remains: does being nice to someone morally require them to be nice to you? If not, then this sense of fairness does not hold. The Golden Rule would have no “teeth” to it. If being nice does require that person to be nice to you, then you are forcing them to do a certain behavior toward you, which seems to violate the very principal of the Golden Rule in the first place! The only way that this moral imperative could require someone to obey the Golden Rule is if there is a pre-existing standard above the Golden Rule that establishes the necessity of fairness. In short, this idea of “fairness” cannot establish the Golden Rule because it requires a presupposed hidden morality already functioning in the first place.

Perhaps Interlocuter means “equal.” That is, s/he desires to be treated in an equal manner as everyone else. But this meaning would cause even more problems for Interlocuter. After all, people are not equal in any empirical trait. Some are stronger than others, some are smarter, etc. Equality cannot become the basis of the Golden Rule unless it is between co-equal people. In other words, if a strong man picks a fallen rock off a weak man, he cannot rationally demand the weak man pick up a fallen rock off the strong man should their positions be reversed. The Golden Rule, in such a circumstance, can only apply to equal relationships. It cannot function except in such places as both people are able to do the same behavior. As such, altruistic behavior cannot be explained (that is, when someone sacrifices, getting nothing in return, this violates Interlocuter’s fairness as defined by equality).

Given Interlocuter’s statement on “The law of symmetry,” however, I would wager that the concept used here is one of reciprocity. While closely linked to the above meanings of fairness, we can perhaps distinguish it here. Since secularists are incapable of transcending the individuals, however, the only sense of reciprocity that can occur is an agreed sense. That is, two (or more) people enter a quid pro quo deal, wherein one person says, “I will do X for you, if you will do X for me.”

The problems with this concept are the same as the above. Again, the people must be in co-equal terms or it will not apply (e.g. the strong man cannot say, “I will lift the boulder off you if you do the same for me” to the weak man who is incapable of lifting the boulder). Furthermore, this lacks the “teeth” needed because it fails the simple question: “If someone reneges on this ‘contract’ is that behavior immoral?” Again, it can only be immoral if there is a higher morality in place—one that requires an adherence to this idea of fairness.

None of this helps Interlocuter out in establishing the grounds for a secular Golden Rule. Instead, all it shows is that Interlocuter must presuppose a higher morality than the Golden Rule to enforce the Golden Rule! As such, this cannot be the basis for Interlocuter’s morality! His/her morality exists at a more foundational level than this.
Finally, it is perhaps most telling that Interlocuter’s defense begins: “My self-interest to be treated fairly…” Such reasoning makes it impossible to extend morality beyond Interlocuter. In such a system, morality is only Interlocuter’s subjective selfish opinion. Since Interlocuter is the only person who has his/her subjective selfish opinion, this morality cannot transcend Interlocuter.

Thus, we see that Interlocuter’s morality is a) presupposing another more foundational morality to enforce it, and b) completely subjective and therefore would violate the Golden Rule if Interlocuter were to enforce it!


  1. Your question was one of motive, and self-interest was offered. The strong man doesn't lift the rock off of the weak man out of the hope/belief that the weak man will reciprocate that exact act, but because of the fact that there are milliosn of other situations which can be thought up where he needs the help of another. The idea of symmetry isn't necessarily "tit for tat" in every action, of course, that is unnecessarily constraining. It is the idea that kindness or altruism are like investments into one's society and into one's own future -- the more we invest in others, the more likely we are to receive from them (or the society we all foster together) later on. You have gotten overly abstruse here.

  2. Actually, rather than being "overly abstruse" it demonstrates that Interlocuter's original claim was insufficient and needed further clarification, such as what you provided.

    Ignoring the fact that you're arguing against my analogy rather than my argument, you said:
    The strong man doesn't lift the rock off of the weak man out of the hope/belief that the weak man will reciprocate that exact act, but because of the fact that there are milliosn of other situations which can be thought up where he needs the help of another.

    And yet this is not the way that morality generally occurs. When you ask the strong man who rescues someone--especially someone he does not know--he will generally reply, "I was in the right place at the right time" or some such phrase. When he acts, he never intends for future compensation. His action is not perceived by him, nor by society, as making the rescued person owe him. He acts because he knows intrinsically that it is the right thing to do; and this intrinsic knowledge cannot be accounted for via selfish motives, as you and Interlocuter claim, as demonstrated by my previous argument.

    All you've got here is someone who rescues another person because he hopes that in some future time someone will rescue him if he needs it. But hope doesn't make moral compulsion.

    Furthermore, this doesn't account for the person who disregards society as a whole (e.g. sociopaths) and why we would consider them immoral for not entering into a "moral contract" with everyone else. What is the compelling reason that people ought to behave a certain way?

    Again, secularism has no answer for this.

  3. I think that your interlocuter is a bit confused. Tit for tat (even if not for reciprocating an exact act) strategy is not based on moral reasons. The whole point is that it explains what appears to be moral in terms of "is" rather than "ought". So in this way the golden rule is merely useful, but not moral (unless you want to say morality is an illusion, and it is apparently moral). The golden rule doesn't have a moral basis on a secular view, only a pragmatic one. That is if the sucularist is consistent, which it appears that your intercoluter is not.