The Ethical Dilemma: Should Humanists Invoke the Golden Rule?

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Do You Have To Darwin It To Win It? I just watched a clip in which Stephen Colbert crushed a Texas creationist. But it has me wondering, does it have to be one or the other, intelligent design (ID) or Darwin’s theory? I don’t see why I can’t reject ID without having to summon an intelligent argument in favor of evolution. Isn’t it enough that if you don’t believe in god, you don’t believe that god designed the universe?

—Can’t One Not Exist Without The Other?

Dear Can’t,

Yes indeed, if there is no god, that’s who designed the universe (thank you, Abbott and Costello). But it’s easy to get caught up in trying to debate rationally about irrational subjects. I have a friend who, like me, agrees that the premise of the horoscope—that the moment you are born determines your future—is absurd. But he says it’s absurd because it should be based on the moment you are conceived. And I can do no more than just gasp in awe at that “logic.”

Unfortunately, there is huge momentum propelling intelligent design, so we can’t just brush that off the way I brush off my friend’s ideas about the horoscope. We must work diligently to prevent ID from infiltrating our educational system and to keep it from getting equal time, weight and respect alongside genuine science.

Although some of us can live with “I don’t know” or “no one knows,” others feel if they don’t have a reasonable response to a profound question, the answer must be god. Intelligent design is a clever and insidious pretense of a “scientific alternative” to evolution that just happens to hinge on the existence of a deity.

It’s understandable but unwise to turn the argument against ID into an either/or linked to Darwin’s theory. Even if Darwin had never lived and no one came up with the idea of evolution through natural selection, we’d still want to keep intelligent design out of our schools and textbooks. What if some new discovery were to come along and throw a monkey wrench (ape wrench?) into what we have cited as evidence for evolution? Would that then mean that creationism must be true? Hardly—but the ID proponents would use that to claim victory, just as some have cited the recent polar vortex as a refutation of global warming.

Although ID was “intelligently designed” as a direct challenge to Darwinism, an effort should be made to rise above this ploy and uncouple the two schools of thought. They are more mismatched than apples and oranges, which at least are both fruits. It’s more like: Darwin is to intelligent design, as the head of a pin is to how many angels can dance on it.

Is the Golden Rule Tarnished by Egocentricity? When people ask me where I get my ethical principles without any god or bible, I always cite the Golden Rule. But I just came across this:

One of the oldest and most universal moral precepts is the Golden Rule: Treat others as you want them to treat you. That mandate shows up in Confucianism and in the Code of Hammurabi. It was reiterated by Seneca and by the Buddha. It appears in the Bible, as the command to love thy neighbor as thyself. It might possibly have been taught to more people than any other notion in   history.

It is also, on reflection, a little weird. For a guideline about how to treat others, the Golden Rule is strikingly egocentric. It does not urge us to consult our neighbors about their needs; it asks us   only to generalize from ourselves—to imagine, in essence, that everyone’s idea of desirable treatment matches our own. As such, it makes a curiously narrow demand on our imagination, and, accordingly, on our behavior. And it is not alone. From Kant’s Categorical Imperative to  John Rawls’s Veil of Ignorance, the self is a common benchmark in moral reasoning.

As this writer suggests, is the Golden Rule, in whatever form, a poor guiding principle for humanist ethics because it’s self-centered? If so, what’s a better alternative?

—Is There A Platinum Rule?

Dear Platinum,

This seems to be one of those cases where someone is missing the point, perhaps deliberately, to make a point of her own. Although in practice, applying the Golden Rule can be as challenging as the deceptively simple stock tip, “Buy low, sell high,” most people understand the Golden Rule to require incorporating what their neighbor would want—just as you’d want your neighbor to consider what you’d want.

For example, when I apply the Golden Rule to what my child has for dinner, I don’t think, “I like my pasta with sauce, vegetables and heaps of Parmesan, so that’s what I’ll give him.” I think, “My child likes his pasta with nothing but butter.” And so in carrying out the Golden Rule, I give him buttered pasta, although that’s not what I would choose for myself.

Another example: I really don’t care for exchanging gifts. But I realize other people get a huge charge out of it. So when a friend’s eyes light up as she suggests our group do a grab bag, and I see everyone else enthusiastically nodding in agreement, I decide their eagerness trumps my reluctance. I refrain from nixing the proposal and spoiling their fun—because if I were these other people, that’s what I’d want me to do.

One more: Foot massages bring me ecstacy. My friend does not appreciate foot massages. Applying the Golden Rule, do I grab his foot and knead it despite his protests, or do I offer to work on his achy shoulders, even though I have no desire for a backrub myself? It’s really not that complicated, is it?

When you come right down to it, everything we know is filtered through, and limited by, ourselves. While we can never perfectly project what will make others happy (heck, we have enough difficulty figuring out how to make ourselves happy), we can strive to understand what makes others tick and do our best. And there’s no rule in the Golden Rule that says it’s cheating to come right out and ask them.

To claim that the Golden Rule doesn’t entail considering what others want is just plain specious. Everyone wants others to understand and respect their perspective, to take into account their idiosyncratic needs and wishes, to support their wellbeing, whatever that may entail for them. So if I’m doing what I would want others to do unto me, I’m focusing on their desires, not my own. And even in my grandmother’s simple version—“It’s nice to be nice”— the Golden Rule is a powerful rubric. Does anyone have a better one?