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The Golden Rule is Dumb

Okay, so let me explain.

In my latest podcast, I made a comment about the "mamby-pamby Golden Rule b.s." What on earth could I have meant by saying such a thing? Doesn't Jesus say in his Sermon on the Mount that the Golden Rule sums up all the Law and the Prophets? And isn't the Golden Rule the basic foundation of most ethical systems and most world religions, and isn't it essentially about the importance of empathy? Yes, yes, and yes.

But it's still dumb.

For starters, I don't want just anyone applying the Golden Rule to me. What if Person A likes people to just shoot straight with him and spare all the ridiculous social niceties that are taken for granted in most civilized conversation? Well, good for him, but I don't want to get into a conversation with that person if he's going to apply that standard to me. I like manners. I think they're important, crucial even, for a healthy society to function. Then what if Person B, on the other hand, doesn't like shooting straight at all? She prefers to just sweep all "unpleasantries" under the rug and move on with whatever convenient fiction keeps things on the surface. Well, fine, but I don't want that person to be my friend. I like the truth and think it's, well... crucial for a healthy society to function. In both cases, if the Golden Rule were applied, I'd have very good reasons to be upset.

But there's another reason the Golden Rule is dumb. People from different cultures often have very different social mores from those in our own culture, which can make not only for huge misunderstandings but can, in some cases, lead to genocide. What?!? you say. I invite you to read Malcolm Gladwell's latest book, Talking to Strangers, where the entire premise of the book is related to how strangers communicate who are from vastly different cultures. The upshot of the book? Not well. Not well at all.

And then there's this: if I cheat, I prefer not to get caught, and I certainly don't want someone telling on me. But what if someone cheats my friend? Should I apply the same rule to that person that I would like applied to me?

So why on earth would Jesus say something so dumb? Well, actually, he didn't. Context, it turns out, is everything. Jesus says in Matthew 7:12: "So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets." If he'd simply left it at that, or even led with that, that would be a problem. But he did neither. He makes the statement in the midst of what is commonly known as the Sermon on the Mount, and in that sermon, just before he makes the statement above, he also says this:

Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you. Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye. ...

Which of you, if your son asks for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake? If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him!

In other words, he mentions the Golden Rule in the context of an entirely radical social and moral ethic that, for starters, implores us to see others as greater than ourselves. In other words, do better for others than you would expect to be done for yourself. (Note: the other has a speck, but you have a plank.) In other words, if we abide by the strict ethic spelled out in the Sermon on the Mount, then the Golden Rule makes sense. But in a culture where people often have radically different ideas of what counts for ethical behavior, and thus very different norms regarding right and wrong, it's just plain dumb.

Directly after stating the Golden Rule, Jesus says this:

Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.

I've often wondered if the essential message of Jesus' radical ethic has been so gentrified and diluted for modern ears that we've essentially reversed his warning above so that it now might as well read:

For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to salvation, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to destruction, and only a few find it.

(I mean, after all, people are basically good, aren't they?)

Look, the Golden Rule might have summed up all the Law and Prophets, but Jesus came along and upped the ethical (and moral and existential and metaphysical) ante by several million orders of magnitude. Do unto others as you would have them do to you? Mamby-pamby b.s. Try this instead: love your enemies, turn the other cheek, walk the extra mile, give the shirt off your back, forgive those who persecute you, let your "yes" be yes and your "no" be no, etc., etc., etc... infinity.

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