By Adi Chowdhury
“Treat others as you would like to be treated.”
This is a ubiquitous principle. I have no doubt in my mind that you have encountered this saying before, and have been actively encouraged to follow this principle throughout life and in the face of moral dilemmas. This principle is ingrained into the most basic of moral precepts, and has remained as a cornerstone of our most fundamental perception of ethical behavior. In fact, it has even been dubbed “the golden rule” because it concisely encapsulates how we should behave.
This principle is notably associated with religion, and expectedly so. Though it is clear how this instinct (to maintain positive and good-natured interaction with others) has arisen through the naturalistic evolution of humankind, it is undeniable that out moral precepts have been codified and popularized largely by organized religion, starting from ancient Egypt. Here are a few notable religions and philosophies in which it has been glorified:
- From ancient Egyptian myth: “Now this is the command: Do to the doer to make him do” and “That which you hate to be done to you, do not do to another.”
- From the Bible: You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against your kinsfolk. Love your neighbor as yourself: I am the LORD.” (Leviticus 19:18)
- From the Chinese philosopher Confucius: “Never impose on others what you would not choose for yourself” from his book Analects
- From the Islamic Hadith: “None of you [truly] believes until he wishes for his brother what he wishes for himself.”— An-Nawawi’s Forty Hadith 13 (p. 56)
- From Buddhism: “Comparing oneself to others in such terms as “Just as I am so are they, just as they are so am I,” he should neither kill nor cause others to kill.”— Sutta Nipata 705
- From the ultrapeaceful Jainism: “A man should wander about treating all creatures as he himself would be treated.”— Sutrakritanga, 1.11.33
As stated above, this principle is embedded into our most basic comprehension of morality. It is often the basis upon which our “moral compasses” are instructed to be established,as a simple “rule of thumb” with which to evaluate our decisions. However, it would be unfair and unjustified to simply accept this principle as a token of truth just because it is a fundamental component of our daily lives. As should be clear to any thinking person, no idea is above challenge and scrutiny, not even those ingrained into human nature itself. It is a deplorable act to submit to the authority of an idea without subjecting to rigorous and logical analysis.
The ubiquity and simplicity of this mandate is no excuse to exclude it from questioning. Accepting it as true simply because it is “obvious” that it is true is fallacious and foolhardy. For this reason, let us analyze the rational basis of this principle and investigate its tenacity. As we shall see, this rule–to treat others as you would like to be treated–is not solely religious in nature, but can be concluded through simple and solid logic.
Let us see how.
To commence my explanation, I choose to consult one of the most revered and righteous men in all of history, a towering figure of racial equality and justice, an icon of rational and ethical activism, a beacon of intellect and hope, whose glowing reputation is predicated upon his ceaseless tirade against the flames of prejudice–Abraham Lincoln.
Throughout his illustrious career, Lincoln produce a number of brilliant and visionary essays against slavery, steadily and smartly refuting all arguments in favor of the subjugation of black men and women. In June of 1854, Lincoln composed an argument that I believe is the ultimate objection to any rationale for slavery (he refers to a regular white slave owner as Person A and a black slave as Person B):
“If Person A can prove, however conclusively, that he may enslave Person B — why may not Person B snatch the same argument, and prove equally, that he may enslave Person A?
You say Person A is white, and Person B is black. It is color, then; the lighter, having the right to enslave the darker? Take care. By this rule, you are to be slave to the first man you meet, with a fairer skin than your own.
You do not mean color exactly?–You mean the whites are intellectually the superiors of the blacks, and, therefore have the right to enslave them? Take care again. By this rule, you are to be slave to the first man you meet, with an intellect superior to your own.
But, say you, it is a question of interest; and, if you can make it your interest, you have the right to enslave another. Very well. And if he can make it his interest, he has the right to enslave you.”
Here is a rough translation in simple terms:
If Person A has the right to enslave Person B, then why cannot Person B enslave Person A?
Is it because Person A’s skin is whiter than Person B’s? If so, then Person A can be enslaved by anyone whose skin is paler than his, no?
Or is it because Person A is smarter than Person B because he’s white? Does his intelligence give him the right to enslave a man? If so, then Person A can be enslaved by anyone smarter than him, no?
Or is it because Person A “wants” to enslave Person B? Does his interest in enslaving Person B give him the right to do so? If so, then Person A can be enslaved by anyone who wants him as a slave, no?
In one pounce, Abraham Lincoln put forth a powerful and dynamic argument for secular morality–an argument that is not based on holy texts, traditions, or “God Says So”, but instead on the exertion of reason and rational means. This argument stems not from the Bible nor the Qur’an nor the Vedas, but from a mind suffused with appreciation for reason as a tool for investigating and confronting reality.
How is this a rational argument, you ask? It’s because that Lincoln shifted the dynamics of racism and placed them in the form of an issue of reason and intelligence: by phrasing is as a question, a question that can be addressed through logical thinking. This question is:
If you want to enslave a person, what rational reason is there for someone else not to enslave you?
What argument can you put forward that a white man can own a black slave, even though a black man cannot own a white slave? Why does your reasoning only apply to a certain race?
This question is a powerful and thought-provoking catalyst for a rational man’s views on slavery–or, when you sift through the logic, any ethical issue. Why? Because Lincoln’s question can be re-phrased to be relevant to any moral issue:
If you want to treat someone a certain way, then what rational reason is there for you not to be treated the same way?
If you wish to deny someone the right to vote, then what rational reason is there for you not to have your right to vote taken away as well?
If you wish to deny women the right to vote, then what rational reason is there for men to have lesser pay as well?
I hope you can see a pattern emerge and crystallize from these examples: a profound insight into the rational aspect of morality and ethics. Of course, our views on everything–politics, society, science–should be grounded on reason. And Lincoln’s question provides a pathway for reason into the domain of moral science.
By utilizing Lincoln’s question, we can evaluate our moral decision with ease and confidence. Before making a moral decision, we can ask ourselves, if I’m doing this to someone else, what reason is there for not having it done to me?
In fact, this principle is so well-founded that it even has a name: The Principle of Interchangeable Perspectives, coined by science historian and skeptic Michael Shermer. His book The Moral Arc explores the contributions made by science and logic to the progress of human morality.
I may be alone in this, but I believe this argument is actually something of a beauty. It paves the way for suffusing our comprehension of ethics with our grasp on the rational world. It negates the authority that religion previously had. It demonstrates that holy texts are unnecessary when investigating morality. It reveals to us a mindset we can adopt when analyzing ethics — a mindset reliant on reason rather than superstition and tradition. This argument depletes baseless dogma of its power, lending it instead to the tools of science and logical thinking.
I wish to conclude my thoughts by repeating the most famous moral principle of all time, now that I have described how it is not solely religious in nature, but also grounded on reason and rational thought:
Treat others as you would like to be treated.