Friday, January 14, 2011

Ethics, Part Two: The Golden Rule

     The central question of this series is not whether or not the moral guidelines of the world's faiths do an adequate job of guiding a well-lived life, but whether or not any one of them offers the Best and Only Way to Live. We saw in the previous post that the books of moses are fraught with complications and contradictions. This stems from the fact that although some of the ten commandments are useful guides for social living, they are directly countered by many of the other words and deeds of the same man who delivered them. This certainly calls into question their validity, since no one else was up on Mt. Sinai with moses, his character is an essential aspect of whether or not we should take seriously his claim that he was handed by god the Best and Only Way to Live. If I was a Caananite woman, whose husband had been slaughtered in battle defending home and family, whose son had just been put to the sword, and the last thing I learned before I myself was executed was that my virgin daughter would be reserved as loot by my Isrealite conquerors, all at Moses' command, I would have serious doubts about the validity of any ethical system this villain championed. No amount of rabbinical back-flips and loop-de-loops can justify the actions of that man, who certainly deserves to go down as one of the greatest criminals and villains of all time. Mohamed would certainly fair no better, but I have neither the time nor the patience to get into that here. The fact that it many countries of the world I would be murdered, and my killer vindicated, for daring to utter those words, is only further proof of the statement itself.

     But let us move on. Of course, christians look on judaic law with a bit of a smirk, all those silly rules and regulations, all that weird hair and food. Who needs the Law, when you have jesus? (Although, as we showed last post, jesus didn't absolve christians of "one letter of the Law, one stroke of the pen.") Jesus of nazareth actually offered surprisingly little in the way of moral guidance, instead devoting much of his time to warning his followers about the imminent coming of the son of man, who they would certainly see in their lifetimes (Mathew 9:1- whoops!). Most of his preaching was devoted to reminding people to follow him, at any cost, whether by plucking out your own eye if it offends you (Mathew 5:29), or by abandoning one's own parents if necessary (Mathew 10:37).  Of course, this becomes moral imperative only if he is indeed the son of god, but lacking any evidence whatsoever, accepting that is a matter of choice, but not something the rest of us can use as an ethical guideline. He rails quite a bit against the rich. (Mark 10:25) And he instructs his followers not to judge (Mathew 7:1) and lets us know who is "blessed" (Mathew 5). Most of the gospels is just a repetition of these few ideas, which all pretty  much boil down to the golden rule.

     As for the rest of the new testament, it's all pretty much hogwash. If the son of god comes down from on high to open his mouth, that pretty much takes precedence over anything anyone else says. It seems odd that god would send his only begotten son to deliver his message, which really only took up one book of the bible (they just wrote it four times, sometimes contradicting themselves quite blatantly, such as with jesus' mortal parentage), but then, within a generation of his death, would need to recruit a vicious templar like paul to finish saying everything else jesus left out, and fill up the other couple dozen books of the new testament. So I'm ignoring paul, since the words of the son of god certainly carry far more weight, and trump anything paul says. Unfortunately, this is not true for practicing christians, since most of today's christianity is pauline, and is where most of the very un-christ-like practices and  beliefs come from.

     Again though, the reason succeeding christianities have leaned so heavily on paul is the dearth of  specific moral guidance that jesus himself offers, and the whole point of faith for most people is to have all your questions answered ahead of time, without needing to do much thinking on your own. But philosophically speaking, the simplicity of the teaching's of jesus of nazareth is an improvement, because as the previous post shows (as does any sensible look at law-based faiths such as judaism and islam), the more complicated the law, the more likely one is to run into contradictions and loopholes. Most christians are subconsciously aware of this fact, and are proud of the fact that jesus of nazareth's teachings can be reduced to one ethical imperative, "So in everything, do unto others as you would have them do unto you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets." (Mathew 7:12) (The contradiction here with the Sermon on the Mount, where he says "not the smallest letter of the law, not the least stroke of a pen," will be set aside, is fairly obvious, since you can't not set aside any part of the law and simultaneously summarize it into something that absolves people of massive swaths of the law, but that isn't terribly important here anyway.) 

     Unfortunately for christian pride, this isn't a terribly original formulation. Philosophers and religious leaders had been saying this for millenia. 

     In the Hindu Mahabharata, around 2,000 BCE (so 2,000 years before jesus was born) "One should never do that to another which one regards as injurious to one's own self. This is, in brief, the rule of dharma. Other behavior is due to selfish desires."  

     The central tenet of Jainism (the guys with the brooms, so they don't step on insects), which is much more demanding than any other ethical code, "Just as sorrow or pain is not desirable to you, so it is to all which breathe exist, live or have any essence of life. To you and all, it undesirable, and painful and repugnant." 

     Confucius, around 500 BCE, "What you do not want done to yourself, do not do unto others." 

     The Buddha, also around 500 BCE, "One who, while himself seeking happiness, oppress with violence others who desire happiness, will not attain happiness hereafter. (Dhammapada 10)

     Aristotle, around 350 BCE, "We should behave to our friends as we would wish our friends to behave to us."

     In the Talmud, the Rabbi Hillel taught, "What is hateful to thee, do not do unto another."

     The Tao Te Chings also around 500 BCE, teaches, "The sage has no interest of his own, but takes the interests of the people of his own. He is kind to the kind; but he is also kind to the unkind: for Virtue is kind. He is faithful to the faithful; he is also faithful to the unfaithful: for Virtue is faithful." (Tao Te Ching, v. 49)

     Many scholars insist there is no Golden Rule in Islam, where it is commanded to treat all muslims as brothers, but killing infidels is a minor offense. Mohamed did say, "That which ye want for yourself, seek for mankind," though not in the Qu'ran. There is a similarity here to judaism, where it is written in Leviticus 19:18, "Thou shalt not avenge, nor bear any grudge against the children of thy people, but thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself." This historical precedent of limiting respect and non-violence to only members of your tribe or faith is one of the most obvious explanations for the intractable problems in Palestine today.

     What can we make of this? Well for one, no particular faith or creed has sole claim to the so-called Golden Rule. It seems to be a pretty universal truth, which anyone who spent more than two minutes thinking about it could formulate for themselves. Every parent in the world has used it to instruct their child, "Well, would you like it if your sister hit you?" If it is this universal, where does it come from? Since many of the thinkers listed above made no claim to divine revelation, and were able to get to the same place without it, it is safe to say that unverified claims of divine origin aside, the Golden Rule is simply part of being human.

     It's called altruism, and evolutionary scientists and psychologists are learning more and more that it is simply part of our genetic programming as social creatures. This might be a good time to take a short aside and briefly discuss evolution's role in understanding psychology and morality. Evolution put us here. (If you are still somehow on the fence about this, any book on the subject by the inestimable Richard Dawkins should dispel any lingering questions you have.) If evolution put us here, using any other tool to understand ourselves is really pretty ridiculous. It is like going to your barber shop, finding out that the customer in the other chair is an automobile engineer and asking, "So how do these new fangled hybrids work?" but directing the question at the barber. Many in the social science fields, such as sociology and psychology, are perfectly willing to accept that evolution put us here, but they also somehow believe that it left its most complicated creation, the most complicated thing in the known universe, the human brain, completely blank, for culture to fill in. That in the millions of years that evolution was driving the complexity and size of the human brain ever upwards, it was somehow not impacting its inner workings at all, like a child inflating a balloon. This is clearly, patently, absurd. Of course, evolution made us social creatures, and human culture is a powerful and fascinating thing, and our brains are designed to absorb it. But thinking that culture is the only factor is simply, downright dumb.

     So evolution made us altruistic, and many thinkers from 2,000 years before jesus of nazareth to 2,000 years after him, figured out this rather simple and obvious fact. Altruism is often criticized for only working on the, "You scratch my back, I'll scratch yours" principle. They claim that religion teaches us to be kind out of the goodness of our hearts. But is that really true? Read the bible or listen to any sermon or homily. It is pretty clear that the reason one ought to be good is for the reward of eternal life in a blissful heaven. So how is this any better? All I want is my back scratched too; you are demanding eternity. Altruism isn't less "good" than religious morality; in fact, it is more magnanimous.

     So, once again, we have an ethical system, that although it contains some useful suggestions, can really in no way make any claim to being the Best and Only Way to Live a good life. Many thinkers have constructed their own ethical codes, and most without recourse to divine revelation. I will attempt to show, in the next post, how this can be done, in a rather simple and sensible fashion.


  1. Just like to say, very nice articles. I'm really new to atheism. I have kind of been in the closet even to myself. All my doubt began 10 years ago, when I was in my mid/late twenties, and I read the bible cover to cover twice. It put the seeds of doubt in my, but it actually didn't grow until my daughter told me she was an atheist and we debated. I became a deist, than an agnostic, atheist, and am on the verge of being an anti-theist(although I feel in my heart that is a bit radical still) I found your blog after reading that "open letter to atheist". Anyway nice job, keep up the good work.

  2. Thanks Savannah. I appreciate you taking the time to read and comment.

    I think that is pretty typical, deism, agnosticism, atheism. I think those of us who are skeptical about magic and revelation don't need to fuss over terminology and sects quite as much as those who thinks it decides whether or not you go to hell.

    The whole point is just to simply examine whatever it is you do believe.