The Golden Rule: An impractical precept?

“So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.” – Mathew 7: 12 [NIV]

Mathew 7: 12 (see also Luke 6: 31) sheds light on what is commonly known as the ‘Golden Rule’. The Golden Rule (also called the ethic of reciprocity) finds mention in almost all the known major religions of the world. It is a universal morality – a precept that can be understood in either of the two but not unrelated ways:
One, one should behave with/treat others as one would like others to behave with/treat oneself.
Two, one should not behave with/treat others in ways that one would not like to be behaved with/treated.
Examples of above can be found across the world, from early to contemporary times, from great people to ordinary people, and from great acts to ordinary and day-to-day acts. The parable of the Good Samaritan (embodying compassion, helpfulness, loving one’s neighbour) and the act of Jesus washing His disciples’ feet (humility, service, love) make inspirational examples of the first. M.K. Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr (non-violence) exemplify well the second.
The then U.S. president John F. Kennedy appealed to the Golden Rule in an anti-segregation speech; racial segregation was still prevalent then. He asked the whites to imagine them being blacks, and how they would feel if they were to be treated as second-class citizens…
The point here is not whether the speech by itself had had any immediate transformative effect. Rather, the point is, and it bears recall, that such an endeavour towards a change in attitude and conduct and related efforts – which had been going on against the backdrop of the civil rights movement – later gave the Americans the Civil Rights Act, a landmark Act that ended open racial discrimination.
Contextual reading
It must, however, be pointed out here that the Golden Rule by itself does not tell whether a particular action is right or wrong; it does not provide all the answers. After all, what a person does consciously may not necessarily be ‘right’. For example, the conduct of a man who intentionally picks up fights because he loves to fight and expects a fight.
Again, it can be questioned: how do we know how others would like to be treated, given the differing tastes in people? The obvious way would be to ask them. But it cannot be done if, say, they haven’t reached such an understanding. One may still ask: how do we reach this understanding that they haven’t reached such an understanding? Back to square one: ask them. Now let’s reverse the question: how would we like to be treated?
Which is why the precept has to be read and understood in the context of what Jesus gave as the second greatest commandment: “Love your neighbour as yourself” [Mathew 22: 39]
The ‘neighbour’ here means not just a known or close person but ‘anyone in need,’ including strangers and enemies. This is also found in verses 18 and 34 of Leviticus chapter 19.
Now, one might ask: do people really love themselves? And cite instances of suicide. But can it be really said that the person ended his/her life because there was an intrinsic absence of self-love – and not influenced by extraneous circumstances – and that there was no such love prior to the events and circumstances that led him/her to take the extreme step? On the contrary, recurring cases of people with an extra dose of that love are not unfamiliar.
But having said that, to religiously obey the commandment is not easy. Nor is it, for that matter, easy to faithfully apply the Golden Rule. Indeed precisely because of the absence or the lack of it, we are a witness to – and a part of – many of the conflicts and tensions around the world, around us – between countries, within a country, between ethnic groups and within an ethnic group, between religious groups and within a religious group, between linguistic groups and within a linguistic group, between communities and within a community, between groups and within a group, within a society, between families and within a family, between friends, between colleagues, and between individuals.
In addition, an enlarged significance of the Golden Rule can be drawn by including the symbiotic relationship between man and environment. We indiscriminately cut down forest trees, for example, and what we also get are adverse consequences, including poorer air quality.
Closer home in our state, such conflicts and tensions are all too visible. Without having to pick up specific examples, an apparent lack of this morality can be seen from many of the ills plaguing our society.
At the level of personal relationships, a host of problems could have been prevented or reduced had this precept been duly applied. To illustrate, respect is important to everybody; but if there is no such due expression/conduct towards others, would it be morally fair and justified to expect the same of others? Similarly, he does not help others, even when needed, and yet expects help from others; she doesn’t call her friends and yet expects her friends to call her; he doesn’t listen to her yet expects her to listen to him … and so on.
On the other hand, reaction to any negatively perceived action very often tends to be likewise or in equal measure. Thus, in a way, it amounts to subscribing to the principle of ‘eye for eye’, ‘tooth for tooth’, which, alas, has been the standard norm and which Jesus Christ disapproved of.
A basic question
So, this now brings us to a basic question: why is it that a precept which is seemingly so simple, even truistic, is yet so hard to apply? Is it getting increasingly pushed to the periphery of our imagination, filled increasingly by other constricted thoughts and views?
We know that it is an essential basis of human rights. We know that it is one of the foundational principles on which the edifice of human relationship is built and sustained. We know also that deep within we nurture a feeling that seeks all positive things possible. Further, we know that it is clearly given in the Scriptures as a guiding moral principle.
Yet, in effect, this morality more often than not gets lost in the woods of other dominant strands of thoughts.
A number of reasons are clear. First, a lack of empathy restricts our cognitive abilities inasmuch as our behavioural tendencies are influenced by our cognitive faculty. An underlying, and an often unconscious, process is that our perception tends to get one-sided: we perceive the world and others from our own perspectives, oblivious to an important construct called ‘vicarious participation’.
Second, compassion or love conspicuous by its detachment from human reasoning tends to petrify our emotion and render it indifferent.
Third, the productivity of the Golden Rule is as much shaped by its consistency as it is by its content and direction. Lack of application of this consistency principle probably explains why there are many chequered relationships.
Fourth, it is not uncommon for people to have a normal dose of ego or self-esteem, which is of course not unhealthy. However, an exaggerated sense of ego unduly coupled with pride can be problematic: it creates hurdles and barriers on the bridge that connects people.
Fifth, human relationships are dictated considerably by conditionality and preconceived notions. Imposition of needless and unreasonable conditions limits the scope for a warm and mutually beneficial relationship. Also, our preconceived notions about others often govern our interaction.
Sixth, and more importantly, the foregoing reasons and other related factors sum up a larger failure: that of invoking and living the second greatest commandment.
Seventh, and above all, the limitations of the sixth reason are primarily due to our failure to connect [the second commandment] to the first and greatest commandment: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.” [Mark 12: 30]
A critical gap is further exposed by a pointed difficulty in sewing up the seven reasons mentioned above and the seven days of a week by a common thread of consistency such that there is a seamless blend of the two. So now, having got a broad view of the principal reasons, it would appear that the key to engaging a broader approach is clearer. But is it? Does our practical match the lofty theoretical standards? Is it possible to apply the principle on a consistent basis without being unduly hampered by obstacles? Put differently, is it an impractical precept to the extent that it cannot be made a natural moral guide?
The problem, in my view, is not so much for want of knowledge, imagination and/or commonsense. Nor is it for the recurring circumstantial difficulty of consistently applying the Golden Rule. It would lie somewhere between the inherent sinful nature of man and the stubbornness of the heart to give way to listening and to obedience in the Lord.
But again, it is not totally hopeless. A practical key lies in tempering the precept with ‘reasonableness’. But more importantly, for Christians, it lies in turning to our Lord Christ Jesus and in ‘struggling’ to learn from Him and His teachings. Looking for an alternative is a dead-end.

(This article was originally written for the Newsletter of a Christian Fellowship based in New Delhi.)