The Golden Rule Revisited

A few years ago, a friend of mine asked me the question "If you could have two wishes granted by an all-powerful, all good, all knowing genie, what would they be?"

I thought for a few seconds and then answered "I don't need two wishes. I only need one."

My friend argued with me briefly that, based on a complex logical analysis, I really did need two wishes, the first of which was to set up the conditions for the second one.

I repeated, "I don't need two wishes. I only need one."

He replied, "Okay, what is it?"

"I would wish for what is best."

He continued to try to find reasons why his analysis was superior to mine. To each of these I replied "Would the results of your wish be better than the results of mine?"

"Yes. And here's why..."

I patiently explained that the results of his wish could not possibly be better than mine, because I wished only for what was best. By definition, nothing could be better than what is best.

He countered that with "But what if what is best isn't what is best for me?"

That was a little bit more difficult than the original question of what to wish for in the first place, but I shortly realized the answer wasn't much more complicated: "Then you should change so that what is best is best for you."

I believe this is within the reach of each of us, and if we accept the challenge, the world will be a different and better place.

Several paths to spiritual enlightenment

There are many paths to spiritual enlightenment. Each person must choose for himself or herself which path best suits their abilities, previous experience, and approach to life.

But there are many people who don't seem to be able to find a path that they can use, even with the hundreds or thousands of different options to choose from. I was one of these people, until I read a book called Conversations with God. I had tried a number of different approaches previously, but none of them had really done the job for me. I had become disillusioned with the "standard" varieties of organized religion early in life, but had been willing to try other approaches. I did so on several occasions, in one case spending years trying to advance along one particular path. Although I did find that approach quite helpful in some areas of spiritual advancement, I found it too doctrinaire and limiting, and eventually terminated my involvement in it.

So I was between "faiths" when I ran into an alumna of my alma mater, Shimer College, at a meeting that I had set up for such alumni in North Texas. She asked me if I had read Conversations with God, by Donald Walsch. I said that I had not. She replied that I must read it.

I took her advice, and was almost instantly converted from a fairly staunch atheist (albeit one who believes that this is not the only plane of existence, and that we are reincarnated again and again to work out our problems, a fairly standard neo-Buddhist approach) into a, well, a "Conversationalist" (to use the term coined by my wife Susan).

I won't try to give a thorough account of the spiritual system propounded by the Conversations with God books; you should read them for yourself. However, very briefly, they portray a God who is simultaneously omniscient, omnibenevolent, and omnipotent. I'd never before seen even a hint of a system that could (logically consistently) portray such a God; they all foundered on the shoals of the question "How can God permit suffering?" Of course, Christians would claim that they have such a system, but I'm afraid I must respectfully disagree. Of course, I do not wish to denigrate or minimize the spiritual comfort that Christianity and other organized religions provide to millions of people around the world. However, that does not mean that they provide a path that is appropriate for everyone.

To get back to the "Conversationalist" system, even more briefly, the answer to the question about suffering is "God created the world to experience every possibility of life. This inevitably includes pain and suffering. However, we experience pain and suffering as such only because we do not see through the illusory nature of the apparent world."

As you may already know, the Buddha taught that attachment was the basis of suffering, and this is consistent with the "Conversationalist" approach. Buddhism also has the "Eightfold path" which teaches how one can live life better (i.e., more morally). I have no disagreement with their precepts, but driven by a desire to simplify, I have tried to figure out if there is one overarching principle that, followed consistently, would result in a happy and moral life.

I believe there is such a principle, one that has been discovered many times. It has been known by many names, such as "The Categorical Imperative (Act as though your actions were a universal law that everyone would follow)". But its most commonly known name in our current society is the "Golden Rule" (Do unto others as you would have them do unto you)".

So could I possibly have anything to add to this well-worn topic?

Yes, I think I do. Although there is fairly general agreement that this rule, if followed, would make the world better, because each person wishes others to treat him fairly, there has (up to now) been no explanation of exactly how this rule works on an individual level, i.e., how it directly makes each individual person's life better for him, not just for society in general.

I believe I have found that explanation.

The Society of the Golden Rule

The rule that one should wish for "what is best" is closely related to the Golden Rule. This relationship is revealed by the question "best for whom?".

If you act as you would have others act toward you, then what is best in an overall sense will also be what is best for you. This is because the motive of your actions will then be consistent with the good of everyone.

To see this, let us examine the ramifications if everyone followed the Golden Rule. Would there be war? No, because no one wants to be warred upon. Rape? No, because no one wants to be raped. Murder? Likewise.

Actually, the uncontroversial nature of the Golden Rule is quite remarkable. Have you ever heard anyone say they disagreed with it? What possible argument could anyone make against it? Even those who violate it every day, e.g., criminals and politicians, claim they are in favor of it.

The real question, then, is not whether it is true or whether people agree with it, but how we can convince people that they should follow it.

The Key to the Treasure

I believe there is a way to explain to people why they should obey the Golden Rule, and what the consequences are for not doing so.

The key is that everyone, even those who violate the Golden Rule, would prefer that other people follow it. Therefore, violating the Rule, from a strictly practical viewpoint, causes your intentions to be misaligned with the intentions of others, and thus causes conflict between you and those others.

This can be rather easily seen from the fact that, from the viewpoint of anyone else but yourself, you are one of the "others". Therefore, that other person would like you to follow the Rule. However, we know from our assumption that you aren't following it. Therefore, there is conflict.

On the other hand, if you do follow the Rule, there is no inherent conflict between your behavior and the behavior you expect from others, either from your viewpoint or the viewpoint of those other persons. Of course, you can still disagree with others on exactly how to implement the Rule. However, such disagreements are not inherent in the nature of things, as those caused by Rule-breaking are.

"Best for Whom", solved

This still leaves the question of whether "what is best" is always "what is best for you". We have already seen that if this is true, then you will not have any inherent conflicts in following the Rule. However, this does not answer the question of whether it is indeed true.

Here is another key to the puzzle: If you define "what is best for you" as "what is best in a global sense", then these two apparently different notions fuse into one. This immediately quashes the possibility that they will be in conflict, and leads directly to the ability to seek "the best" without qualification.

A problem and a solution

But there is still one problem that people often bring up when I suggest this simple, yet radical, approach to living: what if others take advantage of one's generosity and kindness? Wouldn't that put Golden Rule followers at a disadvantage?

Perhaps it would, in some cases. But there is a relatively simple mechanism by which this problem could be avoided: creating a registry of Golden Rule adherents and a means by which they could settle disputes should any arise.

The World Wide Web provides a tremendous advantage to a modern-day attempt to create a mass following for the Golden Rule. It would not be terribly difficult for a reasonably skilled Web designer to create a web site for a new Golden Rule organization which would  provide collaboration tools like these:

  • A worldwide registry of people who have agreed to follow the Golden Rule in their dealings with one another.
  • A worldwide registry of people who have agreed to mediate disputes among registrants, with the primary aim of re-establishing a proper Golden Rule relationship between disputants.
  • An automated linking service that would allow Golden Rule registrants to have their Web sites linked from the homepage of the Golden Rule site.
  • Of course, this does not exhaust the possibilities. I'm sure there are many other collaborative tools that people might find useful. But these tools alone could make following the Golden Rule much more desirable and profitable, in many senses.

    As a modest beginning toward this goal, I've created a new mailing list for those interested in the Golden Rule and how to encourage others to follow it. The only requirement for joining the mailing list is that you agree to follow the Rule with respect to others on the list. I hope to see you there!

    Return to my main page