Overview:

With the Golden Rule, the bar for "doing good" is so low that anyone can do it. Here's how elitists abuse that moral philosophy.

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The Golden Rule, that much-loved staple of low-calorie morality, does more harm than good.

Humanists UK posted this on their Facebook page as part of their #HumanistVoices campaign:

“A naturally occurring moral philosophy based on reason and empathy,” says Humanists UK about the Golden Rule. 

“It’s really not complicated,” says Dan Snow. 

Is that true? Is it really “naturally occurring” to believe that what’s best for you is best for others? 

Are your individual needs and desires universally applicable?

Is it truly “being kind” to do what feels good for you

I suppose if you think all of this is truly natural, then indeed, it’s “really not complicated.”

The Golden Rule is not “natural”

It’s high time that nonreligious people challenge the idea of the Golden Rule as an ethically superior philosophy. Many already challenge it with “the Platinum Rule”: Treat others how they want to be treated.

I prefer the words of Felix Adler, the founder of Ethical Culture: “Act so as to elicit the best in others and thereby in thy self.” 

Adler cleverly pokes a hole in the weak spot of the Golden Rule through this exchange: 

Member: Some might say why not just apply the Golden Rule? Treat others as you would want to be treated. There, that was easy. 

Adler: How might it work if I simply assume people from other genders, ages, cultures, and circumstances want to be treated in a manner that would meet my needs? Upset, little girl? Here, smoke this cigar.

While the point of this exchange is to emphasize the consequences of projecting your individual needs and desires on others, I want to draw attention to the attitude of the member here. 

“There, that was easy,” they said. Just like Dan Snow said of the Golden Rule: “It’s really not complicated.” This is another problem with the Golden Rule. Supporters want to make ethics and good-doing into an easy and simple practice that involves as little thought as possible. “Look, it’s so easy and common that all the world religions advocate for it!”

With the Golden Rule, the bar for good-doing is so low that you can almost trip over it. That’s how easy it is! You barely have to lift your proverbial foot! Even a child can figure it out! 

But holding onto this philosophy is causing more harm than good. 

Nefarious use of this “moral” philosophy

It’s so easy to think you’re doing good when it feels good. And that’s what is at the bottom of the Golden Rule: if it feels good to you, then you’re doing good. 

But the truth is that doing good is more complicated than that because intent is not synonymous with impact.

Empathy is not a “one-size-fits-all” practice. It’s not a “set-it-and-forget-it” ethical installation to your life. It’s an ongoing commitment. It’s not easy. It takes dedication to not just do good but do better. It requires an acceptance of responsibility when your impact fails to align with your intent. 

The Golden Rule does not uphold this responsibility. In fact, it shirks the responsibility of impact entirely. For that reason, the Golden Rule is not only inferior to the Platinum Rule or Felix Adler’s philosophy, but it also causes more harm than good. 

Billionaires like Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk claim they are good-doers for society. They claim that their wealth and influence are being used for good. It’s an extension of the Golden Rule—they are attempting to cement the idea that their needs, desires, and interests are aligned with all of ours.

But who are they to say what the masses actually need? Who are they to make decisions for the rest of us? We didn’t put them in charge of fulfilling our needs or making decisions for us. Even if their businesses or philanthropy are doing some good (I would argue they aren’t), that “good” does not offset the amount of decision-making power they’ve stolen from regular people by privatizing social goods. 

As author Anand Giridharadas in the book Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World, states:

In an age defined by a chasm between those who have power and those who don’t, elites have spread the idea that people must be helped, but only in market-friendly ways that do not upset fundamental power equations. The society should be changed in ways that do not change the underlying economic system that has allowed the winners to win and fostered many of the problems they seek to solve.

The Golden Rule plays right into this. It’s just so easy to think you’re doing good when you claim to be treating people how you would like to be treated. It’s even easier still when you get the feeling of “doing good.” But so many following this individualist brand of thinking fail to understand that just because you get a good feeling from taking action doesn’t mean it is actually good. Your impact is not synonymous with your intent just because you said it is so. 

The Golden Rule helps support image laundering

When powerful people and organizations “do good,” it’s not so they can make positive change. It’s so they can keep us plebians from thinking they’re screwing us while maintaining the power imbalance.

That’s image laundering 101.

“Well, look, they aren’t that evil – they’ve got a social responsibility program!” Yes, and how convenient that they get to look like heroes in the public eye and continue to keep their exorbitant wealth and decision-making powers. 

Former CEO of Gravity Payments Dan Price is a good example of this. Price has built a reputation of being the “only moral CEO,” advocating for far better treatment of employees than almost any other CEO in this age. He wanted to show that capitalism can have a heart. He did this by taking a more socialist approach to capitalism — which appeals to my generation and Gen Z like moths to a flame. And yet, Dan Price is a narcissistic abuser whose private life does not at all reflect the ethical hero image he has put forth in the public eye. His fame allowed him to get away with years of physical assault. 

As the article, “If The “Only Moral CEO” Is an Abusive Narcissist, What Does That Say About Capitalism?” states: 

The Dan Price story provided the illusion that all we need are better bosses. While it is true, and important, to note that the rich could redistribute their wealth if they chose, and their high status is a choice rather than a product of the laws of economics, it is also the case that “more Dan Prices” will not make the world better. As we have seen, such people are often simply self-aggrandizing and even abusive in private. The only solution is to expropriate them.

This leads to the question of humanists, atheists, and other non-religious folks who promote the Golden Rule as being ethically superior: what good are they actually doing if they’re thinking along such selfish terms?

Time to push back against the Golden Rule in secular circles

Are they actually doing good, or are they doing just enough to make it appear as if they’re doing good? 

It’s so easy for anyone with money to use it to protect their “do-gooder” imagery rather than to use their money to actually do good. It often only takes one advocate of the Golden Rule in a group of decision-makers to justify some form of image laundering. “Well, if I was in this marginalized person’s position, I would want us to spend this money on ________(fill in PR opportunity here).” 

Again, I refer to a quote from Winners Take All:

The only thing better than controlling money and power is to control the efforts to question the distribution of money and power. The only thing better than being a fox is being a fox asked to watch over hens.

Capitalists use the Golden Rule to justify their elitist sense of “doing good.” So how could we say, with confidence, that non-religious people who follow the Golden Rule aren’t doing the same thing? 

The Golden Rule gives the follower the feeling of “doing good” without having to take any accountability for their impact. It’s the perfect moral philosophy for someone who wants to feel like they’re doing good without having to work hard at it or make any personal sacrifices. And that’s why we need to dump it completely. 

We must be wary of those who try to sell us on easy ethics.

Without the acceptance of accountability for impact, people can do whatever they want and justify it as “doing good.” So let’s retire that childish philosophy and replace it with a more mature and nuanced approach to doing good. Yes, the Platinum Rule requires more effort, but the “right thing” is seldom, if ever, the “easy thing.”

anya overmann

Anya Overmann is a digital nomad, writer, activist, and lifelong Humanist. As former President of Young Humanists International, she continues to work to advocate for inclusive young humanist communities...