Confucius replied, “It is the word shu, or reciprocity: Do not do to others what you do not want them to do to you.”
To what extent may this formulation of the Golden Rule, which can also be found in other cultures throughout history be considered as a universal moral principle?
The Golden Rule of ethics is a principle that has indeed long been the cornerstone of ethical judgments. It has many different forms, for example the one stated by Confucius or the closely related Kantian categorical imperative. Indeed, on first glance, the statement made by Confucius is very similar to two formulations of the Kantian categorical imperative* ** and seems to imply a third one***. However, there is a small, but significant difference. Confucius says that the word we should adhere to is reciprocity, the act of exchange for mutual benefit. This notion seems to conflict with Kantian thought, according to which we should act in a moral fashion because doing so is right. However, Confucius seems to insist that we should do so because it is beneficial.
In this essay I will analyze the nature of an ethical judgment and the basis on which it should be made. I will provide a defense of deontological ethics and adherence to moral principles, and hopefully show that the Golden Rule should indeed be seen as a moral principle, but that it has characteristics of hypothetical statements and is not fully a categorical statement and therefore not a fully functioning absolute moral principle.
HOW SHOULD WE VIEW MORALITY?
Consequentialists would say that when we want to make an ethic judgment, we should always consider the result of the action. Thinkers who support virtue ethics would say that we should hold the virtuosity of the agent in the highest regard. Deontologists would say that we should consider the intentions behind the action and the notion of duty.
Naturally, these opinions are in clear conflict. How should we approach this problem, then? How should we view ethics and what opinion should we agree with?
To approach this problem, we have to first note the fact that humans are rational agents. When we encounter a situation which requires an action, we should make an ethical judgment that is rooted in our rational capabilities. This is necessary if we want to create an universal system of ethics; while emotions certainly have great power, they are subjective and not fully comprehensible even for the person who feels them. Through the power of pure reason and rationality, however, we always arrive at the conclusion that is dictated by our faculty of reason.
This notion conflicts with the basic tenets of virtue ethics. If we would judge the morality of actions in such a
fashion, we would put most emphasis on the subject, the agent for the act that is judged, not the act itself. And while the act and the agent might indeed be virtuous by some standards, they might not be so by others - and we can see that virtue ethics is inherently subjective. Naturally, we can select a group of traits that we consider to be virtues, as many Hellenistic philosophers have done. However, they are still personality traits, not principles which could be analyzed based on rationality and thought, and therefore are not universal.
Let us consider two drivers, Bob and Alice. They live a few houses away from each other. Both have to arrive at their grandmother’s birthday. Bob starts earlier than Alice. He is in a hurry and when he encounters a red traffic light, he keeps on driving, after having verified that the street is empty. However, just as he is past the traffic light, a previously unseen man runs in front of the car. Bob hits him and the man dies. Alice takes the same route 10 minutes later, is also in a hurry and also encounters a red traffic light. She also verifies that the street is empty, keeps on driving and safely arrives at her grandmother’s birthday, just on time. Did Bob and/or Alice act morally?
We can immediately see the problem with consequentialism. We could, indeed, use these principles to judge these actions after the situation has already occurred and we could argue about how they should be punished. We would probably reach the conclusion that Bob was acting less morally then Alice, since his breaking the law resulted in a death, whereas hers was just a formal violation. However, they both checked the street before, Bob just happened to be somewhat unlucky. Neither had a reason to assume that somebody would run to the street just in time to be hit. This illustrates the main weakness of consequentialism: we are unable to always consider all the consequences, since we might not have enough knowledge or information about the situation.
THE NEED FOR PRINCIPLES
In a deontological view, we have a simple principle to follow: to do our duty and do what is right. For example, if we follow Kantian thought, then in this hypothetical situation both drivers should have stopped and waited until the light turns green, since running a red light is wrong and clearly conflicts with the first formulation of the categorical imperative - the maxim “I should run a red light” could not become an universal law, since it could not be universally followed. Therefore, both of them acted immorally.
We can arrive at the same conclusion if we utilize the Confucian formulation of the Golden Rule - if we see breaking the law as “doing to others” (society), then, if we have a just system of law (which we can probably assume to be the case), we would indeed not want anybody else to do the same thing (break the law) to me as a part of the society. Thus, the conclusion is the same: both of them acted immorally. It seems that a deontological view, based on a strict and unflinching moral principle, avoids the non-rationality of virtue ethics and the partial usefulness of consequentialism. However, on first glance it seems to have a very serious disadvantage - it seems to turn people from rational, thinking beings into mindless drones, who simply follow their “programming”.
It is because of this aspect that the use of rationality is essential in a deontological view. The principles that should be followed must necessarily be obtained through reason. They can in no case be arbitrary maxims, perhaps dictated by some force from above; instead, they should be the highest rational abstraction that can be obtained through the faculty of reason. For example, if we look at the first formulation of the categorical imperative (given below in footnote *), we can see that if we take the maxim under examination to be the categorical imperative - use the categorical imperative on the categorical imperative - we obtain a result which tells us that we should act according to the categorical imperative. Such a “test” cannot be precisely completed for the Confucian formulation of the Golden Rule, but a similar line of reasoning can be obtained by observing the fact that Confucius uses the term reciprocity, - if that is the guiding principle behind this maxim, which can be followed universally (if we assume the existence of “others”), then this, too, is a universal and certainly rational principle.
|Jean-Jacques Lequeu’s Temple of equality (1791)|
We can probably assume that acting morally is something we want and not discuss whether we should act morally or not. However, in the context of this essay and to discuss the significant difference between the categorical imperative and the Golden Rule, we certainly have to ask a far more interesting question: what should be the driving force that makes us act morally (or want to act morally)?
In the previous section, we established that principles based on rationality are necessary to make moral judgments. It would seem that the answer to our question is “rationality”. However, this is not the case: the faculty of reason is indeed what we should use to make the judgment, but it has no control over our faculty of desire.
If we look at the given Confucian notion that the moral principles should be grounded in mutual benefit - not doing to others, so that they would, adhering to the same principle, not do to you - we see that is in essence a defensive mechanism, a device for perpetuating one’s self. It lacks a purpose other than to avoid possible harm. The categorical imperative, however, is grounded in the sense of the right - the principles should indeed be followed because they are the right principles, not merely because of self-benefit. If we were to take the other approach, however, we would certainly introduce our selves into the process of a moral judgment, perhaps influencing our faculty of reason through, for example, willfully misleading perception. If we make the moral judgment because we believe that acting morally is right, then we are true to the idea of acting morally - doing what is right - and also true to the idea of universality and pure reason. The Confucian Golden Rule therefore has some characteristics of a hypothetical, not categorical statements - in Kantian terms, it tries to answer the question “What should I do to be happy?” instead of “What should I do to deserve happiness?”
For these reasons, the Confucian formulation of the Golden Rule can be said to be on the wrong grounds, although it is good as a principle to use and definitely a good moral principle. However, the categorical imperative, which is closely related to the Golden Rule, is perhaps a better principle to adhere by, since it removes the agent from the judgment by removing the idea of self-benefit from the process.
* Given here as such: Act according to such a maxim which by itself could become an universal law.
** Given here as such: Act according to such a maxim by which you always treat a person as the ends, never as just the means.
*** Given here as such: Act according to such a maxim by which you always act as a legislating member in the Kingdom of Ends.