Friday, 15 December 2006

One or Two Golden Rules?


Have a look at these versions of the classic Golden Rule:

  • "Hurt not others with that which pains yourself"- Buddha
  • "What you do not wish upon yourself, extend not to others." - Confucius
  • "What is hateful to you, do not to your fellow man." - Hillel
  • "This is the sum of duty: do naught unto others which would cause you pain if done to you." Hinduism
  • "Whatever is disagreeable to yourself do not do unto others." Zoroastrianism
  • "But what I condemn in another I will, if I may, avoid myself." Herodotus
  • "What things make you angry when you suffer them at the hands of others, do not you do to other people." Isocrates

Now have a look at these:

  • "All things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them" Jesus
  • "No one of you is a believer until he desires for his brother that which he desires for himself." Mohammad

Are both groups similar or not? I would argue that there is a difference and it is a significant one. You might respond they all represent the same sentiment "treat others as you would like to be treated". Well do they? Whilst they are both positive in intent, their way of expressing this is opposite, the first group's content implying negative actions - that one should not do - and the second group's content implying positive actions - that one should do. That is, the first are expressed in a proscriptive form and the second in prescriptive form. We summarise succinctly as two versions of the Golden Rule:

  • Proscriptive "Do not do unto others, as you would not have them do to you"
  • Prescriptive "Do unto others, as you would have them do you"

So now we can see clearly, even when we use a common way of summarising the Golden Rule, as stated above, "treat others as you would like to be treated", the distinction I am making here is focusing on how one goes about treating one another . The treatments are different. You will not see this distinction made on say or the wikipedia but I believe it is an important one and will now demonstrate why.

First, of course, any system or code of conduct will likely contain both prescriptive and proscriptive rules or laws, but that is due to the nature of the particular rule at hand and how it is expressed, managed and , indeed, can reflect the authoritarian/libertarian bias of the legislators too. Lets be clear of the difference between the two. Proscriptive means you cannot do this and anything is allowed or is legal, whereas prescriptive means you can only do this and anything else is not allowed or is illegal.

Now if a rule has the same scope, then the proscriptive version allows greater possibilities of action - it is more liberating and open to innovation and creativity. (That is not to say that some of those unforeseen possibilities might be problematical, in which case consequential rules or laws could be introduced or existing ones modified). By comparison, a prescriptive version is stifling of new possibilities and preventative of generating novel and creative actions or alternatives - since they are all illegal.

Now we are not looking at a particular rule here but a principle from which to generate rules, laws, rights or guidelines on how to behave. The scope of two versions is the same - how you treat others.

Two standard ways of examining the implication of the Golden Rule are looking at atypical exceptions in the reductio ad absurdum arguments of the suicidal depressive and the masochist. The implications look different with the distinction formulated as above. If both were to operate according to the proscriptive version, then the suicidal depressive might not make an effort to save someones life should such a situation arise and the masochist would not give pleasure to anyone again should the opportunity arise. Whereas with the prescriptive version, the masochist might hurt others encouraging a response in kind and the suicidal depressive might want others to die to create a reciprocal response! (Lets not speculate any further on this line of thought remember this is an absurdum argument, isn't it?).

Hopefully one can conclude that as basis for getting along with one another that the Proscriptive version is a better basis than the Prescriptive one. Well christian apologetics differs on this. They argue that christianity introduced a different Golden Rule - the Prescriptive one (they would not use my qualifier though) and that the universal (Proscriptive) rule is inferior and often disparagingly called the "silver rule". Of course they focus selectively only on positive outcomes of this rule and it is, indeed, harder to act with kindness to everyone than just not to treat them badly. Unfortunately not all outcomes of this prescriptive rule are positive and they do not consider these, especially when they think, based on the supposed superiority of their religion (justified by this distinction), that they can then use this rule to impose themselves on others, through proselytising, for example.

What this argument should indicate is that

  1. It is a fallacy to assume because both versions are positive in intent that they have will similar or equivalent positive outcomes.
  2. That the Proscriptive Golden Rule is preferable and superior to the Prescriptive Golden Rule, certainly as a basis for people getting along with one another
  3. To be very wary of those who argue otherwise - especially those who already make this distinction and might disparage the Proscriptive Rule as the "silver rule".

I hope this argument has been sufficient and not too brief. I needed to make it because it often comes up in debate where this distinction is not understood. More importantly I think the Proscriptive Golden Rule is a good (but not the only) basis for looking at modern social issues such as citizen and human rights and that the Prescriptive Golden Rule is a good way to identify why there are problematical clashes between groups and ideologies.