By Vexen Crabtree 2015
The Golden Rule, "do unto others as you would have them do to you", and the Wiccan Rede - "if no harm is done, do as you will" are both expressions of the Ethic of Reciprocity. On account of its simplicity it is the most universal moral code known; appearing in nearly all cultures, being derived from multiple teachers, religions and philosophies at different times in different ways. Greek philosophers in the fourth century BCE derived it from logic as the most basic moral code, and its oldest appearance may be from 1970 to 1640BCE in ancient Egypt, making it at least a four-thousand old doctrine. The Egyptian empire spread its methods of religion and myths worldwide. It has been found in both atheist religions and theist religions, including: African Traditional1, Bahá'í, Buddhism, Christianity, Confucianism, Hinduism, Islam, Jainism, Judaism, Native American, Paganism, Scientology, Shintoism, Sikhism, Taoism, Wicca2 and Zoroastrianism. It also appears in secular moral systems: Humanism, Greek philosophy & culture, Marxism3, Roman antiquity1 and Persian1 culture have all embraced it.
Unfortunately, the ethic of reciprocity does not work. It is merely a goodwill gesture, and does not generate or sustain good morals in times of adversity or struggle. It is based around doing what you think is best - it's all down to subjective, personal opinion. Therefore, it only works for people who are already thinking moralistically. It doesn't work on natural thugs, and, it doesn't allow any active, effective or aggressive resistance to immoral rulers. Sometimes, treating people nicely just doesn't cut it when it comes to making positive social change.
“The principle of reciprocity is often the justification, motivation and, in some cases, the essence of a moral code.”
“The fundamental ethical teachings of all the major traditions are actually very similar. They tend to begin with a basic compassion or respect for others, such as the Golden Rule from Jesus ("Do unto others as you would have them to do you") or the Silver Rule from the Buddha ("Do not do unto others what you would not have them do unto you").”
Even radical thinkers often fail to critically analyse the practical effects of the Golden Rule, even when they devote a lot of time to deliberating over, and questioning, traditional moral answers:
“There are some general principles in the holy books of all religions that teach love, charity, liberty, justice and equality for all the human family, there are many grand and beautiful passages, the golden rule has been echoed and re-echoed around the world. [...] We would not question the wisdom of the golden rule.”
It appeared in disguise as Immanuel Kant's Categorical Imperative:
“This principle, then, is its supreme law: 'Act always on such a maxim as thou canst at the same time will to be a universal law'; this is the sole condition under which a will can never contradict itself; and such an imperative is categorical.”
"Fundamental Principles of the Metaphysic of Morals" by Immanuel Kant (1785)7
This means: whatever statement you choose to follow as your own moral rule, it must also be the one you want everyone else to follow. In other words - do unto others as you would have them do to you. It is the Ethic of Reciprocity, merely stated in a more abstract and nuanced way than normal. Despite the length of the thought process employed by Kant, the esteemed philosopher, he was able at arriving at no other ethic than the subjectivist and blind golden rule, which is unfortunately the same rule capable of leading proud and violent men into a life of thuggery on the basis that that's exactly how they expect to be treated in return. That's fair! But it is not a sensible building block of a humanistic or long-lasting moral system.
Be kind to your enemies, because you want them to be kind to you. This is the kind interpretation (naíve) of the golden rule. Selfless and noble, this ethic has ironically catalysed some of the worst atrocities in history. It has led to people being led happily by ruthless rulers into barbaric warfare and inhumane oppression as the indoctrinated masses fail to revolt against corrupt rule, for example, against the rule of Christianity during the Dark Ages/Age of Faith.
“At its higher level it becomes more generous and less mercenary, recognising the superior quality of the idea as formulated for instance by Lao Tzu in ancient China: 'For good return good: for evil return good'.”
This misguided, but noble, practice is unfortunately impractical and inhuman. It has only ever been realized by asocial sectarian groups who break away from the rest of the world; rather than create a working ethic that increases the goodness of the world they abandon the world to the more cruel leaders who they fail to oppose.
The more common form of the ethic of reciprocity gives antagonizers free reign to bring down general morality to their own level. So, it also doesn't work. A violent warrior is going to have a very different idea of what normal conduct is. One who fights for survival is both willing to attack others, and defend himself, and upholding the ethic of reciprocity appears to tell him that it is ok for him to attack others, just because it's something he expects to happen to him too. Survivalists and those who expect others to treat them badly, who are happy in a tooth-for-tooth world are given the all-clear to go forth and act as they wish. The ethic of reciprocity is too idealistic, and can only ever maintain the status quo rather than create an atmosphere of goodwill. Most support it because they are unable to think of a better way, and it has a feel-good factor because the statement is given much credence in popular religious and spiritual writings.
We look to Oliver Thomson for a brief reprise:
“At the lower end, this is the rule of vendetta, 'an eye for an eye'. Violent behaviour by one group tends to produce a justification for the morality of violence by any opposing groups.”
Mostly this is due to its simplicity, it is the first general ethical statement that can be made when you take relativism between people into account, so most organized systems of thought and personal philosophies contain many exceptions and additions to this ethic. For example, no-one wants to be put in jail, yet most people believe that a prison system is morally better than having no prison system.
In short, this form of reciprocal ethics only can support the status quo, it does not create any better moral system than what already exists. It is superfluous, and with codes like these things can only get worse!
Some of the holy texts and religious literature quoted below asserts the ethic of reciprocity in a "negative" form, where it says "do not" do something, and some display the positive form where it actively states that you behave positively as you want others to treat you. The most ancient form of the golden rule, 4000 years old, is expressed in the positive form.
The Ethic of Reciprocity is not a universal belief of all religions. Nordic culture is probably an exception. Satanism does not accept the ethic of reciprocity13 and Anton LaVey edited the Golden Rule to add a note saying that he believed that punishment was acceptable for a person's actions if a person deemed them deserving of it for some reason.
All #tags used on this page - click for more:
The Bible (NIV). The NIV is the best translation for accuracy whilst maintaining readability. Multiple authors, a compendium of multiple previously published books. I prefer to take quotes from the NIV but where I quote the Bible en masse I must quote from the KJV because it is not copyrighted, whilst the NIV is. Book Review.
Kant, Immanuel. (1724-1804) German philosopher.
(1785) Fundamental Principles of the Metaphysic of Morals. Amazon Kindle digital edition prepared by David J. Cole prepared by Matthew Stapleton. Translated by Thomas Kingsmill Abbott (1829-1913). An e-book.
Kurtz, Lester R.
(2007) Gods in the Global Village. 2nd edition. Published by Pine Forge Press, California, USA. Was previously Director of Religious Studies at Texas and holds a master's in Religion from Yale Divinity School and a PhD in Sociology from the University of Chicago. Kurtz is Professor of Sociology at the University of Texas, USA.