The Golden Rule seems so simple when we first hear it: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. What could be simpler than that? But the more I’ve thought about it and actually tried to practice it in real-life situations, the more I’ve realized that as with many general principles, however valid the principle may be, the devil is in the details. Practicing the Golden Rule turns out to be not quite as simple as it looks at first.
The Golden Rule can be especially problematic in the area of specifics. Does it mean that I should always do unto others the exact specific things that I would want done unto me? Not necessarily, because different people naturally want and need different things. I ran into this issue in the early days of my relationship with my partner. I like to be left alone when I’m wrestling with a problem, so when she was wrestling with a problem, I’d leave her alone. I honestly thought I was helping her. But it turned out that when she was wrestling with a problem, she wanted to talk about it with me. So, needless to say, what I was doing unto her wasn’t helpful at all.
Another problem with specifics comes in zero-sum situations where you can’t possibly do unto everyone involved what you would specifically want done unto you, because doing something for one person automatically means not doing it for another. For instance, applying the Golden Rule to an election, it seems that I should vote for all the candidates to help them win, since winning is what I would want if I were running, right? But of course, I literally can’t do that. Voting for one is not voting for the others, and is thus an act that ensures that at least some candidates will lose. Here, the Golden Rule is logically impossible on the level of specifics.
Working exclusively on the level of specifics also runs me into further problems. For instance, not all of the things I specifically want are good things, and in those cases doing unto others what I would want done unto me would be harmful, and more than a little narcissistic. Why should my petty desires be the measure of what I do unto others? And of course, many people out there want things that are harmful to other people, so there are good reasons for not giving some people what they specifically want. For instance, I think it would be an awful idea to help Donald Trump achieve all of the specific things he wants as president.
In my own working with the Golden Rule, then, I try to think of it more in terms of general values than of specific things, and more in terms of the noblest of human desires than of the more petty needs we often think we have. So, when I think of doing unto others as I would have them do unto me, I try to think of it this way: In my actions toward others, I should give love, compassion, honor, respect, goodwill, justice, dignity, peace, etc., because I share every human being’s deepest desire for these things. Yes, my giving of these intangible things will often involve giving some specific forms, and these are important. I recall the Biblical admonition that when your brother or sister needs food, saying “Go in peace” just isn’t enough. But the specific things I provide for others are ideally vehicles for the deeper gift of love.
How, then, do I determine what to do on the level of specifics? Personally, I believe in asking God for guidance, and for me this asking also entails doing the normal things we do to discern what would be most helpful to everyone—everything from analyzing an issue to dialoging with others about it to simply asking people what they want. This is all very tricky, of course, and it’s easy to get things wrong. I’ve been wrong many times, since I’m a fallible human being like the rest of us. This means that I need to be very humble and change course when I discover that I’ve gone off track.
But the key for me is remembering that what I should do unto others is above all to give the love that I and all other human beings truly and deeply yearn for. To the degree that I can do this in my heart and mind, I believe that I’ll be much more likely to give others specific things that will truly benefit everyone. I’ll give my partner the attention she needs. I’ll vote for a candidate who will bring benefits that even the disappointed losing candidates will eventually appreciate. And though I’ll not help Trump achieve many of the specific things he wants as president, I won’t lock him out of my heart, and I’ll trust that something deep inside of him—whether acknowledged or not—would recognize my love, if he were ever to come into contact with me. That, at least, is my hope.
P.S. Speaking of elections, I’m very glad that Emmanuel Macron won yesterday’s French election. Good news we can certainly use!