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Chapter 4 - The Golden Rule

The golden rule is a direct consequence of empathy being the moral absolute.

We have established as a basic thesis that for a moral act to be good, that act must work to promote well-being. These acts must be more than just random; morality has a volitional component to it that presupposes free will. Without this presupposition morality is nothing more than a descriptive body of knowledge. That is, if all actions are randomly or deterministically generated, falling into either the good or bad category based on a measurement of their outcome, then there is nothing more that can be done except to catalogue and describe the different outcomes as a result of these unwilled processes. But we usually demand more out of morality than that. It must then be translated into ethics, the prescriptive body of knowledge that tells the individual what to do.

An analogy can be drawn between basic science such as physics or chemistry and engineering. In the basic sciences there is no consideration of volition - the planets move around the sun and hydrogen and oxygen combine to form water by their nature. There is no need to discuss how they came to be that way - if these fields were expressed as logical syllogisms, the preconditions would be given as arbitrary postulates.

But engineering implies volition. For a satellite to trace an orbit around the earth, someone must have designed the satellite, filled its tanks with liquid oxygen and ignited it at a given time and place. The results of these volitional actions are the forces generated by the chemical reaction leading to the orbit the satellite assumes. The engineer has the free will to design that satellite according to engineering principles or not, but the success or failure of the mission depends on the successful application of this free will.

The question of free will in engineering is not as vexing due to the objectivity with which the results can be measured. Making the wrong calculations will lead to the satellite ending up in the wrong place - an objectively verifiable event. In morality, we instead find that the outcome of volition is determined by the measurement of the well-being of the entities affected by the action. To have any hope at all of having a morality that is universal in its understanding and application, it must be necessary that each entity's well-being is defined in terms of itself. This results in a measurement that is subjective no matter how hard we try, since it is ultimately measured in terms of the ultimate well-being of the entity - due to the fact that each of us is unique - so no all-inclusive standard can be applied.

It could be argued that each person might be characterized as a complex, or vector, of quantities and qualities that express the person's well-being, and that an objective standard could be derived by a complete description of the dimensions that make up well-being. But this would only work for entities that are essentially nonsentient. The inclusion of sentience makes the characterization subjective, almost by definition. It is more than a simple definition, though. We shall see in a later chapter that the implications of modern logic mean that any objective measure is bound to fail, due to the will of the thinking person.

So given that ethics consists of the prescriptive injunctions that point the way to moral action, the question is what basic principle can be given as the overarching framework for moral action. The answer is clear. To act in a way that is good, strive for the greatest increase in well-being. The greatest increase in well-being is defined relative to the ultimate well-being the entity is capable of. This maximum is measured in reference to that entity's definition of well-being. Therefore to be able to volitionally act in a way that maximizes the good, act with the other entity's definition of their well-being in mind. This is the Golden Rule. Usually expressed as "Do unto others as they you would have them do unto you", this formulation results in the precept "Take each action with thought of the best interests of each entity as that individual sees it."

This is why, in most major religions, some expression of the Golden Rule is a primary virtue, sharing this primacy with that religion's conception of the ultimate. This is one of the two commandments of Christianity, but it is also a basic tenet of Islam, where this basic force is expressed as the Principle of Equality. In Buddhism, where the existence of suffering forms the ground of being, with enlightenment we can achieve empathy through the four boundless states of loving kindness, compassion, sympathetic joy and equanimity. In Taoism, empathy is also a primary virtue, expressed as compassion. The three treasures for the Taoist are compassion, balance and humility.

Even without volition, descriptive morality shows that the most successful society is one that practices the Golden Rule. This can be expressed as a simple series of logical statements. The first proposition to show is that, given any two societies, one of which is more moral than the other, the more moral one works as if each moral act of each individual serves to minimize the overall difference between the aggregate well-being of all of those entities affected by an action and the well-being they are capable of. The second proposition observes that, regardless of how the aggregate well-being is calculated, the individual components of that aggregate are determined in reference to the maximal capacity for well-being of each entity, and that each of these calculations are done independently of the other, since the individual definitions of well-being do not overlap. This is true not because each entity functions independently of the others (they don't) but even allowing for the interactions, the definition of well-being is centered on that entity alone, incorporating those interactions as part of its unique definition. Finally, we can show the main result that, given any two societies, one of which is more moral than the other, the more moral works as if each moral act of each individual is operating to minimize the difference between the entity's definition of maximal well-being and that entity's current state of well-being. Thus the more moral society functions in accordance with the perceived well-being of each individual, whether the individuals are perceived to be volitional or not.

This descriptive sense of morality can be used as the viewpoint by which to create and describe a morality, but the lack of an assumption of free will leads to a somewhat contorted expression of the results. Instead of describing the functioning of each individual as a behavior that manifests certain moral properties, it is simpler and more direct to assume free will exists and talk about the functioning of the individual as volitional in nature. Although the question of the nature of free will shall be addressed in a later chapter, for this reason we shall now assume that free will exists.

The determination of the overall goodness or badness of an act depends on how the judgment combines the changes in well-being of the participants into an overall aggregate or whole. This determination is part of the relative moral framework in which the judgment is made. It hardly ever suffices that the combination is a simple combination where the well-being of each entity involved is equally considered with the rest. This is especially false for those moralities based on the concept of a God whose wishes and desires are sometimes in opposition to the wishes and desires of lesser beings. In that case, the difference could assume an almost infinite order of magnitude. The only way that a pure equality would work is to reduce morality to a set of operations between separate entities, denying of the possibility of any aggregate well-being, and where the potential well-being of each entity is adjusted so that all appear equal. This approach is too simplistic to capture all of the complexities or moral action between people, groups, nations, animals, plants and ecosystems.

Another extreme case of an aggregate function is the equally simple morality of an absolute selfishness. That is, regardless of the well-being that other entities possess or are capable of, these values have no consideration in the determining of what is moral. Only the well-being of the actor and that actor's potential count for anything - the rest is zero.

The first objection to this type of a moral aggregation is that it does not take into account the fact that each individual operates as part of a whole world and that this aggregate is the same whether the whole world exists or not. To make an absolute selfishness work, then, is to assume a type of solipsism. Another way to accomplish the same thing is to admit that the outside world does exist, but the well-being of the other entities becomes components in the measurement of the well-being of the individual's selfish needs, so that, having been taken into account at the level of well-being, need not be given a nonzero estimation for the purposes of aggregation. This in effect means that the outside world only matters in terms of how it helps or hinders one's own well-being.

This type of self-centeredness is, when considered from a purely analytic standpoint, certainly a potentially functional way of operating. But to be truly functional it results in an analysis whose conclusions end up no different than a more conventional morality. The only real difference between the two is merely a matter of definition - what is the individual? The solipsistic definition is really doing nothing more than equating the individual with the universe. This usually creates a need to find some sort of description or means of thinking about what the individual formerly was - that person whose well-being now encompasses everything. This often translates to a separation of the individual and the outside world into parts of this greater individual, where the "will" or some "controller" determines the nature of reality and the rest of the world is just perception or illusion under its control.

The self-centered viewpoint that admits the existence of the world but ignores everything not related to the selfish needs of the individual is little different. Instead of expanding the definition of the individual to be that of all reality, it actually truncates reality to fit the individual. That it, all aspects of all entities in the world that do not impinge on the well-being of that individual simply do not exist anymore, because they do not play a part in the evaluation of the morality of an action.

Because the differences between a pure selfishness and a more conventional morality are mostly definitional in nature, there is abstractly no difference in the functioning of an effective morality using these viewpoints or a more conventional aggregate. In practical terms, though, the difference may be large. These differences hark back to the discussion of why morality actually functions from a relative standpoint. The inappropriate choice of a moral framework makes it very difficult to effectively compute the well-being of the entities involved in the action.

In an absolute selfishness, these entities do not go away: their moral coordinates are transformed so that they are viewed strictly from the viewpoint of the individual, meaning that any determination of the individual's well-being requires a non-trivial coordinate transformation to be successfully incorporated into this new, much more complicated measurement.

The attempt to completely perform this transformation ends in failure, usually in one of two ways. The first and most obvious is that the person who functions from a purely selfish viewpoint makes bad decisions which eventually catch up with them. This happens when the person just does not take into account the needs of other people into the moral equation. The consequences of this omission leads to the other people acting in a way that negatively impacts that person's well-being in a direction that was unforeseen or ignored. The second mode of failure is that the individual chooses to limit the interactions with the rest of the world to what is manageable. This is usually done by focusing only on considerations of what is in it for them. In reality, it could potentially be true that the whole of what is good for the other entity can be translated into the viewpoint of what is good for the individual, but this transformation to the selfish viewpoint is too complex to carry out in a limited time. In effect, pure selfishness just puts back the epicycles of the absolute frame of reference, because it is an absolute frame of reference centered on the individual.

In opposition to pure selfishness is a pure altruism. Altruism in its purest sense - taking action with no thought of gain for the self - is simply the aggregation of the well-being of all parties involved, where the well-being of the individual is scored as zero. A pure altruism could lead to an overall maximization, if it could be proved that any thought of self would lead to a gain far outweighed by the loss of the aggregate well-being of a number of other entities effected by the action, even if their individual losses are small. But this attitude, even though popular in many periods of civilization and among many groups is ultimately suspect.

First, it ignores the very real need for well-being that every entity possesses. If the well-being of the actor is not taken into account by the actor itself, the responsibility for that individual's well-being is shifted to other individuals, if it is not to be simply left to chance. But this is not efficient: typically we know ourselves best, so selfishness is more certain and also more efficacious.

It may be that a person is considered altruistic for the simple reason that their needs are few. It can be argued, though, that this person is practicing the virtue of simplicity and is just as selfish and non-altruistic as everyone else. If the lack of desire for needs were actually altruistic, then the normal person would be more altruistic than someone whose health or handicaps place extra burdens on others.

Second, although implied balance can be true - that the thoughts of oneself take away from the concern of others - this can be extended to those other entities as well. There are potentially a myriad of other entities whose well-being might come into play in almost any circumstance. That is, if everything is interconnected, any action in reality affects every entity in the universe. The reduction of the scope of an action to a select number of individuals is the recognition that although there can be an effect on everything for every action, the practical effect is nil for almost every entity. But if there is an infinitesimal effect upon every entity and all of those entities are considered equally, it is possible to imagine that the overall effect of an action is very large but the inclusion of any entity is vanishingly small. To make it possible for any action to be evaluated, it is usually taken as a prerequisite that there is a method of aggregation where the effect of an action on an entity drop offs in inverse proportion as the size of the context of the action increases to include these entities, eventually going to zero at some point. This is done, if for no better reason than to make judgment practical. This is in contrast to the aggregation function of the pure altruist, though which starts with its origin at zero.

Instead of a pure altruism, the more practical approach to morality is a rational self-interest. That is, each entity should value themselves as slightly higher than the other entities in their neighborhood, if simply for the fact that they are more capable of discerning what is in their best interest. If everyone were operating in their best interest using their own self-knowledge, the overall efficiency of society is bound to increase since everyone is functioning as an expert in what they know best. This also extends to their nearest neighbors. Having knowledge of those closest to oneself, simply due to the fact of familiarity, means that one can take their well-being into consideration at a higher level of understanding than that of a stranger. This aggregation naturally decreases as the context expands.

Since the most basic precept of moral action is the Golden Rule, which urges the actor to take into account the viewpoint of well-being of the other entities, consequently the most basic bad action involves dehumanization. Dehumanization is simply defining the well-being of a human as something other than is best for that person. The most naked and obvious type of dehumanization is to consider other human beings as lesser creatures. This is an overall downgrading of that person's worth that is unwarranted between all people of equal potentiality.

Racism is usually justified in terms of potentiality. It is usually justified by the racist with a rationalization for considering that member of another group as having fewer capabilities. But this type of distinction has been consistently shown to be wrong. Due to the flexible nature of mankind, any claim to a limitation on one group or another will be shown to be false when enough counter-examples are found.

The question arises whether it is ever possible to value one person or group over another. For example, consider a moral act involving a saint or a person with exceptional talents who might bring great benefits to mankind. This act may be judged with extra emphasis because it involves that person's well-being. This person is valued over others, since that brings about a greater well-being for everyone else affected by that action. This type of reasoning can be extended to groups that may have special talents or are organized to handle situations where their abilities are of exceptional value.

It is certainly reasonable that we can value a saint higher, but this decision must be done on a case by case basis. Dehumanization comes from attempting to make general prescriptions that do not take into account the particular qualities of each case. Sometimes we grant too much consideration to an exceptional person; more than they are actually worth. Even for a saint that moral consideration fails to bring the expected results more often than we'd like. We also can hold special group in too high an esteem and the populace at large suffers as the result. Again, this is due to having the gain in our special consideration outweighed by the decrease in well-being of the ordinary people.

Besides devaluing people in an overall estimation, dehumanizing can occur if one does not value another entity in terms of all the dimensions that entity considers important to its well-being. For example, to act to benefit a person may not be a help if the action, for example, just benefits that person's happiness, when in this case the person considers their financial state as equally important. But complications arise from the fact that even though the well-being of an entity is defined in terms of that entity, they themselves may not know what is best for them. Therefore, a determination of what is best for a person must be made with a careful distinction between what the actor feels is in the best interests of the recipient - in terms of what is important to the actor - versus what the actor is able to determine is a dimension that is truly important to the recipient's well-being.

This set of distinctions applies to justice as well. Justice is too often applied from the point of view of the well-being of society. Since justice is the redress of a loss of well-being of an immoral act, justice must be applied by taking into account the definition of justice that the victim has. If a penalty is to be applied to the transgressor, the penalty that society demands may be different from that which the victim believes is just; both viewpoints need to be taken into account. Also, any redress must take into account the well-being of the perpetrator. Justice has often been seen as dehumanizing because of this belief that it must be blind. Justice must be blind in the sense that everyone must be considered equal in terms of the worth that is attached to each person. But a justice that does not take into account the particular situation of each person, victim or perpetrator, is stunted in its ability to respond to the needs that it is required to meet.

Social justice is especially difficult in this regard. Simple justice is usually in response to an action where the effect on well-being is clearly a consequence of this action. Still, a humane response must take into account the actual and potential well-beings of the parties involved, a group whose identity is often obvious. Social justice is a comparative statement where no single time or set of actors can be immediately determined, but still an injustice has happened. Because social justice is in response to situational problems where there may no fact be no transgressor, the act of dehumanization can sometimes come more readily. One of the most common cases is that, in the absence of a real transgressor, one is invented. It happens quite often that in a case of social justice, the group who is better off is blamed for the poverty of the other group, even if they did not act with malice toward the other group.

Dehumanization reveals itself sometimes in the way that the well-being of friends and strangers are differently valued. This can be considered a question of aggregation the way selfishness and altruism is, but with a function that takes different people into account at a different rate, depending on how close they are to the individual. Obviously, each entity's well-being can not be considered equally when there are a large number involved. It would seem reasonable that the consideration given to each entity drops off in proportion to the amount of effect that action has on the entity. But it is common that the effect on an individual is discounted much quicker the more they are considered a stranger.

An example of this is the injunction to "Buy American" - that is, consider the worth of a job of a fellow countryman more important than the job of a person in a foreign country. Although it is admirable to take care of your own, this does not mean that one should consider more valuable the well-being of one's family, group, city, state or country above that of another. It is good to consider that the effect of an action has a stronger effect on those close to you, but it is not good to claim that these people are more valuable. An unqualified injunction to buy products made nationally is nothing more than an economic nepotism. It is important to recognize that the foreign worker has just as much right to a job as the local worker.

These two considerations are often confused. It is right and natural to consider most important the well-being of one's family and friends. There is where one's primary responsibilities lie and one has the greatest effect. Because of this, it is right to value the benefit of one's actions on one's family over the benefit given to a stranger. But this increased valuation does not mean that these people are inherently more valuable, even though they are more valuable to you. Everyone should be considered as equal in their inherent worth. That is why it is important to take into consideration the country one is a part of but to remember it is part of the larger world. It is important to strike a balance between regionalism and globalism.

The heart of the Golden Rule is to treat each person with empathy. This is not an easy thing to accomplish. It often happens that one honestly believes that one is being empathetic to the other party, but what is actually happening is that one mentally makes the other into a person who is actually a mental copy of oneself. This is another form of dehumanization because it does not recognize the values and beliefs of the person - it just takes the outer appearance of the other and ignores what that person really is. For example, for a Christian to consider an atheist as just another soul to be saved is dehumanizing, because it ignores a basic and very fundamental part of that atheist's belief system. Similarly the demand of the humanist that the theist acts in the social sphere without involving their spiritual beliefs about the relationship between God and Man negates an equally important part of the theist's nature. There must be parity here between the two groups.

Sometimes this type of dehumanization is rationalized by claiming that the value system of the other person is flawed and that ones own value system is "right" in some deeper way. Too often this is not real concern - it is arrogance. The imposition of part of the observer's belief system in the determination of what is in the other's best interest must always be done with a great deal of humility. It may be true that the other's person's self-knowledge or sense of values is flawed, but this in no way means that their values are wrong. True empathy comes when one is able to take the other person as they are, using your personal knowledge to augment and complete their view of themselves, not to replace that view.

One place where this comes up currently is in the treatment of patients at the end of life. Too often palliative care orders are ignored in the attempt to sustain a life that the person does not want sustained. This sometimes is due to the care giver considering their own value system as more important than the patient, although sometimes it comes out of a sincere belief that this is the best for the patient. But it is ultimately dehumanizing in that it does not truly value the patient and the way that patient defines what is important to them.

Another form of dehumanization is the attempt to sanitize one's viewpoint of the other - that is, to see the other person without seeing their flaws. Of course, the opposite is equally true. It is dehumanizing to turn a person into a saint or a devil when everybody's nature contains both imperfections and good qualities that keep them from being an absolute symbol. Besides flaws of character, there are also flaws of understanding. To consider another person as if they are aware of all of the facts or know the full implications of their beliefs does not admit the full humanity of that person. Each of us constantly make errors of science or religion - not allowing them the possibility of error and making allowance for that does not show empathy to the fallible nature of humanity.

Like the balance between globalism and regionalism, a truly empathetic concern for others is a balance between the recognition of how each person is essentially the same and yet how we are all different. There is no simple prescription here. A true empathy must balance both similarity and difference in determining the well-being of others and deciding on what course of action to take. With the idea in mind that the best action is the one that maximizes well-being, the balance actually comes out to be a balance between knowledge and ignorance.

If one has perfect knowledge about each entity involved in an action, then the well-being of the entities can be easily maximized by taking their individual characteristics into account. But we never work from perfect knowledge. We are functioning in a subjective state ourselves, trying to determine the subjective state of the other individuals who we are interacting with. In absence of knowledge, then, we make reference to our own experience in similar situations and with our knowledge of people who have similar characteristics. This ability to generalize makes up for our ignorance. Once we have learned the particulars, we can act from knowledge. But our knowledge can never be perfect.

Although an empathetic understanding of other humans is hard, harder still is the attempt to have empathy for that which is not human at all. Although the difficulty of being empathetic in our treatment of animals is the obvious example of this, we must also be empathetic when we consider the well-being of society and groups. All of these have needs that are totally different from that of a human being. An animal's well-being might be tightly bound to responding to the instincts that drive it, for example. Societies have needs such as peace, health, and happiness that may be similar to these characteristics in the individuals that make up the society, but what these characteristics means to a society will have completely different parameters than in a human. The whole in this case is not the sum of its parts. Acting in ways that are in the best interest of a forest or river is also an act of empathy, even though it is not possible for a person to "put oneself in their place" when it comes to an ecosystem. The attempt to do this though, has led to some of the more transcendent and spiritual feelings that mankind is capable of, affirming a oneness with all of life and the universe. It is necessary though, to translate these experiences into action, so that the things we do to the world around us take into account the needs of our world in and of itself.

I will end with an illustration of the different ways in which empathy can manifest itself by considering vegetarianism. Although there are many vegetarians who are so for purely dietary reasons, I am considering those who are vegetarian out of a moral belief. It is quite often the case that vegetarians consider each living creature to have the same right to life and well-being as a human, in effect establishing an equivalence that transcends the bounds that reserve special concern to just humans. In aggregating the well-being of different entities, then, an equal weight is given to living things regardless of the difference in mental and physical capacities that they are capable of.

Quite often the difference between the vegetarian and the meat-eater is expressed as a difference in this relative valuation. The meat-eater is often thought of as giving a consideration to each living thing that distinguishes between the levels of awareness that they are capable of, valuing a human over an animal. Some vegetarians may consider both human and animal as equal, but there are also vegetarians who recognize that a human with its greater capacity may be more highly valued, but not highly enough to subject these creatures to suffering to meet a human dietary need. In either case though, the vegetarian is thought of as one who values the life of an animal higher than a meat eater would.

There are those who would consider meat-eating as acceptable though, even though they may equate the value of an animal to that of a human. The difference is that the meat eater considers that each human or animal is acting in accordance with their own nature. That is, the right for a human to eat meat is granted in the same way that the wolf has a right to eat meat. This type of equivalence recognizes that it is no virtue to abstain from eating animals such a rabbits and mice whose reproductive capacities are geared to an equilibrium where their members are eaten before they reach reproductive maturity. This is a recognition of the basic balances of nature. In the case of domesticated animals such as chicken and pigs, these animals gain from the caretaking of the humans who eat them. This bargain can be struck with a respect for life that is just as profound as that of the vegetarian.

This chapter has derived the Golden Rule from the absolute moral standard of empathy and discussed the implications in applying the rule. We have discussed both the need to consider the well-being of an entity in terms of the definition of well-being that the entity uses, and we have also compared the different ways in which the well-being of the entities involved in an action aggregate to determine the morality of an action. Besides selfishness and altruism, there are ramifications in how to value the welfare of others such as nationalism. In determining the well-being of an entity the ways in which dehumanization occurs are explored.

Dehumanization is the most basic kind of moral error, but not the only one. The next chapter shall consider that each action has to strive a balance between cost and benefit. Many moral errors come from imbalances of this kind.