thinking makes it so

There is grandeur in this view of life…

Any fool can make a rule

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This article follows Infinite and mysterious obligation in a series on The ethics of belief. After a brief Introduction the series begins in earnest with Clifford’s razor.

Up to now each section of The ethics of belief has followed the one before in a fairly structured way, and I’ve generally known where I wanted to go next, while keeping an eye on the end target.

But I seem to have a case of writer’s block. I know roughly where I want to go, but I suspect it’s going to be a lot rockier than before. Or maybe not so much rocky as immense. So I’m hoping a dose of ‘blogger’s unblocker’ might help.

What I mean is that rather than write the next section all in one go, I think I’ll do it in bits in true blogging style. Then when I get to something that feels like a conclusion I’ll go back and turn the bits into what the next section after Infinite and mysterious obligation needs to be. So here goes.

The best ideas, said Seneca in his Epistles, are common property. So I hope he would have endorsed my next step. This is to take a few big ideas – none of them my own – and glue them together into something else. (The something else may be fairly unoriginal too.)

Karen Armstrong

Karen Armstrong

The first idea is as old as the hills. It is the Golden Rule, found in virtually every major religion. According to Karen Armstrong (see her 2006 New Statesman article Religion: What’s God got to do with it? and her magnificent The great transformation from the same year) it was Confucius (551-479 BC) who first formulated it, in ‘negative form’:

Never impose on others what you would not choose for yourself

[Confucius, Analects XV.24, translated by David Hinton]

Half a millennium later the Jewish sage Hillel expressed much the same sentiment:

That which is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow. That is the whole Torah; the rest is the explanation; go and learn.

[Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 31a]

His contemporary Jesus expressed the Rule in positive form, as part of the Sermon on the Mount:

In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets.

[Matthew 7:12. Bible, New revised standard edition, OUP, 1989]

But the Rule is even more widespread than this. As well as Confucianism, Judaism and Christianity, it is found in Buddhism, Baha’i, Hinduism, Islam, Jainism, Taoism and ancient Greek philosophy.

So if it true that any fool can make a rule (Henry David Thoreau, 1817-1862), some impressively wise ones are in our midst.

Kant’s Categorical Imperative has been claimed as a version of the Rule, but it has also been claimed the two are distinct. In fact Kant is said to have thrown his weight behind the body of criticism that the Rule has attracted.

All of which I shall leave for my next post!

© Chris Lawrence 2008

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2 Responses

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  1. Hi Jordan

    I agree the positive & negative versions are different – as much as anything because they have a different spirit. I’d be interested to hear what you think of Precious metal rules OK?

    Chris Lawrence

    27 October 2008 at 9:56 pm

  2. Chris

    It’s worth considering how much of a gulf separates the positive and negative versions of the golden rule. I would argue that they are only superficially the same rule, but actually represent different principles entirely. The negative places a limit on the harm that you do to others, but an indifferent person could arguably keep the law. The positive requires that you actively love your neighbour. And it is indifference, not hate, that is the opposite of love.

    Jordan Pickering

    18 October 2008 at 9:32 pm


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