thinking makes it so

There is grandeur in this view of life…

Precious metal rules OK?

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An excellent man, like precious metal, is in every way invariable; A villain, like the beams of a balance, is always varying, upwards and downwards.

[John Locke, 1632-1704]

This article follows Any fool can make a rule.

It continues a discussion which started in The ethics of belief.

There is a wealth of learned debate about the Golden Rule and its relationship with Kant‘s categorical imperative. It would be insane to try summarising it. See for an excellent taste of where that sort of thing can lead.

But some aspects are relevant to my own thread.

For example there is the question whether the positive and negative versions of the Rule are equivalent.

One school of thought sees them as distinct enough to have different names. So while the positive formula keeps the Gold label, the negative version is demoted to Silver. I will stick to this useful shorthand from now on – without intending to prejudge the question.

I hope the previous post Any fool can make a rule did not suggest anything uniquely ‘Christian’ about the Golden (positive) do to others as you would have them do to you; as opposed to, for example, the Silver (negative) Never impose on others what you would not choose for yourself of Confucius, or Hillel’s That which is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow.

The positive, Golden, Rule is actually widespread in its own right, eg:


Love thy neighbour as thyself

[Leviticus 19:18]


No one of you is a believer until he desires for his brother that which he desires for himself

[40 Hadith of an-Nawawi 13]


In happiness and suffering, in joy and grief, regard all creatures as you would regard your own self


One should treat all creatures in the world as one would like to be treated.

[Mahavira, Sutrakritanga]

Greek philosophy:

We should conduct ourselves toward others as we would have them act toward us.

[Aristotle, 385 BCE]

Cherish reciprocal benevolence, which will make you as anxious for another’s welfare as your own.

[Aristippus of Cyrene, 365 BCE]

But do the Golden and Silver Rules come to the same thing anyway?

They certainly have important – and obvious – things in common. Both are presented as high-level principles from which other more specific guidelines or imperatives can be derived:

You like it when people congratulate you when you do well? So you should congratulate others when they do well. [Golden]

You don’t like it when people laugh at you when you make a mistake? So you shouldn’t laugh at others when they make mistakes. [Silver]

Both examples also show that someone recommending the Rules can assume the hearer already understands there is a kind of behaviour which ought to be displayed – the hearer already has a concept of duty. What the Rules supply are guidelines as to what that duty is.

In this they are very different, logically and cognitively, from Kant’s categorical imperative which, as we will see, was intended as a foundational principle. Most advocates of the Golden Rule implicitly or explicitly offer it as an ethical principle: you should apply the Rule – ie it is your moral duty to apply the Rule. Kant presented the categorical imperative on the other hand as a principle for establishing the concept of duty, so it does not presuppose it. Kant is not saying you should obey the categorical imperative. He is saying the categorical imperative is where should comes from.

So what about the positive and negative wording?

In, for example, the Christian wording do to others as you would have them do to you the do (or do to) could be interpreted as a generic variable holding the fort for an appropriate range of more specific verbs. Many verbs are antonyms of others, such that ‘to A’ means the same as ‘to not-B’. There are contexts where ‘to notice’ or ‘to acknowledge’ is the equivalent of ‘not to ignore’. Sometimes ‘to exclude’ means the same as ‘not to include’. So formally speaking perhaps Gold and Silver are equivalent?

But this would ignore possible intentions behind the Rules. They are meant as guiding principles, and guiding principles are not just verbal formulae. A parent or teacher may for example introduce a child to one of the Rules, to explain why something went wrong or someone got angry or hurt. An action, attitude or disposition could be in the ‘spirit’ of the Golden or Silver Rule, and in each case that ‘spirit’ is part of the Rule’s meaning, part of what the parent or teacher is trying to communicate. The positive wording of the Golden Rule is part of its spirit, because it is part of the advice it holds: think about how you like people treating you. The Silver equivalent is: think about how you don’t like people treating you.

There are instances where the Rules overlap, perhaps even exactly. If ‘stopping’ is seen as a special case of ‘doing’, then these could perhaps be equivalent:

Stop yourself from being angry to others, because you would like them to stop themselves from being angry with you. [Golden]

You hate it when other people are angry with you, so don’t be angry with them. [Silver]

But this is far from proving that Silver always transmutes into Gold and vice versa. The Silver Rule advocates self-restraint where the Golden Rule advocates action. Non-malevolence is Silver; benevolence is Golden.

So it is safest to see them as distinct. But are they sound? Even precious metals are not above criticism; and George Bernard Shaw, Karl Popper, Immanuel Kant, Friedrich Nietzsche and Bertrand Russell have been among the detractors.

A common objection is that people have different values, different likes and dislikes. A masochist could use the Golden Rule to justify causing pain. A sexual predator (especially a homosexual predator) could have a field day. A suggested advance is therefore the so-called ‘Platinum Rule’ (do to others as they would like you to do to them).

But objections like these often turn on how simplistically one can or should interpret the Rules. One could respond by saying the Rules can of course be applied to themselves, and every reason why they should be – as this would be wholly in their spirit. If I ask myself whether I would want anyone to use a clever interpretation of the Golden Rule to get the better of me, I think I would answer no. So I shouldn’t do the same.

From this perspective the Platinum Rule could be seen as a more explicitly analytical (or more explicitly analysed) version of the Golden Rule. The Golden Rule says:

do to others as you would have them do to you

I know I would prefer other people to treat me in accordance with my own values, likes and dislikes, rather than just project their own preferences onto me. So the Platinum Rule is effectively the Golden Rule applied in the spirit of the Golden Rule – and it is in the spirit of the Golden Rule that the Golden Rule should be applied in the spirit of the Golden Rule…

Immanuel Kant

Immanuel Kant

Kant (in his Groundwork for the Metaphysic of Morals) commented on the Silver Rule rather than the Golden Rule, finding it banal (German trivial), restricted and limited:

Don’t think that the banal ‘Don’t do to anyone else what you wouldn’t want done to you’ could serve here as a guide or principle. It is only a consequence of the real principle, and a restricted and limited consequence at that. It can’t be a universal law, because it doesn’t provide a basis for duties to oneself, or benevolent duties to others (for many a man would gladly consent to not receiving benefits from others if that would let him off from showing benevolence to them!), or duties to mete out just punishments to others (for the criminal would argue on this ground against the judge who sentences him). And so on.

The first of these, that the Silver Rule excludes duties to oneself, is interesting. The same objection, if sound, could of course also be leveled at the Golden Rule. It seems to be self-evident to both Kant and his readers that there are duties to oneself:

I want now to list some duties, adopting the usual division of them into duties to ourselves and duties to others…

But are there any ‘duties to self’ – either at all, or which do not in some way derive from social existence? If they do all derive from social existence, can they really be described as ‘duties to self’?

Kant gives two examples. The supreme example is self-preservation. Suicide is wrong because it contravenes this duty to self. Now it is clear that many religions and legal codes agree that suicide is verboten, but that is not the point. A proponent of the Silver or Golden Rules could merely reply: well, I think my rule is better; and then list all the ancient quotes as back-up.

It is not as if the Silver or Golden Rules have nothing to say about suicide. Few if any people are islands. They have family, friends, dependents. Suicide devastates survivors, so much so that it is often seen as a ‘selfish’ act. Would you choose to be left behind by the suicide of a loved one? No, so don’t impose that on your own loved ones.

This is not Kant’s point of course. The duty to self is distinct from the duty to others. Even if there was no one to grieve your passing; even if the world might be a happier place without you; even if, for these or other reasons, you were convinced your life was not worth living; – you still have a duty to yourself to keep on going.

Kant attempts to demonstrate that such a supreme duty to oneself can be derived from his categorical imperative. We will discuss this later – personally I find his argument unconvincing. For now though, I cannot see we need to take the objection seriously. If Kant proves from the categorical imperative that the concept of duty to oneself is sound, then fine: categorical imperative 1, precious metals 0. But for now, while we can see no other justification for the duty of self-preservation other than the fact that many ethical codes assume it, we cannot say it has refuted the Rules.

His other example of a duty to self fares little better. It is that of self-improvement – preserving and developing one’s talents. He cites a man who

finds in himself a talent that could be developed so as to make him in many respects a useful person. But he finds himself in comfortable circumstances, and would rather indulge in pleasure than take the trouble to broaden and improve his fortunate natural gifts. … He sees that a system of nature [like this] …could indeed exist, with everyone behaving like the Islanders of the south Pacific, letting their talents rust and devoting their lives merely to idleness, indulgence, and baby-making – in short, to pleasure. But … as a rational being, he necessarily wills that all his abilities should be developed, because they serve him and are given to him for all sorts of possible purposes.

Again we must postpone full discussion of this until we get to the categorical imperative, and merely remark that again Kant gives no independent justification as to why an example like this counts against the Rules. The passage above has some telling phrases (emphasis added):

…a useful person

Useful to whom? To himself? If to others then the example could fall under the Rules. If to himself, does he not have the right to decide what he makes of his life?

…his abilities … serve him

If he would rather not develop his abilities then presumably they do not serve him as well as another use of his time and energy – even doing nothing?

…and are given to him

Given by whom? God? Nature? His parents? So it is not a duty to himself, but to God or Nature or his parents, that he should not waste their gift to him?

… for all sorts of possible purposes

Are these possible purposes to enrich other people’s lives and/or so that he does not disappoint those who love him? If the purposes are purely a matter of his own possible objectives, then maybe he does not have those objectives. Does he have a duty to have different objectives from the ones he does have? Remember we are only talking about possible objectives which would fall outside the reach of either the Golden or Silver Rules.

We need to acknowledge that Kant’s approach to ethics did have a significant teleological dimension. In a later context he says (again emphasis added):

In human nature there are predispositions to greater perfection that are part of nature’s purpose for humanity

But again this teleology is not self-evident enough to qualify the example as an argument against either Rule at this point.

We have already dealt with Kant’s second objection: that the Rule excludes benevolent duties to others. Yes it might be true that

many a man would gladly consent to not receiving benefits from others if that would let him off from showing benevolence to them.

But we have already said the Rules can and should be applied in their own spirit. If I want to be treated according to my own preferences, then I should treat others according to their preferences. So the only thing that would let me off showing benevolence to others is if those others did not want benevolence. It would be a strange duty which persisted while its intended beneficiaries wanted the opposite.

An illustration of the third objection (that the Rule excludes duties to mete out just punishments to others) would be that a thief could argue that the judge should not sentence him, because the judge would not want to be sentenced himself. But can we assume a Silver case like this would have only two interested parties? At the very least there would be the person or entity the thief stole from. The judge in sentencing the thief is acting towards both the thief and the victim, if not all the thief’s other actual or potential victims. The judge would not want another judge to ignore his duty and let the thief off – so he could steal again, perhaps from the first judge himself. The issue is perhaps not so much that of an awkward counter-example refuting the Silver Rule (or the Golden Rule for that matter), but that neither Rule should be construed as only applying between one ‘self’ and one ‘other’.

Expanding the domain of influence in this way seems perfectly legitimate, and again in the spirit of the Rules. However it highlights another possible snag. What if two or more duties to different people conflict? How do we choose between them?

It is perhaps not surprising that Kant did not level this specific objection against the Rules, because his intention was not to demolish the Rules but to develop his own thesis. His comments on the Rules (or, to be specific, on the Silver Rule) were relegated to a footnote in which his objective was not to rubbish the Rule but rather to highlight what he saw as its limitations and – perhaps most importantly – ensure that his readers would not see his categorical imperative as just a rewrite of the Silver Rule.

But this objection, the one Kant did not mention explicitly, is possibly the most serious. It does not ‘refute’ the Rules, but it does highlight their cognitive status as, ultimately, moral rules of thumb and not foundational principles.

Let us assume the Platinum, Golden and Silver Rules all melt down to the same Rule. Let us also assume this composite Rule is the only rule of thumb we need, as Hillel claimed for the Silver Rule:

That is the whole Torah; the rest is the explanation…

A practical difficulty still remains. What do you do in the case of conflict, not between your own interests and your fellow’s, but between the interests of one fellow and the interests of another fellow?

This difficulty does not tarnish the Rules’ ethical value. Every formulation can be seen as words of advice (perhaps differing but certainly overlapping) on how to exercise practical compassion. As already mentioned, the Rules do not aim to establish the concept of duty or moral sense, because they presuppose it. To someone who wants practical advice on how to behave (because that person already wants to behave as well as possible) the general advice is: exercise practical compassion. So in a complex situation where different interests and inclinations conflict, the advice is still the same: when deciding the right thing to do, exercise practical compassion. It may not tell you what to do, but it will tell you what attitude to have.

This also addresses another objection sometimes levelled against the Platinum Rule in particular: how do we know how others want to be treated? It is not always possible to ask them; it may not be right to take their answers at face value; they may not know or be able to express how they want to be treated. But again, the point is not to apply a formula and crank out an answer. The point is to remember to apply empathy and practical compassion – perhaps especially so in ambiguous and challenging circumstances.

We have not done with the Precious Metal Rules, but we must now (at last!) see how Kant’s categorical imperative approaches this question of universality. He was only too aware that it shared superficial and semantic features with the Silver Rule in particular: but it is a different creature altogether. Read on.

© Chris Lawrence 2008


3 Responses

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  1. Right Chris,

    he was after the basic principle of practical reason…
    However, it looks as if he led mankind towards unattainable ideals.
    I try to treat others as I would like to be treated, but I fail every day trying.
    According to Mr Kant, we should n e v e r fail: we shouldn’t even be able to fail.

    All the best again!



    16 November 2008 at 7:38 pm

  2. Thanks Harry,

    Just looked very quickly through the abbreviated version of your book on your site. Looks very interesting.

    As you may have noticed, the next bit in my ‘Ethics of belief’ sequence is intended to feature the categorical imperative. However I find Kant really hard going so I’m making slow progress. Kant himself seemed to regard the Golden Rule (or rather the negative version of it, the ‘Silver Rule’) as ‘trivial’. But I think this was not because he thought it unsound but that it wasn’t the kind of foundational principle he was after – ie something which makes morality or moral judgment possible.

    But I could have got it wrong!

    Thanks again,

    Chris Lawrence

    16 November 2008 at 9:20 am

  3. Thank you Mr Lawrence!

    It’s an education.
    You get much closer to the bottom of the affair.
    Your site is very interesting.

    In my e-book One & All, I try to summarise the relationship between the Golden Rule and Kant’s categorical imperative. I say it in to footnotes:

    1 “Categorical” means that it is always valid and universal – absolutely binding regardless of personal interest or desire. “Imperative” is an objective principle – a command. It appears in Kant in five (equally good) formulations: “Act only on the maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law.” or “Act in a way that the maxim of your will at the same time could always be accepted as the principal of a universal law.” or “Act always in such a way that the maxim of your acting could become a universal law.”… i.e. “Always treat yourself and other people as ends in themselves, never simply as means to an end!”

    2 “Treat others as you would like to be treated.” Not to be confused with Kant’s “categorical imperative” that certainly is not just a moral rule but the basic principle of practical reason – an a priori, which precedes every moral, also defined as a “clear conscience.” Thus: “Act only on that maxim which you will to be universal law”; i.e. “always treat yourself and other people as ends in themselves, never simply as means to an end!”

    All the best!



    15 November 2008 at 9:25 pm

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