thinking makes it so

There is grandeur in this view of life…

George Bernard Shaw was wrong

with 3 comments

The Good Samaritan (van Gogh)

The Good Samaritan (van Gogh)

So some atheist parents resort to exposing their children to religion because they can think of no other way to instill moral values?

The sad thing about this is that it’s so unnecessary. There’s a perfectly simple approach which should make sense to most children. It doesn’t rely on fictional devices and it preserves the unique openness of moral thinking.

It is the Golden Rule. I’ve written about it before, eg in Any fool can make a rule and Precious metal rules OK? It can be formulated positively, eg:

Do to others as you would have them do to you.

Or negatively, eg:

Never impose on others what you would not choose for yourself.

My own view, for what it’s worth, is that ultimately there isn’t a world of difference between the positive and negative versions. I also think most if not all the objections levelled at the Golden Rule fall away as soon as it is seen as something which must be applied in its own spirit, otherwise it is not being applied at all.

Some have argued for example that a masochist could use the Golden Rule to justify causing pain. This a special case of George Bernard Shaw’s objection:

Do not do unto others as you would that they should do unto you. Their tastes may not be the same.

He also said:

The golden rule is that there are no golden rules.

George Bernard Shaw

George Bernard Shaw

I think Shaw missed the point entirely. And the masochist example is nonsense. Would you want someone to apply the Golden Rule in a clever way so as to make you suffer? Of course not – so don’t do it to someone else. That’s what I mean by applying the Golden Rule in the spirit of the Golden Rule.

It is no accident that the Golden Rule crops up in all the major religions. (For examples see Any fool can make a rule and Precious metal rules OK?) But this doesn’t mean we’re resorting to religion to teach moral values. The Golden Rule stands or falls on its own merits – which is why religions have adopted it. But there’s no dependency on religion.

In fact, as with most things, the Golden Rule is better without religion. What do you do if applying the Golden Rule means you should do x and obeying God means you should not do x?

The problem with theistic ethics is that it commits you to obeying God even if it means doing the wrong thing.

Next time I want to explain what I mean by ‘the unique openness of moral thinking’.

© Chris Lawrence 2010.


Written by Chris Lawrence

1 September 2010 at 8:14 pm

3 Responses

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  1. Chris – Yes, I was referring to “But you haven’t told me why…”.

    I always look forward to your posts. But I look forward with special eagerness to this one. I know from answers I’ve given to similar questions over the years broadly the kind of answer I give. If the past is a predictor of the future, I might nonetheless learn something more from yours.

    Per usual: thank you.


    2 September 2010 at 10:05 pm

  2. But Chris, teaching children the Golden Rule still doesn’t answer the question you asked in your earlier post: why follow it? Why treat others as I would wish to be treated?


    Terry Sissons

    2 September 2010 at 4:30 pm

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