The Other Golden Rule: Do Unto Yourself as You Do Unto Others

The Golden Rule-do unto others as you would have them do unto you, is about as basic as morality gets. It’s the bridge between empathy and sympathy, between putting yourself in someone else’s shoes and making some accommodation to them as a result. Putting oneself in someone else’s shoes is, of course, a figure of speech. What we really do is get a mind’s-eye view—a virtual experience—of ourselves in their situation.

How do we do it? Mostly through figures of speech.

We’re symbolic creatures. Unlike other life forms we can use words-cultural conventions in the form of “sign vehicles” (sounds and letter-shapes) that reliably bring to mind features of things. For example, while some animals see colors, we also give names to colors and use these names to make connections between otherwise unrelated things-red sky at morning; red light district; seeing red; black, white, and re(a)d all over; red light, green light.

Through symbols we mix and match features into a composite mental sketch that forms a fairly complex approximation of what it would be like to be another person. It’s this ability to draw far-reaching connections through the use of words that enables us to empathize in detail and to sympathize voluntarily—that is, to make sacrifices to accommodate others.

Suppose you’re out in the city with a friend and he asks if you could rest a while because his new shoes are killing him. You’d rather not, but lightning fast and effortlessly, through words (not necessarily spoken but at least thought) you compose mental composite sketches of yourself “in his shoes” with your feet “killing” you like his “kill” him.

“Lickety-split,” figures of speech like “walk a mile in his shoes,” “heartless,” “need breaking in,” “blister,” “brother’s keeper,” “he ain’t heavy,” and “the Golden Rule” act on you. Words and figures of speech enable you to compose recollections of a time you had new shoes that hurt and a friend stopped for you, and of a time in the future when your friend wouldn’t stop for you if you don’t stop for him now.

Animals are capable of doing quite violent things to each other, yet we don’t hold them to a human standard of morality. We don’t because we recognize that their capacity for empathy and sympathy is more limited than ours, limited by their lack of figures of speech. They can’t word their way to complex and subtle interpretations of each other’s feelings.

Humans, of course, are capable of vastly more violent acts than animals. With our capacity for symbolic thought, we can mix and match not only toward empathy but toward innovation, including innovative ways of destroying things. “Let’s see,” we say, “what if we crossed a rocket with a nuclear chain reaction with a computer. . . . ” By reverse-sympathy, we torture people by putting them in our shoes as we imagine the most excruciating pain that could be imposed upon us.

The way our complex symbolic capacity engenders both higher moral standards and more innovative ways and means to hurt each other makes us the most internally conflicted animals ever. But for that too we have the power of symbolic thought to aid us in rationalizing. We can also word our way to justifications for treating others to such torture: “He’s a servant of the devil and in God’s name should die the most excruciating death I can imagine.”

As it’s generally understood, the Golden Rule suggests that what you hope others would do to you should simply be identical to what you would do to them. In practice, that’s a bit of an oversimplification, which is one reason none of us apply it perfectly.

In my wildest dreams, I would have others do unto me all sorts of favors. I would have them accommodate my wishes, keep me from disappointments, bend over backward to make my life easy and successful. But I’m not about to do all that unto others. So the Golden Rule standard is not really about what I would have them do unto me but what I could reasonably expect them to do unto me given what I do unto them. Thus, in practice, the Golden rule is some sort of balancing act between “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” and its reciprocal-”Expect others to do unto you as you do unto them.”

I just read “Mistakes Were Made: But Not by Me,” a new book about the ways we all naturally hold double standards, cutting ourselves far more slack than we cut for others. The book attributes this tendency primarily to a universal human need to reduce cognitive dissonance. You invest in some activity that doesn’t go right. You’re confronted with your failure. You can’t stand the dissonance between the hope you had for that activity and disappointment of its failure, so you side with hope, denying that you made a mistake.

We don’t experience cognitive dissonance about other people’s mistakes, so we blame them far more readily. We can be scathingly exacting in our criticism of others while granting ourselves all sorts of immunities.

A useful counterbalance to the Golden Rule, then, would be one that countervails against our tendency to do unto ourselves differently from what we do unto others. Instead of just fantasizing about the special treatment we would have others do unto us and then trying unsuccessfully to give them the same royal treatment, we should look at what we really do to other people, and mete out to ourselves the same in return—no special treatment at all.

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