Some reflections on the Golden Rule
I live in a city (Edmonton, Alberta, Canada) which has recently instituted a by-law requiring everyone to wear a non-medical face covering in buildings which are accessible to the public, unless they have medical or psychological reasons. Not surprisingly, there has been vocal resistance from some people. I’m not going to rehearse all the arguments I’ve heard, but they do seem to fall into two main categories. One tries to make it a matter of personal rights. The other asserts that they don’t need to wear a mask to protect themselves, and they don’t care if others become sick as a result.
It seems to me that both of these arguments fly in the face of one of the pillars of ethics. Almost every religion has a version of what Christians call the “Golden Rule.”
In the New Testament, we hear Jesus saying:
‘In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets.’(Matthew 7:12 NRSV)
A poster available through various on-line sources sets this quote with with similar quotes from seventeen other faith traditions. They sound remarkably similar. (Search for “Golden Rule Poster” to find it.) The seeming ubiquity of this rule suggests that it is in some way integral to much of human ethics. What the Golden Rule does is show that ethical behaviour is reflexive. My actions affect your life, just as your actions affect my life. As John Donne wrote, “No (hu)man is an island.”
Understanding that my needs and desires are interwoven with the desires and need of all other people, acknowledging that other people’s needs and desires are as valid and important as our own, are the key to building true community. We call this ability “empathy.” Many people confuse empathy with sympathy, which expresses a feeling about another person’s situation without real involvement in that situation.
The Golden Rule elevates our striving for empathy to an ethical principle.
Wearing a mask may protect me from the COVID-19 virus, but that’s not the point. If we all want to be protected, we must ask each to protect each other — to do to others what we would want done for ourselves. It’s a reflexive benefit, working best when we undertake it for the good of other people before ourselves.
I have also had occasion to reflect on the Golden Rule in a very different context. Canada’s Governor-General has been accused of running a toxic workplace, in which staff often feel belittled and abused. The matter is under public scrutiny, and I have no knowledge of it other than what I have read in the news media. Thus I will refrain from any judgement of Mme. Payette here.
What this reminded me of was my own history as both employee and boss. I had one really bad boss in my early work life, who knew just how to make me feel inadequate and incompetent. His replacement was a revelation to me — the first supervisor I had ever had who made me feel a valued part of the team, building me up where I needed help, and letting me do my job where I was fully capable. When I started supervising others, I resolved to emulate him, by trying to be the kind of boss I would like to have myself.
That’s the “Golden Rule of Management” for me. It sounds simple, but it can be very hard to put into practice, especially if you have a tendency to perfectionism like me! What it means in practice is to listen to the people you are working with, treat them as humans, accept and help to correct their failures when they happen, and rejoice with them when they succeed.
What it means is to have empathy.
We could on at length about places the Golden Rule can be applied. I’m not sure we would ever exhaust the list. For me today it remains one of the central guiding principles of my life. Jesus taught it, and that’s where I first heard it, but it cuts across human life in a wonderfully powerful way.
So, my friends, let us strive to do for each other as we would wish done for ourselves — and the world will be a better place