Why the Golden Rule is Inadequate

In Faith & Cultureby Cindy BrandtLeave a Comment

For many of us walking away from authoritarian religion, it can be hard to construct a new system of ethics that guide us in life when for so long we were simply told by religious authority figures what’s right and wrong.

This is a hard but very good work. I want to assure you, if you are in this particular process, that you’re moving in the right direction. Authoritarian religion externalizes our ethics. It places the onus for doing good outside of us so that we are compelled by extrinsic motivation, which is often administered by shame and control and is ultimately harmful to us.

Photo by Ashley Whitlatch on Unsplash

If in doing good, we diminish or do violence to our own being, then the good that we do isn’t sustainable and will be laced with our trauma.

We deserve to determine our own path of wholeness, and dictate the way we impact the world.

The fear-mongers will have us believe this leads to chaos—that this individualistic, humanistic focus means zero regard for the laws as well as an absolute moral vacuum—but chaos is the hypnotic threat authoritarians swing before our eyes to lull us away from developing a robust personal autonomy.

Let’s not forget that people often walk away from authoritarian religion because the system failed to provide an ethic that matches our values. Think Donald Trump: many of us plainly see the hypocrisy of spouting moral values and supporting a genital grabbing president.

How, then, should we live our lives? How do we determine what’s good and moral and just and whole for ourselves and for our families/communities?

A lot of people use the Golden Rule as a general guideline: treat others as you would want to be treated.

I think it’s a good starting point but ultimately inadequate. Part of resisting the fear of chaos is the willingness to embrace the complexities of how our humanity functions, personally and communally.

Any “simple” rule, like the golden one, should be suspect.

First of all, loving others as we would love ourselves is untenable for those of us who never quite learned how to love ourselves well. More likely, we project our wounds onto others, which just spreads anxiety.

Well, then, how about we love others by meeting their needs, by responding out of our sympathy for them?

Sympathy can be problematic because the motivation is to remove our own discomfort of feelings like pity and sadness.

Many prefer empathy because empathy is entering into the experience of the other. However, as Paul Bloom, professor of psychology and author of the book, Against Empathy, says, our empathy is often directed at a particular situation and type of person. Racial, class, and all sorts of other biases come into play when we reserve our empathy for only a select target.

Moreover, for empaths like myself, empathy often leads us to carry the pains of those we care for, resulting in me curled up under the blanket in a sobbing mess, which…let’s face it, helps no one.

A non-empath, who is measured and rational in the face of even terrible suffering, has the capacity to actually impact the crisis positively. Both sympathy and empathy carry dangers of saviorism—that in doing good, we end up centering ourselves.

Our pain. Our suffering. Our desire to be needed.

As much as I appreciate intuition and emotions, I have to also trust in sociological data, historical precedence, and scientific measurements to help us determine what has proven efficient in improving people’s lives.

So does religious beliefs have no place in facilitating morality?

There’s no way for me to reasonably answer this question without bias given my history of religious trauma. Having said that, I see religion/faith giving us two powerful tools in the business of doing good: story + community. The traditions of a collective past binding a community of believers into facing contemporary concerns and giving a robust vision for those who come after us, is powerful. But it also has potential to devastate.

Therefore, religious convictions can only be one aspect of our collective moral compass, checked and balanced by our intuition, scientific data, historical records, sociological evidence, and, well, twitter.

Okay, not just twitter, but all the public forums in which we talk (debate, troll, post memes/gifs, fight, amplify, boost, reply) to one another is a critical component in coming to agreed upon ethical principles by which we lead our lives. After all, we have to talk to one another to figure out how to best live with each other.

I suppose it does end up being a bit chaotic, but it’s good mess. It’s the sound of protests and counter-protests because people have a voice. It’s nuance and perspectives and think-pieces that sharpen us and thrust us forward in progress.

It’s a good and bold work. Go forth and make our world a better place.


My book, Parenting Forward: How to Raise Children with Justice, Mercy & Kindness is available in paperback, kindle, and audiobook.