The Golden Rule (and some Silver, Copper, and Tin Rules, too)

2009 February 8
by Rev. Patrick ONeill

The writer Aubrey Hodes tells of a difficult experience he had in 1967 during the Six-Day War in the Middle East. As a medical officer in the Israeli Army, Hodes was part of the force occupying Gaza City. He writes:

“I was standing in front of the ambulance sorting out bottles and bandages when I saw a man in front of a hedge twenty yards away. He was about 60, in a filthy white shirt and torn trousers, a civilian Arab. He took one hesitant, groping step, and I saw that one arm was hung in front of him at an awkward angle….Suddenly he made a desperate rush towards me and flung himself full length on the wooden bench in the shade of the olive trees. I looked at the arm. It had been broken, probably when we shelled the town, and it needed immediate attention.

He seemed to have decided he could do nothing more; it was in my hands…He closed his eyes and lay on the bench shaking and sweating.”

Hodes, as best he could, dressed, splinted, and bandaged the arm. “While I was doing all this I did not think of him as an Arab, as someone belonging to an enemy camp. To me he was simply a man with a broken arm, and I had to set it.”

He relates then how two young soldiers from his unit, drunk with victory, came by and saw what he was doing. They were outraged and wanted to “have a little fun” with the helpless man. Hodes pushed the patient into the ambulance, and blocked their path to him. “Give him to us,” the older one snarled, “or else we’ll fix you instead.” He refused.

They came back with an officer, who after a tense confrontation, ordered Hodes to bring the Arab out or “you’ll get a bullet in your head!” Hodes again refused, and they left. He quickly sent the Arab back to the hedge from which he had come.

Hodes recalls, “I knew if I let them push past me….something would have shriveled within me; something which was present and stronger now would have died not only for that frozen isolated moment in the dunes, but for the rest of my life.” [Quoted in Ethics: An Exploration in Personal Morality by Richard S. Gilbert, UUA, Boston, 1994, p.49-50]

What are the foundational principles on which we order a life of inner integrity, the kind of integrity that served Aubrey Hodes in his response to the plight of a complete stranger in crisis?

In the Gospel of Matthew is recorded one of the greatest and most far-reaching moral teachings of history. In Matthew’s narrative, it comes near the middle of the Sermon on the Mount, one of the most important sections of the New Testament, which condenses most of the moral and ethical teachings of Jesus of Nazareth into three packed Chapters. It is Chapter 7, verse 12, which most people still quote in the King James version: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”

The Golden Rule, Christianity calls it. And it has been for some 2,000 years at least, the most admired standard of behavior in Western Civilization. You were probably taught it as a child, as I was. And you were probably taught also that this same Golden Rule appears somewhere in the teachings of most of the world’s major religions. That is not quite accurate, however.

In truth, this fine albeit radical ideal is far from a universal teaching. It seems that in other cultures, other times, other religious traditions, the rule is not always golden. It turns out that the world has some silver, copper, tin, and iron rules to contend with, as well; and these rules tell us as much about human conduct – and misconduct – as the Golden Rule which most of us profess to admire so much.

I say we profess to admire it, because almost no one follows the Golden Rule consistently. It’s not just that Jesus’s exhortation to “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” is a hard prescription to follow. At times, in certain situations and in dealing with certain people of lesser scruples, it may be naive or just plain foolish to follow the Golden Rule, and it may well invite exploitation or abuse or worse. Would it be a wise thing, or would it be right, to treat, say, Hitler or Attila the Hun by the Golden Rule?

Or would you today vote for a well-meaning Presidential candidate who said in all seriousness that his or her foreign policy and national defense policy would be guided principally by the Golden Rule? The Golden Rule, we would be quick to point out, is a nice ideal, a good starting point for moral reasoning in general, but moral reasoning has other factors to take into account in modern life.
Confucius, when he was asked in the 6th century BC. his reaction to the notion of repaying evil with kindness, replied, “Then with what will you repay kindness?”

The Silver Rule is even older than the Golden, and is usually stated in negative terms, “Do not do unto others what you would not have them do unto you.” The great Rabbi Hillel called this negative injunction from 5,000 years of Jewish tradition the heart of the Torah. “All else in sacred writings,” he said, “is but commentary to this greatest of all laws.”

Do not be fooled by its negative format; this is still a powerful and difficult codex to live out. The Silver Rule was, in fact, the basis for the great 20th century Non-violent Resistance movements so brilliantly and courageously championed by Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. as they confronted the power of oppressive political systems. Their strategy counseled oppressed peoples not to repay violence with violence, but neither should they be compliant and obedient in response to violence. In other words, their strategy aimed at melting the heart of their oppressors by offering up their bodies in the justice of their cause. And history demonstrates that their strategy worked up to a point, but as a strategy for oppressed people, not as an everyday ethic of interaction.

It was the worldly-wise Chinese philosopher, Confucius who proposed still another variation, which might be called the Bronze Rule: “Repay kindness with kindness,” he said, “but evil with justice.” Another way to say this is “Do unto others as they do unto you.” This is really a combination of two old concepts, namely, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” plus “One good turn deserves another.”

The Bronze rule rewards others when they’re nice to us, and punishes them when they are not. Clinical studies on aggression show that in actual human and chimpanzee behavior, this is a very familiar standard… it says, “we’re not pushovers, but we’re not unforgiving either.”

A few years back, I came across an interesting critique of the Golden Rule (and its various metallic corollaries) in an interesting article published by astronomer Carl Sagan. (See “A New Way To Think About Rules To Live By” by Carl Sagan, Parade Magazine, Nov. 28, 1993).

Sagan points out that there’s a fatal flaw in the Bronze Rule, despite its apparent practicality: it can and has historically led to unending vendetta. Violence begets violence. Each act of justifiable retribution triggers another. The reasonable part of us tries to keep the peace, but the passionate part of us cries out for vengeance.

Witness the recurrent violence in the Middle East where the Bronze Rule seems entrenched. Or witness the long-running violent explosions in Northern Ireland, where the memory of past injustice continually crippled almost every new peace initiative.

(For peace ever to arrive in such places, or in any of the areas of the world where tribal warfare has dominated – name your area: the Balkans, Armenia, Croatia, Afghanistan, Iraq, Sri Lanka, Southeast Asia, Central America – for peace to become reality in such places the passion for retribution must give way to a higher ethic. And clearly this is not easy for the human race, or there would be much less blood being spilled this week across our sorry globe.)

Finally, there are two more variations to consider: the Iron Rule, which says in effect, “Do unto others before they do unto you.” This is sometimes cynically formulated as “The one who has the gold makes the rules!” This is the secret maxim of many if they can get away with it. Our friend Attila has some modern incarnations too.

Last but not least, there is what might be called the Tin Rule for its flexibility: this one says, “Cozy up to those above you, and intimidate those below you.” This is the motto of bullies. It amounts to using the Golden Rule for superiors and the Iron Rule for your inferiors. I’m happy to point out that none of the world’s great religions are responsible for this rule. It just comes naturally to some folks, and while it may sometimes be a successful policy, it has not much basis in morality.

So, how then shall we live as reasonable people of good will in a world that is so precarious, as fraught with peril as it is with possibility? How shall we expect our nation to conduct itself in world affairs? How shall we wear our current historical role of military superpower and economic giant in the commerce of nations, some of which are larger than us and some smaller, some of whom wish us well and some of whom would seek to harm us? What ethical rules suit us, as individuals and as a people?

As we begin to understand, moral reasoning alone, untempered by cooler experienced logic, may fail us, however pure our intentions. Clearly, the Bronze Rule (“Do unto others as they do unto you”) is too unforgiving. But the Golden and Silver Rules seem too complacent. They systematically reward cruelty and exploitation. The Iron Rule promotes the advantage of a ruthless and powerful few against the many. So, is there a rule between the Golden and Silver, on the one hand, and the Bronze and Iron, on the other, which works better than any one of them?

Carl Sagan suggests that in a complex scientific world we might seek to bolster our traditional ethical codes by borrowing from science. Specifically, he says our personal and collective behavior would profit from a few lessons in Game Theory.

Now, Game Theory may sound like fun, but it is actually rather serious business. Game Theory is currently used in military strategy, trade policy, corporate competition, and the limiting of environmental pollution. The Defense Department has its own gaming agency. The idea behind Game Theory research is to find those codes of ethics that are most “effective” in human interaction, which types of behavior make the most sense on a purely logical level and which behaviors invite exploitation or confrontation, and which behaviors most likely produce harmony and equilibrium in a dangerous world.

“In our everyday lives,” Sagan wrote, “as in the momentous affairs of nations, ….we make complex decisions about how we should behave. And in the making of those complex decisions we must be concerned not only with doing right, but also with what works, what makes us and the rest of society happier and more secure. We discover there is a tension between the ethical and the pragmatic…. If ethical behavior were always self-defeating, we would not call it ethical, but foolish.”

Carl Sagan suggests that the science of Game Theory, which has nothing really to do with moral reasoning, may be instructive in the realm of practical ethics. Sagan says we are used to playing games in our culture that are “win-lose” situations: where somebody always wins and somebody always loses. Most of our games are designed this way, from Monopoly to baseball to tennis to pinochle, from the Super Bowl to the Olympics. In none of these games is there an opportunity to practice the Golden or Silver Rule, or even the Bronze. Monopoly ultimately does not reward cooperation, only competition. In most of our recreational games, interestingly enough, there is room only for the Rule of Iron!

But of course our vision is dangerously narrow if all we know is “win-lose.” Some very important issues in this world are “lose-lose” propositions: like nuclear war, for example, or economic depression, or assaults on the global environment. While other human concerns like true love, friendship, parenthood, great music, art, and literature are always “win-win” situations.

Game Theory demonstrates to us that the world offers us win-lose, lose-lose, and win-win possibilities in all our interactions – and survival in this modern complex world of ours will depend on our ability to move the world out of its win-lose orientation to a more cooperative model, to see logically beyond strategies that depend solely on conquest or domination.

You might be interested to learn what strategy succeeds most often in Game Theory application once the win-lose orientation is set aside. Whether it is the game of world trade or international peace-keeping, the most consistently constructive model of behavior always allows the pragmatic to instruct the ideal. The rule that most often works to produce win-win situations is this: Be friendly at first meetings. Do not envy. Be generous; forgive your enemy if he forgives you. Be neither a tyrant nor a patsy. Defend and respond proportionately against an intentional injury within the constraints of law. And Be consistent.

Have we outgrown the great moral teaching of Jesus to view our neighbors with empathy and love and understanding and to treat them accordingly? Not at all. Even in Jesus’s time, life was already a complex game. What such teachers provide for us is always the Golden reminder that we are in this game together, and how we play it makes all the difference.

As ethicist Richard Gilbert reminds us, ethics is about “engaging this often messy life, with character.” (Gilbert,

It is a luxury of academic ethics (and academic religion) to speak of human behavior and its norms and requirements in terms of abstract principles.

But as Aubrey Hodes discovered in his hour of testing, with the life of another human being dependent on his own inner sense of right and wrong, there is nothing academic about living an ethical religious life. It is in the living of everyday human interaction that civilization itself is finally won or lost. Ultimately, ethics at its simplest comes down to this: the way we treat people. Any rules, however golden or sterling they might be, can never remove us from our final responsibility to treat others with integrity and decency and humaneness.

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