Why the Golden Rule is a bad rule

Jesus says you should do to others as you would have them do to you.1 This is known as the Golden Rule. Sounds like a pretty good rule, right? As long as you don’t think about what it’s actually saying. But it’s really a very bad rule. Let’s look at an example to see why.

A man would like to have sex with a certain woman. But that woman is not willing to have sex with him. What should the man do? Well, what would he want that unwilling woman to do to him? He would want her to have sex with him. So according to the Golden Rule, he should go ahead and have sex with her.

That’s right, actually following this nice-sounding rule would lead to rape. What went wrong?

The problem with the Golden Rule is that it fails to take into account what others want. That’s a pretty important thing to consider when you’re deciding what to do to others. But the Golden Rule completely ignores what other people want, and makes it all about what you want.

I’m not saying the Golden Rule is selfish, exactly. It’s worse than selfish. At least with ordinary selfishness, you’re getting what you want. But the Golden Rule doesn’t reliably give anyone what they want. When you follow the Golden Rule, you’re taking what you want and giving it to others. That doesn’t do anyone any good unless those other people happen to want the same thing you want.

Not everyone wants the same things!

Some people like to eat rocks. According to the Golden Rule, those people should serve rocks to everyone else. Some people like to be cuckolded. According to the Golden Rule, those people should commit adultery. Some people like to be hurt. According to the Golden Rule, those people should hurt other people. Some people want to die. According to the Golden Rule, those people should murder other people.

The Golden Rule isn’t just a bad idea for people with unusual desires. People with normal desires also risk doing wrong by following the Golden Rule. For one thing, the people they’re doing things to might have unusual wants or needs. And even when no particularly unusual preferences are involved, different people have different tastes.

According to the Golden rule, it’s good to invite other people to participate in social activities that you enjoy. But if those people happen to be introverts, they might not appreciate that. From the introvert’s perspective, it may even seem like you’re intentionally trying to irritate them.

According to the Golden Rule, if you like peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, it’s good for you to make peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for others. Some people have severe allergies to peanuts and may even die if they eat your sandwiches, but there’s nothing in the Golden Rule that says you need to worry about that. The only thing this rule tells you to consider is whether you would enjoy eating those sandwiches, which is completely irrelevant.

Why do so many men randomly send women pictures of their private parts? Would they like it if women randomly sent them pictures of their private parts, without asking or being asked? Well, yes, they probably would, and that’s exactly why they do it.2 Because they’re following this stupid rule, instead of bothering to find out what other people actually want. Treating others how we want to be treated isn’t a virtue we need to promote. It’s a lazy habit we need to overcome.

Women very rarely appreciate unsolicited dick pics, and tend to mistakenly assume that the senders have some kind of malicious intentions. Meanwhile, most of the men who do this are actually doing it because they mistakenly assume women will find it sexy. They don’t realize that women are different in this way. I suspect a lot of things that women object to men doing are the result of men following the Golden Rule.

According to the Golden Rule, people who like country music should play country music for people who hate country music. According to the Golden Rule, people who are hungry should offer food to people who are full, and not the other way around. According to the Golden Rule, people who prefer to do things on their own should never help other people. The rule leaves that job to the people who do want help, even though those people are probably the least qualified to give help.

The Golden Rule makes no sense. Clearly a better rule would be “Do to others as they would have you do to them.” This is known as the Platinum Rule. The Platinum Rule isn’t perfect,3 but it makes way more sense than the Golden Rule.

Defenses of the Golden Rule

“It’s not meant to be an inflexible rule that you have to follow all the time. It’s just a helpful guideline.”

Is that why they call it the Golden Rule? Is that why Jesus said you should follow that rule in everything you do? A universal rule to be applied in every situation is exactly what it was meant to be.

“You’re supposed to do as you would have others do to you, not what you would have others do to you. It just means you should be good to people.”

Being good to people is good. But that’s way too vague to be useful. It doesn’t tell you which kinds of actions are good and which ones are bad. Jesus was trying to say more than that.

Depending on which version and which part of the Bible you look at, Jesus does indeed say to do what you would have others do to you. That doesn’t just mean “be good to people”. Jesus was trying to provide a way to evaluate whether the specific action you have in mind would be the right thing to do. He was trying to summarize all the laws in one simple rule. And he failed.

“A man who gives a woman unwanted sexual attention isn’t following the Golden Rule. He wouldn’t like it if someone he wasn’t attracted to did the same to him.”

What Jesus said was do to others as you would have them do to you. He didn’t say do as you would have some ugly person do to you. He said do as you would have the person you’re doing things to do to you. The Golden Rule says the man’s actions toward the person he’s interested in should be determined by what he would want from that same person. It says nothing about the treatment he would want from someone he isn’t interested in.

“The Golden Rule does imply that you should take into account what others want, because you would want others to consider what you want.”

In other words, the only thing keeping the Golden Rule from being terrible advice is that it tells you to follow the Platinum Rule. In that case, Jesus should have just told people to follow the Platinum Rule!

Wouldn’t that have been more clear than telling people to follow a rule that only mentions their own preferences, and then expecting them to somehow figure out that what that really means is that they should follow this other rule they’ve never heard of, that’s based on other people’s preferences?

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