Living the Golden Rule/Moral Reasoning
Many factors influence our moral reasoning as we grow from infants to maturity. It is likely we are born with an innate sense of fairness. Toddlers learn from parents in several ways. In a “commonsense approach” to moral education, adults know the moral rules and teach these to children by personal example, verbal instruction, praise and blame, and reward and punishment. Personal example is most important. Children tend to follow what we do; morality is more caught than taught. Parents also give verbal rules. At first, the rules are simple, like “Don’t hit your sister” and “Tell the truth.” Later parents add rules about homework, dating, driving, and drinking. Rule-followers are praised and rewarded; rule breakers are scolded and punished. The process can be frustrating, because our “Don’t hit your sister” rule may be broken immediately. Children are also swayed by peer pressure to act against parent’s teachings.
Memorizing moral rules is a start, but is limiting. Because the basis for those rules is unknown, they cannot be adapted to new situations, they cannot grow as life becomes more complex, and they cannot be updated as we encounter new situations. When children are taught only rules without being taught the guiding principles and methods for decision making, they:
- are less motivated to follow the rules, since they don’t understand their point;
- Won’t know what to do in cases not covered by the rules;
- Will be confused when they later have to decide whether to accept or reject the rules they were taught; and
- Can learn bad values if they have been taught rules based on bad values.
What is needed is a moral reasoning based on moral methods rather than moral rules.
Gensler proposes these six key principles of moral thinking:
- Make informed decisions.
- Be consistent in your beliefs and means used towards ends.
- Make similar evaluations about similar actions.
- Live in harmony with your moral beliefs.
- Imagine yourself in the other’s place,
- Treat others as you want to be treated.
These are best taught by example and by encouraging related skills and attitudes.
1) Make informed decisions. To teach this principle by example follow it yourself, especially in actions that affect children and other impressionable people. Know your children (and how things affect them) before making decisions about them. This requires communication, and especially listening. To teach the corresponding skills and attitudes, talk with children about their decisions. Get them to ask questions like, “What consequences would this action have on me and others?” — “What are the pros and cons here?” Encourage children to get and reflect on data needed to make decisions; don’t just make every decision for them. Bring children into family decisions at times when they can learn, contribute, or will be affected by the decisions. Teach children to respect truth, which gives the factual basis for decision making. Don’t tolerate misinformation, especially lies or negative stereotypes.
2) Be consistent in your beliefs and means used towards ends. To teach this by example be consistent in your own beliefs. Give consistent rules that have clear and acceptable implications. Have your means be in harmony with your ends; you give a poor example if you have a goal (perhaps to control excessive drinking) and but don’t take effective steps and employ effective means to reach that goal. To teach the corresponding skills and attitudes encourage children to develop their logical skills, to reason things out, to raise objections to proposed rules, and to avoid inconsistent beliefs. Encourage children to be clear on their goals, to pick realistic and compatible goals, to decide on proper means, and to carry out those means.
3) Make similar evaluations about similar actions. Begin by following this principle yourself. Apply the same standards to everyone and give reasons for differences in treatment. Respond carefully to questions like, “Mom, why can Jimmy do this but not me?” Don’t answer, “Just shut up and do what I say!” Also challenge children to think through their decisions and to propose principles or reasons (applicable to everyone alike) why actions are right or wrong. Encourage them to apply the same principles to themselves that they apply to others; confront them when they themselves do what they complain about in others.
4) Live in harmony with your moral beliefs. Follow this principle yourself. Take your well-founded moral beliefs seriously and put them into practice. Don’t teach children by your example to say, “Yet its wrong, but I don’t care.” Also, encourage children to take their moral beliefs seriously and follow them conscientiously. Stress the importance of doing the right thing.
5) Imagine yourself in the other’s place. Follow this principle yourself, especially toward children. Listen to them; try to imagine what their lives are like. This teaches by example how important it is to appreciate another’s perspective. Also encourage children to share ideas and reactions, to listen to others, and to reflect on what an action looks like from another’s perspective. Get them to ask questions like, “What would it be like if I were Suzy and this happened to me?” Have them read stories or watch movies that portray people’s lives realistically and get us to envision ourselves in their situation.
6) Treat others as you want to be treated. Follow the golden rule yourself, especially toward children. Reflect on how your actions affect them, imagine yourself in their place, and treat them only as you are willing to be treated by a parent in their place. Don’t treat others in inconsiderate ways. Encourage children to follow the golden rule. Challenge them, when they do something rude or vicious, by asking, “Do you want us to treat you that way?” Help then to think through moral problems using the golden rule.
Your example can be more effective if you explain how you make decisions. You might explain how you are working hard to get the facts needed to make a certain decision and how you imagine how different possible actions would affect various people. You might ask your children if they can think of important considerations you missed.
As you teach the golden rule, and continue to learn more about it yourself, keep two things in mind. 1) Inside us there is something that responds to the golden rule—but also opposing forces (like egotism, groupism, revenge, and laziness). 2) The golden rule is scalable: it can be understood and applied in a way that is simple (for young children) or in a way that’s more sophisticated (for adults who many use the golden rule to run a company in a way that respects everyone’s rights and interests.)
Morality’s scalability is a result of the work of Harvard psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg.
Kohlberg, unhappy with the relativism of many social scientists, sought empirical support of a more objective approach to morality. He found, on the basis of studies, that people of all cultures develop moral thinking through six stages (people do most of their thinking at one stage corresponding to their current level of moral maturity, but can go higher or lower.):
Kohlberg's six stages can be more generally grouped into three levels of two stages each: pre-conventional, conventional and post-conventional.
- Level 1 Pre-Conventional (Self-centered)
- 1. Obedience and punishment orientation—How can I avoid punishment?—“Good” is what is commanded and rewarded. “Bad” is what is forbidden and punished. We all begin with this approach.
- 2. Self-interest orientation—What's in it for me?—“Good” is what brings you what you want. “Bad” is what frustrates self-interest. Children, seeing that obedience needn’t promote self-interest, become manipulative.
- Level 2 Conventional (Conformity)
- 3. Interpersonal accord and conformity.—Social norms—“Good” is what makes Mommy and Daddy proud of you. “Bad” is what brings disapproval. Self-worth comes from parental approval.
- 4. Authority and social-order maintaining orientation.—Law and order morality—“Good” is what one’s group approves of. “Bad” is what brings group disapproval. Teenagers turn to their peer group for support and values, and to define the right clothes and the right music.
- Level 3 Post-Conventional (Rational)
- 5. Social contract orientation—Moral rules are evaluated more rationally, by whether they promote society’s good.
- 6. Universal ethical principles—Principled conscience—Moral beliefs are evaluated by consistency, justice, and concern for everyone’s equal dignity. Kohlberg mentions “Act only as you’d be willing that everyone should act in the same situation” and calls the imagined switching of roles moral musical chairs. Our actions must be reversible; acceptable to use even if we are on the receiving end.
The understanding gained in each stage is retained in later stages, but may be regarded by those in later stages as simplistic, lacking in sufficient attention to detail.
- Study Lawrence Kohlberg's stages of moral development. (Follow the link.)
- Estimate the stage of moral development you most often apply when making moral decisions.
- Pay attention over the next week as you make moral decisions. Estimate the stage of development you used in each case.
[Adapt much of the materials in section 6.3 into assignments and additional resources for this course.]
The golden rule is well known, however, it is fair to ask “Why isn't the golden rule more successful?” To some extent, the golden rule has been successful. Many people usually follow it, and almost everyone sometimes follows it. Without the golden rule, life would be horrifyingly worse—“solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short” in Thomas Hobbes’s words. But still, there's a problem. For many centuries, practically all of the world's religions and cultures have taught the golden rule. But these same centuries have seen much war, hatred, and evil action. How can this be? Why don't people follow the golden rule better? Why don't we all live in the utopia that would result if living the golden rule (with knowledge and imagination) prevailed?
There are many reasons why people (including you and me) don't follow the golden rule better. These reasons can be divided into these three groups. (1) Flawed thinking:
- We misunderstand the golden rule. We're confused on how to apply it or think it's too vague to help with life's problems.
- We misunderstand our religion, which we think tells us to hate those of other religions.
- We're at a low stage of moral thinking.
- We don't understand how the golden rule promotes our self-interest (e.g., that if we treat others better, they'll generally treat us better).
- We don't understand how the golden rule promotes our group's interest (e.g., that if we treat other groups better, they'll generally treat our group better).
- We want to follow the golden rule but don't know concretely what to do. For example, we want to preserve the environment for future generations and avoid cruelty to animals, but we don't know how to make a difference in these areas.
(2) Flawed choosing:
- We must decide how to live to follow the golden rule or not. Many choose against the golden rule.
- We have motivations that pull against the golden rule. We're attracted by immediate gains for ourselves (instead of remote gains for everyone that also benefit us)—we act out of revenge, habit, laziness, or conformity—or we feel we're too special to be bound by the golden rule.
- We need to care more about getting the facts, developing imagination, and following the golden rule.
- We need to be more attentive to how our actions affect others. We often hurt others because we don't think of what we're doing.
- We need to be more honest about ourselves. We often think that only other people violate the golden rule. Growth requires that we recognize our shortcomings.
- We need to be more aggressive in demanding better treatment. We need to let others know if they're hurting us.
- We need to take the golden rule to the next level. The golden rule has us do good and not harm to others; maybe we're doing fine on not harming but less well on doing good. Or maybe we're fine at applying the golden rule to our own group, but poor at applying the golden rule to other groups.
- We need genuine religion to purify our motives and move us higher.
(3) Flawed socializing:
- Moral education is often poor. Family life is deteriorating; many children are abused or taught to care only about themselves.
- Society can hinder us in applying the golden rule. Imagine how difficult it would be to apply the golden rule in a dog-eat-dog society of in Nazi Germany.
- Society needs to change the reward/penalty system so that decisions that are individually sensible don’t hurt society.
- We need to cooperate better. In politics, for example, partisanship often trumps concern for people.
Why we don't follow the golden rule is a complex problem—involving flawed thinking, choosing, and socializing. There's much room for individuals to help with some aspect of the problem, to light a candle rather than curse the darkness.
While many forces can hinder us from living the golden rule, none of these is a good excuse. To think otherwise is to surrender to what existentialists call “bad faith.” It’s our decision whether to live in a golden manner. And there many reasons to live this way.
What can we as individuals do to promote the golden rule in a world where the golden rule has so many obstacles? Often the best approach is to become a golden rule role model: live it yourself. Yes, the golden rule does exist in each person's heart—but sometimes as a fragile seed covered by rocks. The golden rule seeds grow by encountering a strong golden rule-presence. Here is a simple and practical example: maybe I notice that someone really listens to me, and I say, “Hey, I could do that for others.” The golden rule is contagious. When we experience the golden rule from others, we feel its attraction and yearn for a world of golden relationships.
Will our world ever completely achieve the golden rule? Probably not; but at least the golden rule gives us a goal, a direction. While we can't do everything, we can at least a move a little toward a golden ideal.
Sometimes a big goal is best achieved by small steps. The Kita procedure gives a way to grow toward a golden life by 4 steps: Know-Imagine-Test-Act. If our conversion to the golden rule is a big change, we might spend a week on each step.
- First consider how our actions affect others, write this down.
- Spend time imagining ourselves in the place of our victims.
- Work to uncover the golden rule consistencies in our lives.
- Take action to better align with the golden rule.
Please continue the course with the topic on Human Nature and the Golden Rule.
- Gensler, Harry J. (March 21, 2013). Ethics and the Golden Rule. Routledge. p. 256. ISBN 978-0415806879.§6.1
- For more on teaching the golden rule to children, see Schulman & Mekler 1994 and Stilwell et al. 2000
- Gensler, Harry J. (March 21, 2013). Ethics and the Golden Rule. Routledge. p. 256. ISBN 978-0415806879. §6.4, attributed to Burke Brown.