Almost every American, even ardent Tea Party conservatives, can recite the Golden Rule. So why don’t we practice it more consistently? (More)

Talking Values, Part II: Do Unto Others

After three weeks reviewing books on economics, this week Morning Feature shifts focus to moral values. Yesterday we discussed why moral values are the core of political dialogue, and look at the moral value We’re All Here, Together. Today we talk about Do Unto Others. Saturday we’ll conclude with We the People.

A universal moral value?

Ethicists, anthropologists, and others have long sought universal human moral standards. The quest lies partly in a belief that if every human society agrees on This, then This must be inherent, natural, or essential in humankind. Such a This would be as much a fundamental component of humanity as our DNA, needing no defense in reason, no agreement on or appeal to a deity.

That quest has proven largely chimerical. What seem like universals at a distance tend to break down when viewed up close. There is almost no This on which every human society agrees, not once we get past broad categorization to specific societal norms and practices. The closest we’ve found may be the Golden Rule: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”

While there are noteworthy cultural differences, the Golden Rule is certainly ubiquitous if not quite universal. Almost every American adult can recite it. I suspect almost all of us, if challenged, would agree it is a worthwhile principle. Yet in our policy the Golden Rule is, to misquote Shakespeare, “more honored in the breach than the observance.”


The reason we can recite but not follow the Golden Rule may be, as novelist J.K. Rowling proposed in her 2008 commencement address at Harvard, a failure of imagination:

In her discussion of imagination, Rowling talks about the years she spent working at Amnesty International, and the horror of seeing the worst that humanity can be. But then she offers this:

And yet I also learned more about human goodness at Amnesty International than I had ever known before.

Amnesty mobilises thousands of people who have never been tortured or imprisoned for their beliefs to act on behalf of those who have. The power of human empathy, leading to collective action, saves lives, and frees prisoners. Ordinary people, whose personal well-being and security are assured, join together in huge numbers to save people they do not know, and will never meet. My small participation in that process was one of the most humbling and inspiring experiences of my life.

Unlike any other creature on this planet, humans can learn and understand, without having experienced. They can think themselves into other people’s places.


Simply, we cannot “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” until we experience the others’ situation and decide how we would want to be treated. Sometimes our own experience provides that bridge, but not always and not completely. Far more often, we must have the others’ experience through the act of imagination we call empathy: humans ability to “think themselves into other people’s places.” But as Rowling also notes, that means taking on pains we could easily avoid:

And many prefer not to exercise their imaginations at all. They choose to remain comfortably within the bounds of their own experience, never troubling to wonder how it would feel to have been born other than they are. They can refuse to hear screams or to peer inside cages; they can close their minds and hearts to any suffering that does not touch them personally; they can refuse to know.

I might be tempted to envy people who can live that way, except that I do not think they have any fewer nightmares than I do. Choosing to live in narrow spaces leads to a form of mental agoraphobia, and that brings its own terrors. I think the willfully unimaginative see more monsters. They are often more afraid.

What is more, those who choose not to empathise enable real monsters. For without ever committing an act of outright evil ourselves, we collude with it, through our own apathy.

The Empathy Gap

History and current experience offer countless examples of the suffering humans can inflict and allow when we turn off our imaginations, or use them to rationalize away pain we cannot avoid witnessing. We blithely imagine how those in need might have avoided their plight, then step back and absolve ourselves of any duty to help. We even wrap such callousness in the cozy mantle of “moral hazard.”

As professor J.D. Trout discusses in The Empathy Gap, our capacity for empathy fails in predictable ways. Those failings, Dr. Trout argues, are as hardwired into our brains as the capacity for empathy itself. We cannot overcome our failures of empathy through willpower, any more than we can sprout wings.

But we can build aircraft that substitute for human wings … and we can build public policies that substitute for human empathy.

Dr. Trout calls these “Outside Strategies,” choosing as a society to buffer ourselves from our bad choices as individuals. We can predict, based on experience and empirical data, that not enough of us will save for retirement. And we can predict that not enough of us will voluntarily care for seniors who did not save enough on their own. So we enact Social Security, choosing as a society to buffer ourselves from our bad choices as individuals.

In many ways we can and do practice the Golden Rule, and that is a core progressive moral value. But there will always be ways we don’t, because it’s easier to recite a sentence than to engage the painful imagination of empathy.

For those cases, as we’ll see tomorrow, we need to apply another core progressive value: We the People.


Happy Friday!