The Paradox of the Golden Rule
5-1. The Christian version of the golden rule first appears in Matthew 7:12: "As
you would have others do unto you, do you also unto them."
This principle is the simplest expression of the agápe concept in Christian ethics:
the idea of unconditional commitment to the welfare of others. For purposes of
explicating a system of Christian ethics, I shall further conceptualize the golden rule
(the agápe idea) as a principle of both altruism and non-retributivism, with the latter
derivative of the former. That is, the reason that we should not retribute evil for evil
is because of our altruistic concern for the other person, even if that person is the
aggressor, the transgressor.
On this interpretation, the golden rule is not merely a method or procedure for
making ethical decisions. It has substantive ethical content. For example, there is the
negative requirement not to avenge evil deeds, as well as the positive requirements
to return good for evil in all circumstances, and to do good deeds without expecting
any reward. On such a view, the golden rule is much more than a simple principle
of empathic identification with no substantive ethical content: it has non-retributive
content, derivable from the requirement of perfect altruism.
5-2. As a constitutive principle for a social order on the Christian ideal, the golden
rule can be considered as both a principle of justice and a principle of forgiveness,
with absolutely no contradiction.
In other words, "justice" in the mature Christian sense has nothing at all to do with
retribution, but everything to do with non-retribution. Since one aspect of non-
retribution is "forgiveness," a society based on a constitutive principle of non-
retribution would be society in which the just thing to do would be always to forgive
others for their moral errors.
The just society, so conceived, would also be one in which persons did not
demand rewards as a condition of their benevolent deeds: their altruism would be
complete and perfect.
5-3. If the golden rule is the core principle of a conception of true justice, then its
non-retributive component can best be understood by counterposing it to its opposite:
the retributive conception of justice found in the Mosaic Law (as well as in a variety of
other ethical and religious systems). On such conceptions, justice is a matter of
getting what one deserves, whether that moral desert be reward for virtue or
punishment for vice. Christian justice, on the interpretation offered here, has nothing
at all to do with the concept of moral desert.
That is, the Christian conception abjures the idea of trying to allocate unto others
their "just desert," emphasizing instead the requirement always to do good unto
others, no matter how they have treated us, individually or collectively. It is even
conceivable that a mature Christian view must transcend the very idea of moral desert
entirely, emphasizing the lack of moral understanding as the reason for sin. It is possi-
ble, that is, that persons sin out of ignorance or lack of understanding, not out of any
inherent perversity in human nature.
Even Jesus is said to have "increased in wisdom" (Luke 2:52), and perhaps his
wisdom culminated in his final teaching, in the idea that persons sin primarily out of
ignorance or incomplete understanding: "Father, forgive them, for they know not
what they do." (Luke 23:34)
Since this interpretation presents difficulties, it seems safer for the moment to say
that we should all be selfless and merciful simply because we should try to be more
like God, who is the source of all goodness: "Be ye therefore perfect, even as your
Father which is in heaven is perfect." (Matthew 5:48)
5-4. Yet, if God is perfect, and if one ought to try to be as perfect as God, then
one must ask what the divine response must be to evil-doing. I believe that, even if
persons are fully responsible for their deeds, God does not retribute evil for evil. That
is, a God who is so perfect as to be incapable of lying surely could never act in any
evil capacity, including acting according to the primitive retributive conception of
justice and thereby requiting evil for evil. And, if God always retributes good for evil,
then how could we who are so much less worthy justifiably do otherwise?
On the other hand, if persons first err from a lack of wisdom or understanding, then the
case for forgiveness and for returning good for evil is even stronger. That is, if human
folly derives from some original sin of ignorance, then the proper response to those
lacking in understanding is to treat them with understanding, toleration, and patience
(which may be all that "forgiveness" really amounts to in practice). If this is the divine
response to human folly, then could the human side of obligation justifiably be more
Regardless, then, of the degree of culpability in the moral failure of another, our
response must always be the same: always to return good for evil, whether we are
acting on behalf of ourselves as individuals or on behalf of collectivities.
Therefore the golden rule is not merely an ethical principle for moral individuals,
but a principle for moral communities, including entire societies. It is a social and
political principle as well.
5-5. What if persons are fully culpable for their misdeeds? What if they do indeed
know full well the scope of their evil, and yet persist in that evil? If so, then they must
rationalize their misdeeds as being other than evil, and thus false or incomplete moral
learning persists and even deepens through self-deception. Moral confusion results
and the person feels "lost," truly no longer knowing what is right and what is wrong.
The remedy here ultimately lies with God, for only God is qualified to look into
persons' hearts and make the judgment of depravity, if such it be. Therefore, if some
kind of chastisement is required, only God knows what is required and exactly how
the cure is to be effected. My own belief is that, even in such recalcitrant cases, God's
methods are not punitive but redemptive: they represent a kind of benign "surgery"
on the soul.
No human being is capable of making such moral diagnoses or prescribing the
cures: the role of inducing repentance is God's alone, and it is a sacrilege to suggest
that it should be done by human beings or by their institutions. The best that we can
do is to try to offer a worthy example and our best rational arguments (and on a
voluntary basis at that). I believe that, in so doing, we follow the divine example of
Jesus of Nazareth.
There is much gentleness in divine chastisement: it is a wonderful thing to fall into
the hands of the living God, for whatever pain we may feel during the process of
divine correction results solely from the resistance which we exert in resisting divine
correction, in rationalizing and defending our misdeeds. God surely does not will the
sense of punishment that we feel when we are on the verge of repentance. God wills
instead that we admit our error, recommit ourselves to the right course, and accept
the blessings of spiritual renewal.
Even in chastisement, that is, the concept of ag pe is the expression of the infinite
goodness of the divine Being.
5-6. Human beings can presume to emulate God only in the requirement of trying
to use the most perfect, most gentle means: human beings are not omniscient and
certainly may not rationally try to emulate God in all things, especially not in assessing
the worth of a soul, its moral condition, or the cure for its pathologies.
Compare, however, the simple categorical teaching of Christ not to judge others
(Matthew 7:1) with the revisionist view espoused by Paul in his confused and
contradictory statements about judgment. (See I Corinthians 6:2-3 and associated
passages in particular.)
The most powerful corollary of the golden rule is precisely this requirement not to
judge others, for judgment is the foundation for punishment, war, and innumerable
other abuses against other human beings.
5-7. If it sounds preposterous even to suggest the possibility that our moral
failings derive originally from our imperfect wisdom or understanding (implying that
we are not yet fully responsible for our evil tendencies and actions), then consider
how it might be that the temptation to sin could possibly be finally conquered if it
were otherwise: it would be a strange heaven if the temptation to sin were not
conquered once and for all, and it difficult to imagine how this final triumph is to
occur if not through the completion of our moral growth and understanding. Then
we should be fully responsible for our actions, but perhaps with full moral responsi-
bility would come perfectly responsible moral action: we should finally be beyond the
power of sin or temptation. No further apostasy would be possible. In other words,
heaven as a perfect state of being implies not merely the absence of temptation, but
the perfection of the soul such that, even if external temptation should present itself,
it would have no force at all upon the individual.
That is, heaven would not be a place or state of being where sheer will succeeds
in winning the battle against temptation, but where the power of understanding has
so vitiated the forces of evil that they no longer possess any compelling attraction for
the psyche: there would be, that is, no desire to do wrong, and thus no real tempta-
tion in the psychological sense, regardless of what external opportunities might
It can be seen from these kinds of considerations that both our theology and our
eschatology have ethical implications. This is the central reason that a secular
reduction of Christian ethics is impossible.
5-8. As "Jesus increased in wisdom," so does each one of us grow or progress.
Indeed, entire cultures and religious traditions likewise grow and evolve in terms of
their moral understanding.
For example, while it is true that retributive themes and language are present in
various Christian teachings, it seems best to consider these as a residue of the
retributive culture out of which Christianity evolved and is still evolving. Some of
these retributive usages in the New Testament may also be attributable to bad
reporting by those who witnessed but did not understand the full revolutionary
significance of the teachings of the Christ.
5-9. Not only the Mosaic Law, but the "modern" idea of the "rule of law" is an
inherently retributive conception, since both rewards and retaliatory responses
("punishment") are used to enforce compliance with the law. The non-retributive and
altruistic principles inhering in the golden rule, by contrast, depend entirely upon the
force of individual conscience, guided by the Spirit of God, as the basic force for
ordering society. (If such principles were universally understood and accepted, then
we would have the "Kingdom of Heaven" in all of its fullness, a "kingdom" which
already exists for those who choose to live by its tenets in an imperfect world.)
It is possible to speak of the non-retributive conception of justice as supplanting
entirely the older retributive conception of the Mosaic Law (as well as inhering in
social contract theory and a variety of other conceptions). In all truly retributive
systems of thought, social order is assumed to depend on the expectation of some
kind of payback (from "tribute," or "pay," which is the core concept of retribution:
repay). To the extent that the golden rule abjures any kind of "payback," it implies
that one should not make a reward (a positive "payback") a condition of one's
benevolence, and it implies as well that one should not "repay" evil for evil, as is the
case in all instances of retaliation.
It can also be seen that the non-retributive conception, in abjuring both reward and
punishment, implies the end of manipulative and coercive practices and institutions:
it implies, that is, a conception of the social order in which persons are as free as is
possible, constrained only by a divinely-inspired conscience, not by the fallible judg-
ment of other human beings.
5-10. If one says that it is out of fear that one achieves virtue, then one is, I
believe, a retributivist at heart, whether avowedly so or not. If one says, to the
contrary, that it is out of understanding or wisdom that one finally becomes a virtuous
person, then the retributive quest to determine blame and allocate punishment is seen
to be misguided and likely to result in the perpetuation of injustice.
All retaliatory devices employ fear as the ultimate motivator. This reliance upon
fear is thus the ultimate foundation of retribution. (Even with "reward" systems, there
is the fear that the rewards may be withheld.) It is no accident that a retributive
conception of justice derives from a theological tradition in which God is to be feared,
whereas a non-retributive conception of justice derives from a theological tradition
which emphasizes above all the redeeming and forgiving aspects of divine "justice."
In actual biblical traditions, of course, both conceptions tend to be mixed up to
some extent. Although the non-retributive conception is attributed more or less
consistently to Jesus of Nazareth in the New Testament, and the non-retributive
conception finds it fullest explication in the Mosaic Law of the Old Testament, there
are enough exceptions to these generalizations that one wants to be careful in
assigning a strict biblical interpretation to either conception.
These difficulties are compounded by realities in existing religious traditions: many
Jews are pacifists, and many nominal Christians are retributivists with respect to both
punishment and war.
5-11. Perhaps one is on safer ground to claim to be expounding an "ideal type"
Christian ethic, in the Weberian sense: what Christian ethics would be if one could
find a perfect model of it, a perfect and complete expository statement of it.
The Bible, compiled from fallible human witness with the assistance of other
fallible human beings, unfortunately does not qualify. There is reason to believe,
however, that a coherent, consistently altruistic and non-retributive system of thought
existed in the mind and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth, if only we could reconstruct
that system from the fragments which we do have, combined with our own insights
5-12. Retributive practices and behavioral repertoires might have had some
survival value in the earlier stages of human evolution (and might still), but God surely
saw the end state which he wants human beings to achieve, and it is surely an end
state which even now is often at odds with our natural propensities.
A truly Christian ethic must posit the necessity for God to have taken human form
in order to exemplify in both words and deeds the full meaning of forgiveness and
selflessness inhering in the golden rule. Secular reductions, or religious derivations
based in retributive theology, have not succeeded.
It is only in the personhood of the Christ that the golden rule can be completely
understood, and even then only in conjunction with the subsequent trials and lessons
of life. Only with all of these do the truly revolutionary implications of the Christian
message come to fruition in the moral understanding of each individual: if we are
mistreated, individually or collectively, we are never to treat others as they do in fact
treat us, but as we would have them treat us. Against the aggressor, we may not
aggress. Against the trespasser, we may not trespass.
Both war and punishment, that is, are forbidden by the agápe concept which we
call the "golden rule."
5-13. At first I considered referring to the golden rule as "a categorical imperative
of altruism and non-retribution," but such a label smacks a bit more of Kantian ethics
than I would like. Kant certainly thought that the simple statement of the golden rule
in Christian ethics could be stated in more refined fashion as the Categorical
Imperative: "Act such that the rule by which you act should become a universal
maxim." 1 That is, let your rule of conduct be one that would have universal
A major problem with Kant's claim that such a principle would be a refinement of
the golden rule was his claim to be able to derive a specific categorical imperative of
retribution2 from the more general Categorical Imperative. In addition, the im-
plication is that one's altruism would be limited: one would, on Kant's view, have no
true obligation to others beyond the limits of the keeping of contracts and
agreements--or reciprocated behavior in general. Anything beyond that which is
mutually obligatory, contractual, or reciprocal might be good and worthy, but it
would not, on Kant's view, be morally obligatory: it would be "supererogatory"
conduct, action beyond the limits of duty and obligation.
Yet, even the possibility of some supposed "supererogation" would be compro
mised by the requirements of the specific categorical imperative of retribution: those
who treated one benevolently should, on such a view, be rewarded and those who did
not should be punished. This retributive emphasis, not that of supererogation, became
the foundation of Kantian legalism, and this retributive emphasis is not the golden rule
at all. What Kant gave us is not a refinement of the golden rule at all, but of its very
antithesis, the lex talionis: "an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth." (Exodus
5-14. Two caveats are in order if one insists upon using the language of Kant in
referring to the golden rule: first, the idea of a general categorical imperative is
substantively empty and can indeed be legitimately used to derive two possibly
contradictory principles (in this case "retribution" and "non-retribution"); second, it
is nonetheless appropriate (with qualifications) to refer to a principle of non-
retribution as being a categorical imperative, as long as one means by that term merely
a principle which one should like to see universalized.
The problem with Kant's Categorical Imperative, however, is that it is nothing
more than the principle of universalizability, a component of every meaningful ethical
system, even utilitarianism (through the principle of utility itself). The Categorical
Imperative by itself says very little and thus begs all of the substantive ethical
questions: what is it, that is, that one should want to have universalized?
5-15. The substantive void of the Categorical Imperative leads naturally enough
to a kind of empty proceduralism, a proceduralism which defaults to an emphasis on
due process and the rule of law--and a concomitant retributivism.
Thus, even though the idea of a general Categorical Imperative allows for the
possibility of universalizing either retribution or forgiveness, the substantive emptiness
of the Categorical Imperative tends to create a void which our inherent retributive
tendencies are all too eager to fill.
Perhaps one may speculate that human nature in its present stage of development
could not have seen the non-retributive option in all of its fullness. (Those cultures
which have offered something like the golden rule seem never to have understood its
full implications.) Perhaps it took divine intervention to show that God would
universalize empathy and mercy, not judgment, vengeance, or a simple response in
5-16. The ultimate legacy of Kant's restatement of the golden rule in the sterile,
formal language of the Categorical Imperative is not only a justification of punishment
and retaliation (within the limits of law), but also a strict delimiting of the obligation
to others. This follows from the emphasis on reciprocity or mutual obligation, an
emphasis whose implications are brought out most clearly by John Rawls' A Theory
of Justice,3 a work in the Kantian contractualist tradition.
Jesus of Nazareth, by contrast, used the golden rule to universalize non-retributive
conduct and unconditionally benevolent action (ag pe love, altruism) as being
obligatory to others without limits of any kind save that of ability: "Of those to whom
much is given, much will be required." In other words, one is obliged to do as much
good as one can do, and always to forgive and thereby forego all opportunities to
reciprocate evil for evil. In addition, the Christian golden rule would entail such
corollaries as "Turn the other cheek," "Lend [or give] without expecting a return,"
and "Love your enemies and do good to those who despitefully use you." These
would provide the essence of a doctrine that is perfectly non-retributive and perfectly
altruistic. (See Matthew, chapters 5-7 for the entire Sermon on the Mount. But see
especially Luke 6:27-6:37. Here the golden rule is embedded in Luke 6:31, in the
middle of teachings which are very similar to the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew.
In both versions, however, the specific altruistic and non-retributive teachings stand
out as corollaries of the golden rule.)
In any case, I shall label the original Christian interpretation of the golden rule as
a principle of universalized altruism and non-retribution, a far more demanding
conception of the golden rule than that to be found in the legalistic, retributivistic, and
quasi-egoistic philosophy of Kant.
But again, more simply stated, the essence of the golden rule might simply revolve
around the requirement of perfect selflessness, manifest as a tendency to overlook the
faults and shortcomings of others.
5-17. Kant's Categorical Imperative was seen by him to imply a categorical
imperative of retribution precisely because Kant wanted to justify coercive laws and
the coercive state: Kant was ultimately a philosopher of good Prussian law and order.
Coercive law in the form of a world state was to be his means of achieving his
conception of "world peace." Such a conception would require the continuation of
military and police institutions as the means of instituting and preserving peace. What
is striking about the Kantian ideal of peace is how far short it falls of the Christian
ideal: a proper rendering of the New Testament golden rule would bring peace not
through the perfection and perpetuation of the violent and coercive state, but in spite
of the state.
5-18. Not only is it necessary to depart from Kant in offering a categorical
imperative of non-retribution, but it is necessary to affirm from the outset that the
conception of the golden rule which one wants to defend is laden with substance, in
this case a principle and spirit of altruism and non-retribution. It is admittedly neces-
sary to offer addenda such as that contained within the phrase "a categorical
imperative of non-retribution." (The golden rule is, after all, an absolute requirement
in Christian ethics.) But this in only one possible addendum. A full fleshing out of
the golden rule is the whole point of Christian ethics as a system, a system in which
the corollaries of the golden rule together make up the Sermon on the Mount and the
very similar teachings in Luke.
The conception of the golden rule to be defended here is not only quite different
from that of Kant's, but it is different from that of modern linguistic philosophers.
Their debates over the golden rule are really over something like a simple principle of
empathic identification, a principle unlike Kant's categorical imperative except insofar
as both conceptions are devoid of substantive ethical content. The Christian golden
rule does require the principle of empathic identification, but only in the same way
that every ethical system also requires the principle of universalizability. If one fails
to go beyond universalizability and empathic identification, one fails to offer a
substantive interpretation of ethical conduct.
Apart from affirming the worth of the individual, however, the golden rule does
not specify the ends of ethical conduct, but only the means. The ultimate ends of
ethical conduct--broadly interpreted as the ultimate will of God--are vitally important,
but ultimate ends are to be known independently of ethical means, and these ends are
intuited directly by those of clear moral vision and a good conscience. While Chris-
tian ethics has a great deal to say about these, it is not to be found in the golden rule
or its corollaries.
The golden rule, then, is about means rather than about ends, even though it
should have applicability to the promotion of all worthy ends. Yet, to the extent that
we may understand the force of the golden rule even if we are not sure as to which
ends are ordained of God, the deontological requirement of the golden rule has
epistemological independence from the teleological problem of ascertaining the ends
which are ordained of God.
5-19. The label the "golden rule," without further elaboration, is a label which
admits of a variety of interpretations. Most of these overlap and none are obviously
or necessarily mutually exclusive:
(1) the golden rule as a principle recommending empathic identification: "Put
yourself in the other person's shoes and then act accordingly";
(2) the golden rule as the popular version of Kant's Categorical Imperative: "Act
such that the rule by which you act should become a universal maxim" (that is, "Act
as you would have all persons act"--the criterion of universalizability);
(3) the golden rule as equivalent to Jeremy Bentham's principle of utility: "Promote
the greatest happiness of the greatest number" (or at least, "Promote as much
happiness as you can");
(4) the golden rule as a principle of non-retribution: "Do unto others not as they
do unto you, but as you would have them do unto you";
(5) the golden rule as a principle recommending constructive rationality ("problem-
solving") in place of destructive irrationality (blame-seeking and scapegoating).
All of the above conceptions of the golden rule do indeed to some extent embody
some element of what we think of when we think of the golden rule. Yet, the
advocates of some of these find themselves in opposition with one another.
Let us look at these in turn:
5-20. The interpretation of the golden rule as a principle of empathic identifica-
tion, requiring us to put ourselves in the shoes of another, is the common sense
interpretation, and it has a lot to recommend it. It is not a complete interpretation,
however, and stated so simply it is not without its problems. Of the idea that one
should try to act with empathic identification, one may say that there can be no doubt
but that a necessary requirement of morality is to try to see the world through the eyes
of other persons, to try to see what they want and expect out of life, to imagine what
things might hurt them, and otherwise to try to identify with other persons so that we
do not inadvertently act in ways that do hurt them.
This would perhaps be an absolute requirement of morality, but it is only a minimal
requirement. It does not tell us, for example, what we should do for others when we
have imagined ourselves in their position: it does not tell us whether we should, upon
imagining ourselves in the shoes of another, do that which they would want us to do
or that which we believe ought to be done. Much less does it give any kind of
objective criterion of right or good which ought to be promoted. The requirement of
empathic identification, without any standard of good guiding its implementation, thus
perhaps falls prey to a kind of relativism which would have us endorse and support
all kinds of self-destructive behavior. This seems to be the interpretation of the
golden rule which has been either defended or critiqued by such theorists as R.M.
Hare4 and Alan Gewirth.5
5-21. Immanuel Kant and Jeremy Bentham both thought that their own principles
were improvements upon the golden rule, but they found themselves at odds with
each other on a number of points. Bentham thought that the golden rule implied a
concern for future consequences rather than an obsession with the past. Upon that
basis he applied the golden rule qua the principle of utility6 in order to call for the
moderation of the severe penal practices in the Great Britain of the late eighteenth
century. In particular, he advocated a penal system based upon deterrence rather than
retribution, so that the punishment inflicted would, it was claimed, help prevent future
crimes rather than presume to requite past ones. (He assumed, that is, a meaningful
distinction between deterrence and retribution, a distinction which breaks down in
practice: retaliation is the practical manifestation of both.)
Kant, by contrast, thought that the principles which should guide us should be
based upon pure reason, not upon the empirically-based calculations of expected
consequences, as on the Benthamic model. He also thought, however, that the prin-
ciple of logical consistency which could give us universal maxims would also imply
a categorical imperative of retribution--the idea that the criminal should be punished
for no other reason than that he had acted criminally, and that the fallacy of
utilitarianism was that it might absolve the criminal of some of his deserved
In general, the Kantian-utilitarian debate has centered around the whole issue as
to whether or not the calculation of consequences can possibly give a substantial
foundation for moral action. Many have disparaged utilitarian-consequentialist
rationales as implying situational ethics, ethics which are relative to time and place and
which give no unmoving rock upon which to support consistently moral action.
Others have disparaged consequentialist rationales as possibly justifying the
punishment of the innocent, if such punishment could somehow serve to deter others
from committing crimes. Still others have pointed to the virtual impossibility of
predicting with any accuracy even the first-order consequences of actions, much less
the long-term consequences. Others have called utilitarianism a "raw" ethic which
justifies compromise and trade-off and which is thus indifferent to the welfare or
dignity of individuals. Still others have critiqued utilitarianism's hedonistic founda
tions in the Benthamic version. Within utilitarian thought itself, there has also been
the important conflict between "act" and "rule" utilitarians.7
In any case, the consequentialist emphasis of utilitarianism has drawn much fire
from a number of quarters, even though its legacy remains strong in a variety of
concepts in varying academic disciplines: balance of power theory in international
relations, deterrence theory in both criminal justice and international relations,
marginal utility and price theory in economics, and cost-benefit analyses in public
administration. The obvious difficulties with utilitarianism notwithstanding, its
emphasis upon consequences can hardly be casually dismissed. As John Rawls, a
well-known critic of utilitarianism, has correctly said, not to be concerned with
consequences is simply irrational, crazy.8 Rawls yet rejects utility and its
consequentialist foundation as the basis for a coherent ethical theory.
Perhaps some of the more powerful criticisms of utilitarianism can be summed up
as follows: whatever may be the requirements of dealing with consequences and of
making decisions that involve compromise, it is surely fallacious to begin with a
principle of compromise, rather than to start with firm substantive principles which
might admit of the necessity of compromise in hard cases.
As for Kant, there is great irony that his "improvement" of the golden rule by
restating it as the Categorical Imperative also impelled him to derive from it lesser but
more specific categorical imperatives, one of which was a categorical imperative of
retribution. The irony of this is that the common biblical interpretation of the golden
rule contained in Matthew 7:12 is clearly a non-retributive principle, whatever else it
5-22. The conception of the golden rule as a principle of non-retribution is useful
for systematizing Christian ethics. On this view, the pillar of Christian ethics (and of
all valid ethical systems) is the golden rule as a general principle which can be used
to derive other principles, principles which might be interpreted as corollaries.
For example, the golden rule implies as one corollary not "an eye for an eye," but
the principle of "turning the other cheek." In other contexts, it suggests the necessity
of not judging others who might nonetheless judge us. In yet another, it suggests the
necessity of lending or giving without any expectation of a return (a principle of non-
retribution in the distributive realm). In general, the non-retributive conception of the
golden rule suggests an alternative to allocating either good or evil as "just desert"
(that which is thought to be deserved, whether it be reward or punishment). On this
view, we should always treat others with good, whether they treat us well or badly.
Since retribution has both a positive side (reward) and a negative side (punishment),
the golden rule as a principle of non-retribution abjures retributive practices in the
realms of the distribution or allocation of both rewards and punishments. If we are
not to give to others with the expectation of reward, nor to retaliate against others
who treat us badly, the logical implications of such a view could include everything
from a critique of the market system (where all transactions are carried out with the
expectation of return--an expectation implicit in any reciprocal arrangement or
contract) to a complete renunciation of the penal system (where offenders are requited
evil for evil, whether in the name of retribution or deterrence).
The golden rule could also, so interpreted, serve as the foundation of a categorical
renunciation of the institution of war, on every scale. The basic premises of this way
of looking at the golden rule would seem to be (1) a belief in unconditional altruism
(the ag pe principle) and (2) a belief that perfect means must always be employed to
achieve both individual and societal ends.
5-23. The conception of the golden rule as a principle of constructive rationality
has more of a psychological rather than a purely ethical emphasis, but it also has the
advantage of incorporating many of the ethical insights of the above conceptions. On
this view, the golden rule is a principle of constructive action giving guidance in the
face of all of the frustrating situations which might confront one in everyday life. In
the face of violence (or threat of any kind), for example, one looks for a benign and
constructive alternative, not to a course of action which leads to an escalating cycle
of injury and retaliation. In the face of social alienation, one neither harbors resentful
thoughts nor expresses one's frustrations through hostile actions.
Instead of the irrational impulse toward blame and retaliation, one seeks
constructive rational outlets for one's energies, always striving to meet hostile or
callous persons, as well as baffling and frustrating situations, with reasoned responses.
This conception might suggest the possibility of dispensing with the ethical legalism
implicit in most of the religious conceptions of the golden rule, replacing it instead
with a view which looks entirely to human reason in lieu of divine commands.
The problem-solving emphasis of this view suggests also an alternative to the guilt
which is a by-product of legalism, suggesting the possibility of a sense of freedom
from moral paralysis as well as an openness to meeting and responding to difficulties,
challenges, and crises, secure in the faith that a reasoned and benign response can
generally effect good consequences, or at least effect better ones than might occur
without one's active intervention.
A religio-metaphysical interpretation of this view suggests the possibility of a God
who does indeed ordain certain patterns as being inherently good (not as commands
but as gifts, aspects of divine grace manifest through the divine will or purpose in
creation), a God who does not punish but stands always ready to allow us to end our
own self-punishment by admitting ("repenting of" in the original sense of "rethinking"
or "rereasoning") our errors and rationalizations, thereby regaining the moral high
ground as participants with God in the perfection of his creation, through the
promotion and maximization of that which has been ordained by God as good.
5-24. The traditional statement of the golden rule as a simple recommendation of
empathic identification is open to various interpretations, but behind these competing
interpretations lie polar or dilemmatic choices.
Does one mean by the golden rule that one ought to
(1) treat others as one would like to be treated;
or (2) treat others as one ought to be treated?
Or ought one to
(1) treat others as they would like to be treated;
or (2) treat others as they ought to be treated.
Whereas (1) in the first dilemma is not reducible to (1) in the second dilemma, it
would seem that both versions of (2) are effectively identical in both dilemmas. So
saying presumes, of course, that there are some universal goods--those ends which
are good both for oneself and for others, good which have traditionally been described
in the language of "natural law." These are ends or goods which are universal goods
because they are not relative to culture, because their point of reference is either
human nature or the divine will, but not mere social convention or opinion.
The second choice in both dilemmas is not without difficulties. Yet, whereas in the
first dilemma there is the risk of imperialism because of the presumption that one's
preferences ought to supersede the judgments of others as to what kinds of treatment
they should receive, in the second dilemma there is the risk of imperialism because of
the presumption that one's judgments of right ought to supersede the judgments of
others as to what kind of treatment they should receive. There is an additional
problem in the first choice in the first dilemma, since here there is also a possible
problem of imperialism or paternalism: why should I presume that how I would like
to be treated could possibly give me any guidance as to how others ought or would
like to be treated?
The answer to all of these problems is the same: the requirement of autonomy is
not vitiated because one presumes that there are higher moral standards than
preference or personal judgment. Unless one is a relativist, one must presume that
there is some identity of good for all persons in at least some areas of human activity,
at least if the concept of "human nature" is thought to have any validity at all. Indeed,
the assumption that there is such a thing as human nature is in itself tied to a
renunciation of ethical relativism. This is not to say that the problem of imperialism
is not very real when one tries to make judgments as to what extent one may rely
upon one's own moral intuitions of good when acting for the sake of others. Yet, if
one may not use one's own moral intuitions of good, then whose?
To defend the golden rule as a principle of empathic identification is not, however,
to concede the inevitability of ethical or cultural imperialism. It is simply to say that
application of the golden rule only requires us to ask what is inherently good before
we make any decision affecting the lives of others. It does not give us an easy
formula as to what to do when our judgments and those of others do in fact conflict.
The principle of empathic identification is hardly the whole of the golden rule. Yet,
one finds it difficult to imagine any conception of the golden rule which could succeed
if not coupled with the capacity and propensity for empathic identification.
5-25. I do not mean to denigrate the significance of the question of autonomy and
tolerance versus paternalism and imperialism. There is surely some sense in which
Kant, in his requirement of universalizability, has recognized that a respect for the
personhood and autonomy of others is an important component of the golden rule.
So saying does not impel one, however, to accept a doctrinaire Kantian reduction of
the golden rule, nor does it require one to accept Kant's process of deriving one form
of the Categorical Imperative from other forms. (I refer specifically to that form or
version which says that one should always treat others as ends rather than simply as
means. The Kantian requirement of rational autonomy which comes into play in such
a formulation is beyond dispute, but the identity of the various forms or versions is
Acceptance of the universalizability criterion of the Categorical Imperative also
does not require that one accept the Kantian dictum that "Nothing is good in itself but
good will."9 That is far too strong a claim, one that surely is false and which opens
the door to moral relativism, as well as the disparagement of human nature and the
will of God. The full force of the golden rule can only be felt, in fact, if there is a
recognition of the essential similarity of human nature and thus of human needs.
Recognizing that fact about human nature does not impel one to become a value im-
perialist. It only impels one to try to ascertain what is really good or worthy before
one embarks upon some program of action to improve society or the welfare or
freedom of others.
Any claim of social progress or benevolent action must surely presuppose some
conception of good ends. A meaningful, non-formalistic restatement of the golden
rule must be predicated upon some judgment of the relative worthiness of competing
claims to good. The golden rule cannot within itself give us a theory of ends or
goods. Yet, contrary to the Kantian formulation, neither does belief in the moral force
of the golden rule preclude the search for a coherent theory of good, a theory which
presumes that there might be any number of things in addition to good will which are
goods in themselves.
5-26. Does Christian ethics fall within the teleological or the deontological ethical
traditions? This is not an easy question to answer. My own belief is that both good
and right have epistemological independence in the parallel realms of ends and means.
With regard to ends, we may say that certain ends are ordained of God. These are
inherently good, since they come from the will of God. Certainly we have some
obligation to maximize the realization of such ends without presuming that we have
to use a utilitarian decision procedure in order to tell us how to do so. Any theory of
ends is a teleological conception, by definition, and all rational persons must have
some regard for the consequences of their actions and inactions in promoting certain
Yet, when contemplating the means whereby we may promote and maximize
certain ends or goods, we are constrained by the ag pe concept, which governs
questions of right. Any theory of means is a theory of right principles or duty, and
thus a deontological conception, by definition. Yet, if such principles are guided by
certain theological suppositions (such as the workings of divine Providence, for
example), then we are not going to be able to reduce all ethical judgments to empirical
assessments of consequences.
In general, we may say that Christian ethics contains both teleological and
deontological epistemological foundations. It is certainly correct to say that we have
an obligation to promote the will of God and thereby to promote and maximize the
goods or ends which he has ordained, but we are simultaneously limited in the means
that we may employ to promote such ends.
This way of looking at the problem may be as close as we shall ever get to
"bridging" the "teleological-deontological dilemma" of ethical epistemology. That is,
we have an obligation to promote the best ends, using the best possible means. To
say this, however, is less to offer a "bridge" than to say that there are at least two
broadly differing epistemological problems with which all moral actors should be
Finally, of course, both the best ends and the best means are ordained by the will
of God. Yet, ends and means are factorable, not to be mixed up together in some
utilitarian calculus of "consequences" which blurs the distinction between ends and
means. Furthermore, if both ends and means are ordained of God, then they are both
part of the divine telos, or purpose, which is synonymous with the will of God. Yet,
if it is our duty to promote both the ends ordained of God using the means which God
has ordained, then our conception can also be called "deontological" as well as
These considerations suggest the possibility that the deontological-teleological
distinction may have outlived its usefulness, being a product of the stimulating but
ultimately unsatisfying debate between Kantians and utilitarians.
Even so, to the extent that ultimate goods or ends can probably be known only
through intuition, whereas right means can be defended by reason after being intuited,
there may be some value in seeing the realms of the teleological and deontological as
having differing epistemological foundations. This is extremely problematic
theoretical territory, however, insofar as the problem of ethical epistemological has
never been solved, and I make no pretense of having solved it here.
5-27. A non-relativistic, non-formalistic interpretation of the golden rule does
have practical implications for moral action. It would tend to preclude, for example,
giving wine to an alcoholic simply because that is the way he wants to be treated. It
would preclude acquiescing in the sexual request of a strange woman simply because
she enjoyed having sex with strangers. The suggestion in both cases is that the person
making a request or stating a need ought to be treated in a fashion compatible with
his or her own best moral and physical interests, not in a fashion that gives a kind of
perverse pleasure, nor in a fashion that degrades that person's status as a human being,
or takes advantage of weakness or emotional vulnerability.
Is it presumptuous or imperialistic to act upon the basis of one's own standards
when complying with a request or attempting to meet the need of another? No. It
is simply responsible. The requirements of toleration do not extend so far as to imply
an obligation to sacrifice one's own moral judgments to those of another.
5-28. Formalistic versions of the golden rule (e.g., Kant's Categorical Imperative)
are suspect precisely because they do tend to relativize moral choice and because they
could indeed, in the name of respect for the autonomy of others, justify engaging in
or at least giving moral approbation to such a dubious practice as acceding to others'
requests to give them that which one knows or conscientiously believes to be harmful.
What else could possibly follow from the relativistic claim that absolutely nothing
is good in itself besides good will?
5-29. A hidden component of the ag pe concept is a premise which cannot be
restated as a "rule" or "law": the premise of the absolute worth of the individual. It
may well be that this premise is logically prior to the substantive principles of altruism
and non-retributivism inherent in the golden rule. Perhaps it can also help one to see
why it is that there should be no conditions to one's benevolence: the absolute value
of the individual requires such a conclusion.
That is, once one has accepted the full implications of the absolute worth of the
individual, then it is absurd to say that one's benevolence toward that person should
be conditional upon a further moral evaluation of the worth of that person, whether
for the sake of punishment or reward: the worth of the individual is absolute,
regardless of the present state of moral virtue or depravity of that individual, and
certainly regardless of any human assessment of that virtue or depravity.
Here one sees how an injunction against judging others can also be seen to be a
"corollary" of the golden rule--or perhaps it is strictly more correct to say that
altruism, non-retributivism, and non-judgment are all ethical corollaries of the
metaphysical premise of the absolute worth of the individual in the eyes of God.
The irony of all this is that the premise of the absolute worth of the individual is a
statement of good, not right per se. Is it possible that behind all theories of right lies
some kind of knowledge of good? If this be so, then the theory espoused here is more
nearly teleological than I imagined it to be.
5-30. To say that God affirms the absolute worth of the individual is to say
something that has about it the air of a metaphysical rather than a simple ethical claim,
for it implies that individual human beings really do have infinite worth which is willed
by God himself. This metaphysical claim, to have force, must be derived from yet
another metaphysical claim about the omnibenevolence of God, which in this context
means seeing God as always a redemptive and never as a punitive force, a conclusion
which seems for many persons to fly not only in the face of scripture but of common
Yet, just such an assumption would seem to be required: only an omnibenevolent
God could will that beings created "in his own image" should also be omnibenevolent,
should also always act in non-punitive ways reflecting a concern for the worth of
5-31. It is clear that any theistic system of ethics and justice must be founded upon
a conception of humankind which derives from the claim that human beings are
created in the image of God, and it is equally clear that such a system would depend
upon rather strong claims about human nature, not the weak claims which a
contractualist such as Rawls would advocate. Everything which Rawls would want
to put behind the veil of ignorance would have to be brought out as strong metaphysi-
Contra Rawls, one may say that no meaningful theory of justice is imaginable
without a theory of human nature, and no meaningful theory of human nature could
be meaningful without a theory of the nature of the divine.
5-32. A sustained defense of a principle of non-retribution would raise all of the
essential questions of a full Christian theology, for, if there is a truism in Christian
ethics, it is that Christian ethics cannot survive if cut off from a Christian theology.
An ethic is a philosophical superstructure, not a foundation. A true foundation of
the metaphysics of morals would have to be a metaphysic of ultimate being, a
theology. Studies in ethics thus ultimately redirect us to a concern for the identity and
nature of God.
5-33. What is a principle of non-retribution but a principle of forgiveness? To
categorically renounce war, punishment, and other expressions of retribution is merely
to universalize the requirement of forgiveness. Perhaps this idea--universal forgive-
ness--is what the golden rule is all about. Perhaps this is why Jesus called the golden
rule "the law and the prophets":10 it captures the essence of the divine, that for which
wise men and prophets have always searched.
5-34. If one begins historically, the non-retributive aspect of the golden rule can
be seen to have been offered in ancient times as the statement by Socrates in the Crito
that it is never right to hurt anyone, no matter how much he has hurt us.11 This idea
seems to be contained within (or implied by) the golden rule as it is found in the
familiar Christian form, "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you."
Perhaps Hillel's negative formulation is logically equivalent: "Do not do unto others
that which you would not have them do unto you." Similarly, in Taoism, the golden
rule or something like it is offered as the idea that one must always do good unto
other persons, no matter how they might treat us.
All of the above conceptions seem to reflect at least one common assumption:
one's virtue should be independent of the virtue of others. Unfortunately, this
superficial agreement on the form of the golden rule is not borne out in a more
profound agreement as to the essence of virtue.
5-35. Whereas in Christianity the golden rule has typically been associated with
the imperative to forgive others, in the Judaic tradition of the law of Moses the idea
of requiting evil for evil has been central. In a similar vein, whereas Socrates used
something like the golden rule in the Crito to try to justify a highly legalistic
conception of virtue11 (getting permission from the state to disobey its laws, for
example), the same cannot be said of Taoism.
In more modern times, the differences between Kant and Bentham again reveal a
superficial consensus. The debates among contemporary theorists such as Gewirth,
Hare, and Weiss also indicate that no real consensus exists. All of these disagree
ments indicate that the golden rule can only have meaning within the larger ethical
context of an entire system of thought. Perhaps one may thus say without
ethnocentrism that the larger ethical and theological context of the Christian version
of the golden rule does indeed make it a unique ethical conception. It is false, that is,
to see this great principle in the fullness of its implications as having surfaced in all
Jesus of Nazareth did have something unique to say. To say this does not prove
that he was right, or that he was the Son of God in some unique sense. It does
suggest that he offered insights which differ from those which have surfaced in other
If this assertion sounds ethnocentric, consider the fact that I am critiquing the
larger part of the Christian tradition, a tradition which is dominant within my own
culture. I am thereby challenging the moral foundations of that entire culture rather
than claiming its superiority.
5-36. The theorist who does not attribute substantive non-retributive content to
the golden rule is, in one respect, like the ethicist who does not predicate his system
on the theistic premises of a non-retributive God: he becomes a retributivist by
The utilitarians represent the most notorious case, of course. The utilitarian "non-
retributive deterrent theory of punishment" is sheer nonsense. All retaliation,
regardless of motive or expected consequences, is retributive in form and tends to be
retributive in consequences. The point of the principle of utility was admittedly to
abjure retribution while still promoting punishment in the name of legal and penal
reform. As long as the practice of punishment was being defended, however, the
evaluative and retributive consequences were often the same.
Thus, by utilitarianism's own consequentialist criterion, whether one's motive is
deterrence or retribution is quite irrelevant if the consequences of one's actions are the
same: retaliation and all of the suffering that that invariably entails. Utilitarianism thus
refutes its own claim of having offered a meaningful alternative to retributive theories
5-37. The motives of the utilitarian punisher are irrelevant. It is as if one were to
say, "We are going to execute you now, but please do not take it personally. This is
not intended as a reflection on your character, but is merely for the sake of deterring
Such is one side to the utilitarian nonsense: perhaps it is the most dangerously
retributive philosophy ever expounded, precisely because it is not aware of its veiled
retributivism. Honest vengeance would perhaps be more wholesome--and quite pos-
sibly less destructive.
5-38. In spite of utilitarianism's "veiled retributivism" under the name of a
deterrence theory of punishment, there is something about the boldness with which
"act utilitarianism" has tried to unify all axioms under one overarching principle of
right which has a certain appeal. In addition to this quest for coherence through value
monism, utilitarian thought constantly redirects attention to the future consequences
of action, rather than being obsessed with past injustices, as on the classical retributive
Yet, utilitarianism cannot quite bring off its grand claims. It wants to redirect
attention to ends or purposes at the same time that its denial of natural and divine law
deprives it of any standard of good besides that of the hedonist. The result is an
ethical theory that has no God, no purpose, and no law except the law of hedonism:
utility qua pleasure becomes the ultimate concern, the ultimate end, and the
summation of moral law for the utilitarian, even as moral law itself is being dispar-
Utilitarianism in practice seems to be reducible to a curious mixture of a Hobbesian
metaphysic of natural conflict combined with the consequentialist non-ethic of
5-39. As has been noted, if one means by the "golden rule" a very strong principle
of unconditional altruism and non-retribution, then that principle can be seen to entail
a number of specific corollaries, among them "return good for evil," "turn the other
cheek," and "give without expecting a return."
Are such corollaries applicable to the realm of what is called "public morality"?
Martin Luther thought not, and his legacy in this regard vitiated much of the moral
force of the Protestant Reformation. The result was a relegation of the non-
retributive teachings of the golden rule to the realm of "private morality." For the
realm of "public morality," the norm of what was called "justice" remained the old
retributive conception: evil was to be requited with evil. On such a bifurcated view,
private individuals could conceivably live according to the stringently selfless
requirements of the golden rule, but the same could not be said for states or other
collectivities, neither in their own self-defense in the arena of international conflict,
nor in the adjudication of legal claims within their own boundaries.
The dualistic view of morality predates Luther, but, in his affirmation of a strong
distinction between public and private morality, he perpetuated a dualism--an ethical
double standard--which still afflicts the entire Protestant tradition. Seen from yet
another point of view, Luther perpetuated the central ethical doctrines of Augustine
and Aquinas. The organizational form of Christianity was changed through the
Protestant Reformation. Its errors based in part on Pauline revisionism and pagan
Greek influences persisted.
5-40. The golden rule, along with its corollaries, is admittedly fraught with
seemingly "practical" difficulties as a principle of "public morality." A society of
perfect altruists could not retaliate against another society, even in self-defense. Nor
could it retaliate against those criminal elements who are simultaneously members and
enemies of the civil order.
It is little wonder, therefore, that political philosophers have not taken the golden
rule very seriously. They have not, perhaps, really understood it. Or perhaps they
have understood it all too well and have simply rejected it out of hand. Perhaps they
have dismissed as totally unworthy of consideration the idea that the golden rule, as
the embodiment of altruistic and non-retributive thinking, could possibly form the
basis of an entire social order: a veritable constitution.
This is the fatal flaw of most of that body of social theory which is called "political
philosophy," that it dismisses as a fundamental premise that which could lead to its
own redemption as a social enterprise. As long as it rejects, in the name of
"practicality" or "Realpolitik" or "public morality," any significant challenge to the
modern state and its legalism, it will continue to stagnate, tending to be primarily a
means of expressing and supporting not the forces of social progress, but of reaction.
The worst of these is war. The next worst is punishment, especially in its
routinized, institutionalized form.
5-41. One must concede to the utilitarians that the quest for a principle of non-
retribution was indeed a worthy quest, even if the principle of utility was not up to the
challenge: it did not itself fully meet the criterion of non-retributivism, much less
suffice to stand as the foundation for a monistic and largely empirical science of
ethics. It certainly did not achieve the goal of being an improvement upon the golden
With all due respect to the utilitarian reformers for their efforts in ridding the
British penal system of some of its most barbaric practices of punishment and torture,
however, a deterrent theory of punishment (with an eye only to future consequences
in lieu of a concern for doling out "just deserts") was never "non-retributive" in any
John Rawls addressed this point indirectly in his early article, "Two Concepts of
Rules," where he made the claim that "once one has decided to have laws, one has
decided upon something which is retributive in form."12
That is, any system of legal practices is bound to employ a variety of devices for
enforcing compliance with its directives, and those who do not comply will feel the
force of retaliation and thus de facto retribution. If Rawls is correct in his observation
about the inherently retributive nature of coercive law, however, then what Joel
Feinberg calls a "nineteenth century debate" between "retributive" and "deterrent"
theories of punishment was indeed only a confusion.
If only Feinberg could see the real basis of that confusion: a belief in the morality
of retribution itself.13
5-42. The practical objections to the golden rule which most often arise are those
which revolve around questions of retaliation and retribution: a failure to retaliate
(whether by the individual or by the state) in the face of external threat might lead to
the most enduring material sacrifices, including the loss of one's life, that of one's
loved one(s), or the destruction of a culture.
Is it possible that refusing to retaliate could be justified solely out of regard for the
welfare and moral growth of the aggressor? I think so: perhaps only by making
seemingly incomprehensible sacrifices can one demonstrate with the greatest sincerity
the depth of one's concern for another--one who perhaps cannot be reached any other
A perfect altruism might require such drastic sacrifices, and it might well be that
only a perfect being could be capable of such sacrifices or know when they are
justified. I do not think so, however, since I think that the requirement to imitate the
Christ does indeed extend so far: if Christ died for the most depraved sinners, and if
he asked his disciples (who were also "loved ones") to do likewise, can we stand
prepared to do otherwise?
My guess is that sending his disciples away to virtually certain death was more
difficult for Jesus than submitting himself to be sacrificed. As he said on more than
one occasion, however, his followers tend to think as man thinks, not as God thinks--
and God would leave the ninety and nine sheep to go in search of the one who was
If the worst criminals and sinners are not lost, then who is? Perhaps we must risk
the welfare of all of society for those who are most desperately in need of our help
and our compassion--not our further abuse.
5-43. In order to be plausible as a requirement of altruism, an injunction against
retaliation or retribution might have to be based upon demonstrable evidence that
one's sacrifice would indeed achieve some great moral end. What might that end be?
Perhaps the answer is that the ultimate and highest end of non-retaliation is the
redemption of the aggressor, regardless of the material or physical cost to oneself or
to those whom one holds dear. If so, then the ultimate objective would have to be the
conversion of the aggressor by the force of one's example. Could one expect such
radical conversion in a given instance? Perhaps the answer is "no," although it is
certainly true that individuals do change, and it is difficult to see how one could
possibly know in a given instance whether one's act of non-retaliation would lead to
such a change or not.
Acts of selfless, forgiving sacrifice can have an impact far beyond the realm of
what might be expected. The lives of Jesus and Socrates demonstrate that fact. It is
possible to commit such an exemplary act of sacrifice that any number of lives might
Yet, even if only one life might possibly be changed spiritually, perhaps one's
physical sacrifice would be required by the divine logic.
5-44. Utilitarian considerations aside, if the moral development of the aggressor--
or of those who witnessed and were influenced by the non-retributive example--were
one's primary concern, then one's reason for offering oneself as an exemplary sacrifice
would be one's respect for the moral autonomy (or potentiality for such autonomy)
of the aggressor: one would obey a categorical imperative of non-retribution for the
sake of the aggressor as an end in himself.
Implicit in this Kantian-sounding argument is a very non-Kantian conclusion: one
opts for an alternative to punishment. The crucial assumption leading to this
conclusion is that sacrificing oneself is a more effective disciplinary (teaching) tool
than punishment: altruistic action speaks louder as a moral teacher than does egoistic
retaliation in the name of self-defense.
Since the practical consequences might be both the moral development of the
aggressor and whatever practical benefits might befall society as a result of such
development and sensitivity, it would appear that both consequentialist and univer-
salist arguments could be used in favor of non-retaliation, and that the use of both
together would make a stronger case than either alone.
5-45. Even if one were to accept the argument that one should be prepared to
sacrifice oneself for the sake of some apparently "unworthy" person, the question
naturally arises as to whether or not it is right or reasonable to call for others to make
a comparable sacrifice.
This challenge has the most force in those instances in which one's failure to act is
concrete and personal--such as a decision not to use force to drive away someone
attempting to kidnap one's own child. Would anyone call for total inaction in such an
instance in the name of "pacifism," the golden rule, or any other ideal? I dare say that
the answer is "no": total inaction would not be "pacifistic," but merely "passive."
Barring total inaction, however, what types of action are consistent with the golden
rule in such hard cases? I believe that it is fair to say that even a pacifist could justify
putting himself between the aggressor and the intended victim. Yet, would doing so
stop the aggressor, especially if the aggressor were armed and the pacifist did not
avail himself of the use of force? Is it possible that the pacifist could justify some kind
of non-punitive restraint or violence, without violating the golden rule as defined?
I could opt out at this point by saying that perhaps it is safer to look at the golden
rule as being a limiting non-retributive ideal rather than an absolute. This might even
be the best that one could do by way of deciding upon the efficacy of non-retribution
in hard cases, but one feels the need to affirm one's principles as more than "limiting
As for alternatives to violence or force in hard cases, the remarkable thing in most
instances is how seldom persons search about for pacifistic solutions. In a given
instance, we probably have verbal resources and alternative solutions which we have
scarcely tapped because we so seldom look for them. It is at least conceivable that
there is always a peaceful solution to the problem of aggression were we but wise
enough to find it--but that would presuppose that we were patient and faithful enough
to keep looking for it.
5-46. What does one do in the hardest of hard cases? Does one merely say that
one should use "violence only as a last resort," or that one should use "the least
violence necessary" to achieve one's desired ends? Are not such platitudes merely
invitations to hold violence always in reserve, as a potential repertoire permanently
at one's ultimate disposal? If that is one's "policy," in what sense is it significantly
different from the state's policy of deploying armies and police forces--usually in
reserve, of course, but with a disposition to use violence if the situation seems to
Such is the problem with saying that pacifism is a "limiting ideal" rather than a
categorical absolute: one winds up using one's energy preparing for the contingencies
of retaliation and reciprocated violence, if non-violence fails.
Such is not the way of peace, but of preparedness for war.
5-47. Short of being disposed to use violence as a "last resort," what can we as
peaceful persons do?
If we are truly to "disarm" ourselves, I think that we must begin in the realm of
ideas and plans or repertoires of proposed action. We must, that is, be constantly
looking for alternatives to violence rather than preparing contingency plans for the use
of violence. If we spend our time preparing such contingency plans, we shall surely
use them sooner or later, whether there are other alternatives or not--in much the
same way that armies are always used sooner or later, even if the rationale is usually
to build and deploy them so that they will never be used.
5-48. In general, I believe that, if we are truly committed to peace, God will
indeed find a way for us to follow his example, even in those circumstances where we
do not see in advance an obviously practicable alternative to violence or threat. This
faith in God is of the utmost significance in trying to defend pacifism within an overtly
Christian framework: one must have some faith that the injunction issued by the Christ
to Peter to "Follow me!" was meant to be taken seriously and was not the mere use
of rhetoric for dramatic effect.
A complete and abiding faith in the Prince of Peace ought to be finally manifested
as some settled disposition to act and think in ways different from those who have not
heard or heeded his message.
5-49. A viable ethic prepares us for the actual world, not the fantasy world of
"hypothetical situations." The real world, created and overseen by God, does not
perhaps offer us the inflexible hard cases with which professional philosophers are so
intrigued. Similarities with real cases there may be, but the nature of such "hypotheti
cal situations" is that they give us no moral "out."
Such are the creations of humankind. God can surely do--has done--better. It is
entirely possible, however, that the only divine way out of many bitter ethical
dilemmas is through our own sacrifice.
5-50. In "Two Concepts of Rules," John Rawls argued that he could see the force
of both deontological retributive arguments and teleological non-retributive
("consequentialist," "utilitarian") arguments.14 The result was a kind of rule utilitarian
rationale which ostensibly tried to reconcile and account for the force of both deontic
and consequentialist-teleological arguments. Although Rawls went on to a more
explicitly Kantian rationale in A Theory of Justice, his early attempts to resolve the
dilemma within a broadly rule utilitarian framework still have much force.
By the time Rawls wrote A Theory of Justice, he seems to have given up on
integrating consequentialist arguments into a basically deontological framework. A
Theory of Justice thus represents not a grand synthesis of deontic and teleological
theories, but the giving up on a battle which consumed him in his earlier writings.
Rawls' early goal of aspiring to resolve the teleological-deontological dilemma still has
much appeal, and one cannot but think that the dilemma still hamstrings modern
ethical theory, preventing it from realizing its full potential of giving adequate
expression to a variety of intuitive insights from both traditions. One has the feeling
that the dilemma can only be resolved (if it can be resolved at all) if it is treated in the
context of strong substantive arguments which go to the heart of ethical theory.
Unfortunately, Rawls' tendency to argue from weak premises has given us more
proceduralism and more legalism: such is the Kantian legacy.
5-51. What are the final implications of the doctrine of the infinite worth of the
individual? One implication is that the recalcitrant individual who resists the efforts
of God and man is presumed to have only a theoretical possibility of remaining indefi-
nitely excluded (by his or her own choice) from divine grace.
The infinite power and majesty of God can surely outwait any mere human's
recalcitrance: it is virtually inconceivable that any person could resist God's will
indefinitely, eternally. Even those who deliberately act wrongly find the Providential
hand of God intervening over and over again, and they cannot help but learn, even in
the worst of lives. God, who knows all and sees all, would not create the individual
known in advance to be doomed for infinite or eternal damnation. God does not
create any person so that that person can be sacrificed merely as an example for the
righteous: God who created every person as a lamb of infinite worth is not a utilitarian
who would consign even one person to torment forever so that others might be saved.
Caiaphas, the high priest who consigned Jesus to his death, gave a similar kind of
argument as his excuse.
God is a God, however, who was prepared to become a sacrificial lamb as the only
way to demonstrate the depth of divine grace, for the sake of all others. What he
would not do with other individuals for the sake of the whole he would do with
himself in human form, if by such a sacrifice he could make the divine Logos manifest,
comprehensible to humans of finite intelligence.
In so doing, he exemplified the highest expression of the golden rule: he was
willing to sacrifice that which was infinitely worthy for the sake of those who were
most unworthy in their present condition--but of infinite worth nonetheless. He re-
turned infinite good in the face of the most evil treatment imaginable. He invites us
to follow in his footsteps in our own trials, because he knows that we, created in his
image, will also find spiritual gain more fulfilling than any physical or social
Can any Kantian or utilitarian explain the mind of God?