The Golden Rule, T.M. Scanlon, and a Rational Basis for How to Be Good


The Golden Rule has, alas, become a cliche in human society. But it truly is Golden in its nature, and in its applicability. I think this is so in the way that it harmonizes with what I’ve come to realize is a truly ingenious rational basis for a sound Moral Philosophy: T. M. Scanlon’s concept of “What We Owe to Each Other.”

Think of it. Whoever you are, at whatever stage in your life, when you are dealing with another person, or with society as a whole, think of yourself, how you are acting, what you are doing, et cetera. Now think of the other person or persons to whom you are doing it, toward which you are acting in a certain way, et cetera. Now imagine – using your knowledge of how you feel under different circumstances – how you would feel if you were that other person, or one of those other persons, and if that person – which you are imagining to be you – were to be experiencing or witnessing what you are doing or how you are acting right now.

This is a challenging exercise for someone being selfish or destructive, or deliberately stubborn, or disproportionately immature. Someone we might call a “brat” would have tremendous trouble putting themselves in the other person’s shoes. It might seem impossible in the heat of the moment.

Maybe a good first step would be to have a little reminder pop up in our minds that when we cannot imagine how the other person or people might react to us, or when we do not want to try, that might be an indication that we are acting immorally.

Moral action seems to benefit greatly from the application of The Golden Rule – Do unto others as you would have others do unto you – or from the consideration of What We Owe to Each Other. Beyond thoughts of “being good,” or following a civilized tradition, or pleasing a Divine being, or avoiding sin in some way, the Golden Rule and swapping places, imaginatively, with the other person gives us a basis for reasoning ourselves – if we can get ourselves to the point of doing so – out of immoral attitudes and thus immoral actions … by helping us to determine which attitudes and actions are in fact immoral.

Mind you, someone whose philosophy is something more like Objectivism would have other arguments, equally reasoned and arguably valid, for ignoring or at least giving less consideration to or worry about what other people think or want. A rational approach from such a position might indeed be more profitable, and we all have our own needs and desires to satisfy with our own skills, talent, and initiative. But a truly rational basis for walking in the other person’s shoes and for thinking always about our connections to our fellow human beings, with the possibility of a sound Moral Philosophy based thereon, does, I think, exist, and it is a validation of why I admire such an unselfish path.

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