Philosophy, Religion

What my mother taught me: thoughts on the ‘golden rule’ of morality

Today my mother, Carol Kay, would have turned 55. It is now nearly five months since she died. This article is based on a thought I gave over at a small gathering back in January to mark my mother’s ‘shloshim’, in Jewish tradition the end of the first 30 days after her funeral. For more on Jewish mourning customs, please see the first article I wrote on this blog on the mechanisms of mourning. To mark her birthday now, I wanted to polish this piece a little and put it up here. I feel this is important because it says a lot about my mother’s character, and I hope, about her legacy.

To illustrate something which I have tried to take from my mother’s example, I want to start with an often-quoted verse from the Torah: “You shall not take vengeance, nor bear any grudge against the children of your people, but you shall love your neighbour as yourself: I am the Lord” (Leviticus 19:18). Part of this verse, “you shall love your neighbour as yourself”, was said by Rabbi Akiva, a famous Talmudic sage of the first century CE, to be the major principle of the Torah (Jerusalem Talmud, Nedarim, 30b). He also told one student, who asked to be taught the entire Torah “all at once”, that the major principle was: “Whatever you hate to have done to you, do not do it to your fellow. If you want no person to harm you or what is yours, do not harm him. If you want no person to take what is yours, do not take what is your fellow’s” (Avot de-Rabbi Natan, version B, ch. 26, pg. 53). This is very similar to the statement of Hillel, a first century BCE Talmudic sage, when placed in a similar situation by a gentile man. Hillel said: “What is hateful to you, do not to your neighbour: that is the whole Torah, while the rest is the commentary thereof; go and learn it” (Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat, 31a).

These pronouncements regarding the ‘major principle’ of the Torah are Jewish formulations of what is often called the ‘Golden Rule’, a moral principle which can be found in the teachings of most religions and cultures around the world. At the heart of all of them is the need to consider others’ feelings before speaking or acting, precisely because you would appreciate them extending you the same courtesy. The examples above can be seen as two different ways of expressing this one same idea: Akiva’s first formulation, from the Torah verse, is ‘positive’, focusing on what ought to be done to the other person; Akiva’s second, and Hillel’s only, formulation, is ‘negative’, focusing on what ought not to be done.

However, I believe we should not see these as two formulations of the same thing, one positive and one negative: rather, both formulations carry different nuances. The negative formulation gives us practical advice, and focuses on actions, which are easily understood. Indeed, a hundred years after Hillel we can see that Akiva went further in providing examples of morally reprehensible actions, for example warning against causing harm or stealing. But the problem for the negative formulation, it has been argued, is that it doesn’t give us any incentive to do positive acts for another person. Consider two hypothetical people, Rebecca and Simon; if Rebecca was adhering to this negative formulation of the Golden Rule alone, she surely wouldn’t hurt Simon, but she would also not go out of her way to help him unless it would benefit her in some way as well, such as by encouraging Simon to treat her well in return.

By contrast, the positive formulation is more abstract. It is not clear, for example, exactly what it means to ‘love’ one’s fellow. Nevertheless, the method (the ‘how’) and the rationale (the ‘why’) can be inferred from the text, “love your neighbour as yourself: I am the Lord”. The words “as yourself” tell us first of all that we are required to love ourselves, as opposed to adopting a nihilistic, pessimist’s approach to our own existence, and then tell us how we should act towards our neighbours. We must think of others as also deserving in their own right those things which we would like for ourselves. The statement: “I am the Lord” then gives us the objective reason why we must love ourselves and our neighbours: to do otherwise would be to insult God, because we are all created in His image, and are thus deserving of being treated with dignity, out of respect for the Creator.

Without this underlying, fundamental point taken from the more abstract positive formulation of the Golden Rule, the negative formulation is merely prescribing actions to perform, and not guiding our intentions; it is appealing to self-interest, rather than altruism. The danger of the negative formulation, based essentially on the subjective expectations and desires of the individual, is that if Simon believes Rebecca does not like him, he might be quite happy to mistreat her. Thus he would still be doing to her as he would expect her to do to him. The positive formulation, on the other hand, provides an objective justification which lies outside of either individual. Whatever Simon might think of Rebecca or vice versa, each knows that both are made in the image of God, and should be treated appropriately. This should hold even when Simon believes Rebecca to harbour bad feelings against him. So, the negative formulation of the Golden Rule comprises a practical but inherently subjective morality, whereas the positive formulation represents an abstract but objective morality. The negative focuses on human hopes and fears; the positive directs us to God.

There is, however, a little more to this; in the Jerusalem Talmud, immediately after Akiva is quoted as saying that “love your neighbour as yourself” is the major principle of the Torah, another sage, Ben Azzai, is quoted as disagreeing with him, proposing instead that the most important principle is “This is the book of the generations of Man” (Genesis, 5:1). I believe the difference here is important: Ben Azzai was taking Akiva’s point and expanding it. The context of all previous formulations was the imbuing of correct attitudes towards fellow Jews. Ben Azzai, however, was going back to the beginning of human life to note that the Torah emphasises how all people were created by God. And so this reciprocal ethical principle – the love we must have for others as a mark of respect and acknowledgement to the Creator, who made all individuals in His image – must be extended, and applied, to all individuals. The British Chief Rabbi, Lord Sacks, often emphasises in his writings the need to afford dignity to all people by virtue of their being created in the divine image, for example in his 2002 book The Dignity of Difference.

My mother recognised this dignity, and I will always remember that her basic approach to interactions with others – and especially to tension or conflict – was to attempt to understand the other, and in this way to afford them the dignity they deserved. We have seen that the Torah formulation, loving your neighbour, could be seen as a little abstract, the Rabbinic formulation less so in its focus on actions. My mother taught, and showed, how this could be put into practice on a day-to-day level; she always tried to see another’s point of view, even if it disagreed with her own, not just in order to understand it, but in order to accept it as their opinion. Of course she didn’t need to agree. But in accepting that the other person held their own view for a reason, which seemed valid to them, my mother was not quick to judge, and she was never hasty to condemn.

When I look at debates going on about all sorts of issues today, especially focusing on religion, I can see that this approach is missing. If I read an online newspaper article that concerns a religious topic, I know what I will see in the comments section. Take, for example, this article on the Guardian website about the concerns of British Muslim women who are having trouble finding a husband nowadays. Several comments on this article helpfully suggested the abandoning of religious faith, which was clearly getting in the way of living a nice, normal life. One referred to religions in general as “hobbies”, and another as “bronze age myths”, seemingly without a thought to the fact that these beliefs and ideals form a fundamental part of people’s identities. On the Daily Mail I was unfortunately not surprised to find similarly bigoted remarks on an article about automatic traffic lights which had been installed near a major London synagogue so that orthodox Jews could cross the road more easily on the Sabbath. Not only did they demonstrate a lack of understanding, which is not in itself problematic, but they demonstrated a lack of any desire to understand the issues on which they were happy to pass negative judgement.

The attitudes of indifference and contempt held by some atheists and humanists towards religion and the religious also indicate a complete unwillingness to understand the different, but equally valid, point of view held by another person or group. On the other side of the argument, an article on the Telegraph website was so keen to attack the famous ‘militant secularist’ Richard Dawkins over some trivially minor slip up on a radio interview that the argument didn’t even make sense. The article even started on a distinctly unpleasant and wholly unnecessary note with a backhanded compliment about the man, a reverend, who had been speaking with Dawkins at the time, as if the author was loathe to speak positively about him. Comments underneath the piece brought out more theists who were unwilling simply to leave atheists alone to believe what they wanted.

These are all examples of people who are unwilling to accept that someone else’s viewpoint makes sense to them. I feel this unwillingness to at least attempt to understand opposing positions, and thus to afford to the individuals involved the requisite dignity which they deserve, is linked to our discussion of the Golden Rule. Those who assume that the two formulations, the ‘positive’ and the ‘negative’ are essentially the same thing expressed differently lose either the subjective or the objective part of the moral perspective. In this case it is most likely that they adhere to the subjective understanding, as typified in the negative formulation: Simon need only respect Rebecca if he believes firstly that she does not dislike him, and secondly that respecting her will benefit him. The truth is that both formulations of the rule rely on each other in order to provide a complete picture. I believe my mother recognised, understood, and internalised these values, and that was how she saw the world.

My mother always supported the RNLI in their efforts to save lives at sea.

I want to conclude with an example of how my mother put these values into practice. She made a point of giving to, and helping out with, several charities, and one which was particularly close to her heart was the RNLI, the Royal National Lifeboat Institution. After she passed away, I flicked through an issue of the charity’s magazine, which was delivered to our house, and I began to understand why she had been so keen to support this specific cause. Put very simply, the RNLI saves lives. The crews of their lifeboats go out in all weather conditions, risking their own lives – and I feel there aren’t so many charities whose employees actually put their own lives in danger for others – and even if they don’t carry out high profile operations, or save lots of people at a time, or even if they don’t have to rescue many people at all, what they do makes all the difference in the world for one person and their family. And they do need a lot of money for the work that they do; the facilities and equipment which they need to do their jobs are costly. But my mother thought this was worth it, if you could save a life. Because she afforded dignity to everyone.

My mother led by example, not necessarily expecting others to do as she did, and not expecting recognition or praise, but doing what she did all the same, because she knew it was the right thing to do, and that was sufficient reason, and sufficient reward for her. In her family life, in the work she did for the community, and in the way she engaged with the messy matters of the wider world, she went about what needed to be done without a fuss. And I pray this is how I can live my own life, applying her wisdom to every situation, and in that way, carry her with me.


Mr. Faraday turns the tables: a Victorian experiment into ‘spiritual’ phenomena



4 thoughts on “What my mother taught me: thoughts on the ‘golden rule’ of morality

  1. Lovely piece Michael.

    You have many aspects of your mother’s personality in your caring about the world around you and striving to get close to H” through your love of people and bringing them closer to H”.

    Arichut yamim

    Posted by אבי ג'י | 21 May, 2012, 2:49 pm
  2. Interesting article, I agreed with most of it.

    I think part of the disagreements over religion come from different epistemology at the base of the differences. In short, reason alone will not change the either person’s mind because the basic assumptions are different.

    (My own views on religion can be found in the writings link on my webpage.)

    Posted by Joshua Cogliati | 22 May, 2012, 1:27 pm
    • Hey, thanks for reading, glad you enjoyed it. I agree that there does normally exist something fundamental which prevents complete harmony of beliefs; I call these the ‘a-rational premises’, namely the key beliefs which are held without the belief in them being either rational or irrational. Rather they are not testable or provable within the framework or rationality, but are simply held for one reason or another (think, for example, of Hume’s inductive fallacy). I think this is essentially the same as what you are saying, although I’m not entirely sure that this is specifically a difference in epistemology.

      Thanks again, I shall have a look at your own views soon..

      Posted by Michael Kay | 22 May, 2012, 1:37 pm

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