Some Reflections On Asymmetry And The Golden Rule

It is easy to pay lip service to either the golden or the silver rule. The golden rule, most famously, says that we should do unto others as we would have others do unto us. The silver rule, nearly as universal, states that we should not do unto others what we would not wish for others to do to us. In both cases, the rules posit a sense of symmetry in our dealings as being consonant with being moral and decent and good. The rules are based on a recognition of mutuality and equality, and our following these rules, to the best of our abilities, means treating others as beings like ourselves, whatever our differences. Abraham Lincoln’s quotes on such matters as slavery reflected this sort of symmetrical focus, as when he said, “As I would not be a slave, so I would not be a master.” Those who resent the tyrannical authority of others have a moral obligation to avoid becoming tyrants, as it also involves becoming a hypocrite. Our knowledge of our own sensitivities and our desire to have other people respect our sensitivities would then naturally lead us to respect the sensitivities of others as we become aware of them. This is symmetrical behavior and it is nearly universally recognized as being the right kind of behavior by any moral system one will find in existence that we would recognize and respect.

Yet this is not how we generally behave as human beings. If we pay lip service to either the golden or silver rules (or both) in our professions of faith and our statements of belief, it is very rare when we actually find others and ourselves obedient to these principles in our lives. Over and over again, as a moral philosopher of sorts, I find that our approach in life tends to be highly asymmetrical, and that we have certain assymetrical elements built into our fallen human nature. Our awareness of our interior lives and our lack of awareness of the interior lives of others is one such example of this asymmetry. Our desire to take credit and avoid blame is another aspect of this fundamental asymmetry. Our desire to lord it over others while resenting and resisting and rebelling against authority over us is similarly an asymmetrical aspect of our fallen nature. Our desire for justice for others and mercy for ourselves is another asymmetry. And this does not by any means exhaust the asymmetries that we find in the world. Indeed, it would be no exaggeration to say that many, if not most, of the problems that we have in society have at their basis some sort of asymmetry between what we demand for ourselves and what we allow to others. The natural selfishness and self-absorbed aspects of humanity create conflicts because we are not only selfish beings ourselves but we are dealing with other selfish beings whose bias is just as warped for their own interests as ours is for our own.

It should go without saying that no one is immune to these tendencies. The hypocrisy of the Founding Fathers of the United States was so notable that it was recognized at the time, when Samuel Johnson wondered how it was that those who cried out the most vehemently about freedom should themselves be the drivers of slaves. It is certainly no less notable now when we reflect on the fact that those who sought political power for themselves have often been tone deaf to the demands of “justice” by others. Nor is it any surprise in our own age that those who are the most vociferous about the unearned privilege of others are the most ignorant and unreflective of their own privilege, or that those who are the most solicitous about their own freedom are often the most casual about denying it and rejecting it for others. And it is absolutely no surprise that we live in an age where our leaders are routinely so morally corrupt that they think nothing about writing rules and regulations that do not apply to themselves, so that in times of pandemic fears they shut down businesses at a whim and deny access to gyms and salons for others while enjoying those same things themselves, without thinking themselves to be wicked and self-serving double-faced hypocrites for so doing. The capacity for mankind to blind itself to its own shortcomings while being unsympathetic to the failings of others is seemingly limitless, if our own times are any indication.

What is required that we be moral and decent people who at least somewhat live up to our professions of being just people to treat others with equity? A large part of what is required is a moral imagination to at least seek to plumb the depths of other people and concede in our dealings that even if we are not able to see it ourselves, that other people have as rich and as deep an interior life as we do. If this is not easy to do it is important to do, because to the extent that we treat others as if they have a rich interior life, as if their dignity and honor are important to them, as if their story is worth hearing over and over and over again the same way we tell ours over and over and over again, and that their perspective and point of view matter even where we may differ with it, we create the space by which our own like demands can be respected. Now, it may very well be that we may be people who treat others with respect and consideration but they happen to be selfish and not observant and not responsive to treating us in like fashion. After all, being people who are decent and mutual in nature is by no means an insurance that others will respond in kind. That said, we will not be judged for the failures of others. They will be judged for themselves. We are judged for our own failures, and that is enough.

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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