Tuesday, 26 July 2011

Spooky words

The Good Samaritan - from Wikipedia

Do as you would have others do.

For me, there is something spooky about this sentence. Sometimes known as the Golden Rule, it seems strangely logical, saying so much in so few words. There are variants, such as do as you would be done by, some with slightly different meanings but with similar moral force. So is the Golden Rule a rule or a law? Is it a simple ethical law for an ambiguous world, or something more? And what is an ethical law? Is it a religious law, a secular law, a cultural norm or merely a social convention? Or is it just a proverb?

Well if only to further the art of speculation, let us suppose the Golden Rule is a natural law expressing the logic of social cohesion, the logic of justice, charity and tolerance - a concise law of socially cohesive behaviour for non-autocratic societies. In that case, the Golden Rule would not be morally optional, but would simply be a law of consequences.

It implies, in the form of a moral dictum:-
a) the socially cohesive consequences of following it
b) the socially divisive consequences of not following it.  

Maybe it is even possible to write it in the form of an pseudo equation.
Ethical is where my behaviour towards you = your behaviour towards me
Unethical is where my behaviour towards you ≠ your behaviour towards me

Is this a strange pair of equations? Do they express the Golden Rule as a kind of logical equivalence? For a number of reasons many people may not be comfortable with such an idea. Ethical and moral language still seems to belong in those fluffy realms of feel-good opinions, sentimental shelters for anyone who cannot rely wholly on the rule of natural law.

But what if the Golden Rule is just as much a universal law as the first law of thermodynamics. What if it is a hint that the universe described by science is not quite on the right track, too materialistic or too reductionist perhaps. Suppose the whole really can be greater than the sum of its parts. How would that work?

As we are speculating, let us suppose there are socially complex alien beings on another planet many light-years from Earth, beings as complex as we are. Let's also suppose these alien beings interact socially for the same reason that we interact socially - because it improves their chances of survival. Won’t the Golden Rule apply to them too, if they have non-autocratic societies? Is there any way it could not apply to them? Is there something strange about this possibility, something we can't reduce to genetics without going too far, losing the whole while pursuing the sum of its parts? Is there something we haven't considered properly?

Has an essentially moral aspect to the physical universe been elbowed out of the way by the materialistic physics of Isaac Newton? I don't know, but it is surely an interesting possibility. If the Golden Rule does express a universal logic of social cohesion, then there are obvious and important implications beyond personal morality. It means there is an iron logic to fairness which cannot ever be violated without undesirable consequences.


James Higham said...

The wording I've always known was "do unto others as you would have them do unto you". That's considerably different.

A K Haart said...

JH - it is but I didn't want to explore the differences, but rather the idea of ethical logic.

Mark Wadsworth said...

It's a good rule, see also "What goes around, comes around".

A K Haart said...

MW - do you mean arguments against LVT?