It's an old, weak, and mildly blasphemous joke that "Do unto others as you'd have others do unto you" is bad advice for a literal-minded masochist. More seriously, one should balance this Golden Rule with the negative formulation —"That which hateful in your sight do not do to another" — and the trickier rule, "Do unto others as they'd be done by."
What you like is not necessarily what I like; the way I want to be
treated is not necessarily the way most people want to be treated.
For sure, the way I want to be treated differs in some important ways
from what seems to be the way most Americans want to be treated.
Take risks, for a primary example.
I am highly "risk-adverse," as the new jargon has it, and I'm
conservative in handling money and in taking care of my health and not
taking chances. Indeed, such aversion may be a weakness in my character.
Still, I can do arithmetic, and I have my values; and, among other
things, I highly value my time and convenience. Indeed, indeed, quite
possibly I value my time and convenience to a degree that's makes for a
flaw in my character (God knows my mother thought so).
So I'll accept the argument that a number of people, especially people
of the corporate variety — hey, the Supreme Court has said so — aren't
always just covering their asses but sometimes really do want
to give unto me the protection that they want for themselves and their
Even when I don't want that protection. Even when I'm in the minority but far from alone in that attitude.
The US Transportation Security Administration is an obvious case in
point here, although I really should save it for last since this is the
example most likely to piss readers off.
What the hell.
It would be a very bad thing for the United States to have another
disaster such as the al-Qaeda attacks on New York City and Washington of
11 September 2001. It would be less awful but still a very a bad thing
to have an airplane crash into a city neighborhood. To have an airplane
blow up in the sky with just the crew and passengers killed, though —
that's a horrible thing for those on board and their families and
friends, but no immediate threat to the American Republic nor an
intolerable loss to American society.
As a method of transportation goes, air travel is very safe; riding in a
car is far more dangerous (to say nothing of widely-accepted risks like
obesity or smoking cigarettes). As risks of death go on Planet Earth,
even in 2001, terrorism was and remains way down the list.
I'd like a "Do the Arithmetic" line at the airport for people willing
to show I.D., go through a metal detector set to detect guns, and get on
a plane that's equipped (as they now are) with a heavy, lockable door
on a cockpit: a cockpit itself equipped with a couple or three plastic
urinal bottles for the cockpit crew. Oh, yeah — and part of the safety
briefing includes, "Passengers should note that the rules have changed,
and if someone tries to hijack the plane, fight them. If all of us can't
overcome a few of them, the healthy adults among us deserve to die."
Far less sensational, I want my sensitive information protected on the
internet, but I bloody well want to get at it, especially when it really
isn't all that sensitive. For example, my LoseIt account for a dieting
program is so well protected on line that it's easier for me to access
it with an iPhone than with an iMac. Are there really people out there
trying to get my weight and exercise schedule? Are there people who will
try to blackmail us fatties with our weird eating habits? Hell, the
local newspaper used to publish my annual income — I worked for the
State of Ohio — so I think I can stand it if someone learns my caloric
There can even be problems when people try to be sensitive to others' feelings.
A downright saintly veterinarian came to his office in the middle of
the night to take care of my injured cat, who'd probably been hit and
dragged by a car. He tried to explain to me in euphemism what my options
were, and I had to translate that into, "You want to know how much I'm
willing to spend to save the cat rather than kill him?" He said that
that was what he meant, and I named a figure, and he said he thought he
could do that — and he went on to save the cat's life.
The vet did unto me as he'd be done by, I suspect, and as most of his
human clients wanted, but he ended up causing me additional pain when I
had to do that translation.
I'm from a family where we give bad news directly, and for me anyway, that's the kindest way to deliver bad news.
So there are problems here.
I'm sure the governor of the State of New York did what most New
Yorkers wanted when he put the National Guard into New York State's
airports when planes flew again in the fall of 2001. For me, though,
seeing youngsters in uniforms with M-16s in the Buffalo airport didn't
increase a sense of security. It reminded me of an airport in Costa Rica
in the 1980s and from there the "Troubles" in Chicago in 1968 and
college campuses in 1970.
If I had thought those weapons were loaded, I'd have felt even less secure.
Well, there are problems with doing unto others, and the problems
aren't exactly solvable. So I'll pass along this much advice and (for a
bit) shut up. There's much to be said for Immanuel Kant's "Categorical Imperative"
as a Golden Rule I'll paraphrase: act in ways that you can wish the
principle of your action could become a rule for everyone. Or, for a
less abstract rule, there's the Prophet Micah's paradoxical but useful
injunction to "Do justly; love mercy; and walk humbly with your God" (6.8-9).
(Why paradoxical? Because there's the ancient and useful idea that
justice is giving people what they deserve, while mercy has us treating
people better than they deserve — and humility implies we shouldn't be
judging at all. See Shakespeare's Measure for Measure, esp. 2.2 and 5.1.435-70.
Especially important is the walking humbly part of Micah's injunction,
including knowing that, whether or not there is God or gods, we humans
can have only a partial view. That is, we humans can see the world only
partially, and we're partial to our own vision of things and
our feelings about those things. Egocentrism is part of the human
condition — I look around, and the world revolves around ME — but egocentrism in a grownup is silly. Humanity isn't the center of the universe and "Man is" emphatically not "the measure of all things." Much more so, I am not the measure of all things, nor can I assume that what I want or the people I know want is what everyone wants.
So do unto others as you'd be done by, but very, very carefully. They
may want something else. Even if you're trying to protect them, to be
kind to them, that might not be what they want or need.