There are two approaches we are offered from antiquity, one of which we are all familiar with and one that is less familiar although not completely unknown. The more common is the “Golden Rule”: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. The less well known but still famous is the “Silver Rule”: Do not do unto others as you would not have them do unto you. I believe it is instructive to examine both of these approaches to see how they differ, and how they can guide us in life and in law.
The Golden Rule is what I think of as affirmative guidance. It tells us what we should do. It doesn’t restrict or circumscribe our actions away from things so much as guide us toward things. While this seems good on the surface, I’m always leery of things that look good (too many “candy from strangers” commercials as a kid, I guess). The first caution I would bring to the table is that maybe what I like isn’t what someone else likes. Just because I want you to do it to me, how do I know that’s what you want done to you? I’m not talking anything sick or extreme here, but there’s a lot of human activity that falls in the grey areas between “obviously wrong” and “of course I’d be okay with that”. If you don’t believe me, swing on by house next week. It’s almost time for my annual mohawk, and my wife is going to be out of town; I’ll do your hair first, then you can do mine. It’s the Golden Rule, after all.
Standing in opposition to this is the admonition to not do unto others. While this doesn’t lift nearly as much weight from a moralistic perspective, it does just as much work from another perspective: that of circumscribing negative behavior. Again, if there is objectionable behavior someone would actively enjoy, there’s nothing in this rule that would stop them from doing it to someone else, but then the Golden Rule practically requires them to go out and do it. At least this rule just amounts to “keep your hands to yourself”.
That leads into the other aspect of where I think these two subtly different moral guidelines have major differences in their implications. Many people, some among them being either moralists or lawmakers (and even moralistic lawmakers) like to cite the Golden Rule when debating the merits of different laws. Why? Is there something inherent to the Golden Rule that makes it a superior basis for a legal system? Citing something like Hammurabi’s Code I could at least understand (not that I think that’s a good source mind you), or the Magna Carta. But instead they refer to “the Golden Rule”. Aside from its qualities as a common point of cultural reference, what else does it offer in terms of jurisprudence?
Consider my point from above: the Golden Rule is affirmative. It does not circumscribe behavior as much as compel it. All laws are compulsory by nature, in that they compel us to act a certain way or refrain from acting in a certain way for fear of punishment (if we would have behaved properly without the law then we either don’t need it or can safely ignore it). So laws that are made with the Golden Rule in mind are looking to compel people to take a good action, to “do unto others”. They are not designed from the perspective of refraining from negative action, that of “do not do unto others”.
The essential question then is, what sort of government do we want to live under? What sort of system do we want to have? Do we want a system that determines in advance what actions we should take, and uses the threat of force to compel us to take actions for the benefit of others? I’m pretty sure that’s been tried, and it never seems to work out very well. The alternative is a system that writes laws carefully, narrowly tailored to circumscribe intolerable behavior but otherwise leave open the grey area of noxious but tolerable behavior. It’s perhaps not as pretty in theory, but works much better for a diverse plurality than reaching for fool’s gold.