In this blog I make heavy use of the concept of “Do unto others….”
For example, to show the immoral nature of the legislation that Bush is obtaining (and getting) from the Republican-led Congress, I ask the reader to. “Think about being pulled from your home, thrown in a prison where you are not allowed to speak to anybody but your interrogator, where you are tortured and abused by people who claim to know that you are involved in some criminal organization, forced to name your accomplices, eventually succumb by naming people that you know, at which point you are released and the people you have named have now ‘disappeared.’ I ask the reader whether he thinks this would be just or unjust treatment. Then I tell the reader to apply the principle, “Do unto others…”
Or, to show the immoral nature of the Christian Supremacy Act, I ask the reader to imagine a case in which he was out on the road with his family when a drunk driver strikes his car. However, he lives in a society where no action is to be taken against any drunk driver unless the victim first provides the District Attorney’s office a sum of money considered sufficient to cover the DA office’s costs for prosecuting the case. Again, I ask the reader to consider whether he would ask others to vote for such a law, then ask the reader to apply the principle, “Do unto others…”
These are just two of the recent examples.
“Do Unto Others…” as a Moral Principle
The question then comes up, as an atheist, how do I justify using this principle of “Do unto others?”
The first question to address is: Am I not borrowing my morality from Christianity?
The answer is: No.
The Bible says that rain falls from the sky. It hardly follows that, as an atheist who believes that the Bible is fiction, I must deny that rain falls from the sky. Even the most fantastic fiction describes a world that has things in common with the real world in which we live. “Rain falls from the sky,” is something that even a primitive fiction writer who is fundamentally ignorant of the laws of physics and the principles of climate change can get right.
“Do unto others…” is another one of those basic principles that even an ancient fiction writer can get write and include in his stories.
The fact is, I do not need to believe in God to know the value of “Do unto others….”, any more than I need to believe in God to know that rain falls from the sky.
Problems with “Do Unto Others…”
The first thing to note about “Do unto others…” is that it is not an absolute moral principle. It is, instead, a rule of thumb – a guideline that will have most people see the right answer to a moral question under normal circumstances most of the time.
Here are some examples where the rule does not work.
(1) Susan is suicidal. She just wishes that somebody would shoot her and put her out of her misery. The principle of “Do unto others…” says that she could permissibly go around shooting others, since she would not mind if somebody else shot her.
(2) Jack’s sister Jill is claustrophobic. When playing around the house, Jack does not at all mind being forced into a dark and confined place – like a closet – and locked in. However, Jill goes into a state of total panic in this type of situation. “Do unto others…” says that Jack, while playing around the house with Jill, can go ahead and lock Jill in the closet. He would not mind this happening to him, so he may do this to Jill.
Of course, we can get around this situation by modifying this somewhat by saying, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you if you were them and they were you.” Or, more precisely, “Do unto others as they want you to do unto them.”
This runs into problems as well.
I want everybody to give me their entire paycheck for the month of November. Does this mean that all of you have an obligation to send me your paycheck? This is, after all, is one of the things that I would have you do.
If you do think that you have an obligation to send me your paycheck for the month of November, I will not argue you out of this. Send me an email and we will make arrangements. However, I have this funny feeling that the only paycheck I will be depositing in November is my own.
This illustrates the second problem with “Do unto others…” It is ambiguous, lending itself to a huge number of different interpretations, each leading to a different suggestion regarding what one should do. As such, it is a very loose rule of thumb indeed.
However, it makes some sense. What we need to do is to specify more precisely what that sense happens to be.
“Do Unto Others…” Desire Utilitarianism Style
“Do unto others…” does not yield absolute moral truth, but it is a useful rule of thumb for desire utilitarians.
Recall, desire utilitarianism is concerned with promoting those desires that tend to fulfill other desires, and inhibiting those desires that tend to thwart other desires. One of the questions that a desire utilitarian will always be asking is, “Does this action represent desires that tend to fulfill, or to thwart, other desires?”
To answer this question, the desire utilitarian says, “Let us look at the desires that are suggested by this action. Then let us imagine that this desire is made universal throughout society. Would this, then, be a society that people would want to live in? That is to say, do people generally have reason to seek a society in which this desire is universal, or to shun such a society?”
“Do unto others . . .” is a way of bringing to the mind the desire-thwarting associated with living in a society governed by certain types of rules – certain types of attitudes.
Recently, I have used the example of how an aversion to doing harm to an innocent person implies a desire to use reliable tests to make sure that a person is not innocent before agreeing to do that person harm. I have suggested that this concern leads a person to support a just society – one with procedural safeguards in place such as a presumption of innocence, a right to a trial, a right to an ‘impartial’ jury, and the like.
I have asked people to imagine living in a society where everybody does what the President and the Republican leadership in Congress advocates with much of its current legislation. To judge if the actions that these Republicans seek to make legal are, in fact, moral and just, I ask the reader to imagine, “You are taken off the street by somebody who has put you on a suspected terrorist list. You are taken off for questioning. Nobody knows where you are – your family, your friends. You just vanish. You are tortured for months or years by people demanding that you give them names of others that you are working with. Claiming your innocence only buys you more abuse. Giving names reduces the abuse. So, you give names – people you know. Then you are released. Once free again, you discover that those whose names you had given have now ‘disappeared.’”
If you would object to people treating this way – if you would consider this form of treatment brutal and unjust -- then I invite you to, “Do unto others…” and protest the Bush Administration and Republican leadership’s decision to make America into a nation of brutality and injustice.
I use stories like the one above to bring up in the mind of the person who reads it the desire-thwarting that a tolerance for this type of behavior makes possible. Hopefully, it will cause the reader to think of the desire-thwarting that is avoided in a society of individuals averse to this type of behavior. Then, the reader can see the value in promoting this type of aversion.
By imagining living in a society with these types of rules - surrounded by people who would perform these types of actions, I hope that the agent will understand the importance of promoting an aversion to performing these types of actions. Desire utilitarianism then says that the next step is to promote this aversion by using our tools of social conditioning - condemning those who would defend such things as torture, arbitrary arrest with indefinite imprisonment, and forcing the victim to pay for the trials that bring wrongdoers to justice. They simply will not stand for these types of policies, and will vote out of office (or refuse to elect) any who would defend them.
Of course, we can never make everybody in a society averse to brutality and injustice. Still, it is something to fight for. Even if we cannot totally succeed, to the degree that we do succeed, to that degree we live in a safer and more secure world.
This, then, is the role that “Do unto others….” has in desire-utilitarian theory. It is, I argue, a legitimate form of argument when it comes to determining, at least approximately, whether a universal desire will tend to fulfill or thwart other desires. It is not perfectly reliable, and it does not take the place of documented results from properly-designed social-science research. However, this does not prevent it from being a useful tool.
“Do unto others…”
If you can imagine being the victim of a drunk driver, and living in a society where the victims of such crimes must first put down a deposit to cover the DA’s costs in prosecuting the case, you would probably protest the society that puts you in this position. If you would protest, then “Do unto others…” and protest the rights of those who the court decides is the victim of a crime to collect damages from those who do them harm – including court costs.
People who do not “Do unto others…” are evil. These are the people who promote injustice, harm the innocent, and make the world worse than it would otherwise have been.