Ethics and the Golden Rule: Do Unto Others by Jesuit Father Harry Gensler

The Golden Rule: a Magna Carta for God’s kingdom

  • February 1, 2014

If there’s any such thing as Christian ethics (and there is), most of us would imagine it might be based on the Golden Rule. But few moral theologians spare more than a passing thought on the crowning lines of the Sermon on the Mount: “In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets” (Matthew 7:12).

In the halls of academe this basic standard of goodness is considered naive, imprecise and open to all kinds of logical absurdities. If you are a judge about to pass sentence on a thief, no doubt the thief would rather be set free. Wouldn’t the Golden Rule unleash a swarm of criminals on the world?

American Jesuit philosopher Harry Gensler has spent 45 years arguing that the Golden Rule properly interpreted is not just the sort of thing that helps mothers keep their children on the straight and narrow but a philosophically serious principle.

“So is the Golden Rule gold or garbage?” Gensler asks in Ethics and the Golden Rule: Do Unto Others, his latest book.

Gensler never allows us to doubt where he stands on his own rhetorical question. He starts by adding a “same-situation” clause to the wording in the Gospel of Matthew. Gensler’s version of the Golden Rule would have us ask ourselves, “Am I now willing that if I were in the same situation then this be done to me?” For this Golden Rule to be operative it must be applied with impartiality and conscientiousness.

It’s not easy being impartial or conscientious, but the philosopher gives us a memorizable formula. If we know, imagine, test and act in precisely that order we have a good chance of applying the Golden Rule properly. Gensler calls this the KITA rule. Before acting we have to know the situation of the other person, imagine how a proposed or possible action will affect that person, test the scenario in our minds and only then act upon what our knowledge and imagination tell us.

As a way of deciding whether to bring your dog into a restaurant, commit genocide or carry your own coffee mug so you won’t have to use disposable cups, Gensler’s guide to the Golden Rule is unimpeachable. While there’s no guarantee we will always make the right moral decisions (our knowledge can be flawed, our imaginations limited), the revised Golden Rule applied with KITA can at least ensure we make our best effort to make the right decision.

The Golden Rule doesn’t tell you what’s right or wrong. It doesn’t say, “Don’t hit your sister.” It says don’t hit your sister unless you can imagine yourself in exactly her situation (small, female, young) accepting your punch as good, just and correct. It’s a consistency test.

Gensler makes this same point over and over as he tackles various straw-man objections. What about crazy desires? Should we beat up the masochist because that’s what he wants? The Golden Rule does not force us to cater to crazy desires. If we know that a desire is disordered and can imagine a time in the future when that disorder has been corrected, the KITA method will stop us from beating up masochists.

Gensler’s method for moral decision-making works. But ethics isn’t really about being right all the time. In preaching about the Kingdom of God, Jesus was not handing down a formula for never doing the wrong thing.

Though ethics has to prove itself in our actions, ethics is really about who we are both as individuals and as a human family. Consider what we mean by a work ethic. It says nothing about which work is moral and which isn’t. It’s about how dedication to work defines us.

Jesus gave the Golden Rule as a kind of test of our citizenship in the Kingdom of God. He wasn’t talking about the individual decisions members of His peasant audience might make. He was talking about the essential bond of unity between human beings.

If we can imagine ourselves in the other’s place, if we can substitute someone else’s consciousness and self-interest for our own and if this kind of consciousness switching is repeated over and over, then the Kingdom of God comes into existence.

In Gensler’s version of the Golden Rule, it’s all about our individual ethical decisions and acts. In Jesus’ version it’s about who those peasants are called to become as a nation bound to their God. Just a few verses before He dispenses the Golden Rule, Jesus teaches the crowd to pray “Our Father.” There have been a million sermons preached pointing out He didn’t teach them to pray “My Father.” All those preachers are right. Throughout the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus is concerned with who we are collectively before God and in relationship with one another. It is a constitution, a Magna Carta, for the Kingdom of God.

Gensler stoutly ignores the New Testament context as he battles for the philosophical respectability of the Golden Rule.

It’s no surprise that Gensler’s area of philosophical expertise is logic. The book reads as though it might have been written by Star Trek’s Mr. Spock.

This is not to say Gensler’s book is without value. Nobody is going to read Ethics and the Golden Rule for its elegant style and many will be frustrated by its repetitiveness, but clear, logical thinking about how and why the Golden Rule should be applied in our world today is important. Gensler has valuable insights about the universality of the rule, which is found in religious and philosophical systems from Confucianism to Baha’ism. His KITA method could be taught to students as young as 12 or 13, and is relevant to those of us still prone to the wrong decision now and then 50 years on.

Ethics and the Golden Rule: Do Unto Others by Jesuit Father Harry Gensler (Routledge, softcover, 246 pages, $37).

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