It has long been asserted that
no religion can stand up to rational inquiry. Spengler asserted as much
in his explanation for why Culture becomes Civilization. Will Durant
explained it by stating that religion was based upon an irrational Faith, which was always going to be in conflict with rational thought.
But it is from religion that we derive our moral code. And, when our Faith dies, in the face of a confrontation with rationality, we lose the foundations of our moral code, and this leads, more or less inevitably, to the decline and fall of Civilization. So, if we wish to restore an indisputable moral code to our Civilization we must ask ourselves: "Is there a moral code which is not based strictly upon faith?"
The answer is, of course, "Yes." In fact, there are several, most based upon some idealistic view of mankind and derived in a late stage of some Civilization. Most of these moral codes are seen as cold and sterile, and these impress us as more or less "arbitrary." Human beings, at least at present, are unwilling to accept an arbitrary moral code. No such code will ever appear "right" to enough people for it to be widely accepted.
I will not waste a lot of time discussing alternatives which have been tried and failed. After due consideration, research, and reflection, I am left with the clear impression that the only moral code which can be "sold" to a mass of Late Civilization people is a moral code based upon the so-called "Golden Rule."
The Golden Rule begins with an obvious advantage for those of us who are the descendants of Western Civilization because it was enthusiastically endorsed by Jesus Christ, who said: "Therefore whatever you want others to do for you, do so for them, for this is the Law and the Prophets."26 Confucius also said it: "What you do not want done to yourself, do not do to others."27 That grand master of Philosophy, Aristotle, chimed in with: "We should behave to our friends as we would wish our friends to behave to us."28 I do not doubt that other major figures said similar things as well.
Another way of expressing more or less the same thought comes to us first in the Old Testament in the form: "you shall love your neighbor as yourself."29 That quotation, from Leviticus 19, Verse 18, is part of the Pentateuch, containing the most holy books of the Jews. That commandment to the Jews was also strongly endorsed by Jesus Christ.30
One great advantage of the Golden Rule is that it can be derived as a product of pure intellect beginning from the proposition that a prevailing moral rule of "The Law of the Jungle" is incorrect, and must be replaced by something else. Actually, I think that most people will intuitively grasp that "The Law of the Jungle" is incompatible with, or even the opposite of, anything which we would call "civilized behavior." So, a civilized society obviously needs a moral rule which is different from "The Law of the Jungle."
We all know that it is part of human nature to react with anger if we are confronted by anger. In fact, this is a survival quality of mankind. We react that way because it is good for our ability to survive if the angered other(s) are about to attempt to do us harm. So too, if we do not know in advance of a reason to behave otherwise, we should expect that if we approach another with graciousness and brotherly love, we should expect a similar reaction in return. Virtually all of our rules of civilized behavior are based upon the unspoken agreement that we will treat each other in a civil manner unless given a clear reason to do otherwise. That unspoken agreement also leads to moral disgust directed at the first one to break with civility. This makes it important for us to make note of "who started it." From this rule, we naturally view the person "who started it" as guilty of creating any civil disturbance which occurs in our society.
But lying deep down, and creating the foundations of what we call "civility," is the Golden Rule in its purest form. Deep in our hearts, we all feel that if just everyone would follow that fundamental commandment, we could have "peace on Earth and goodwill towards men" every day of the year, as opposed to just at Christmas time.
Is there another moral code worth considering? My personal favorite is the concept of Utility: "when there is a moral or ethical choice to be made, the course of conduct which is of the highest morality is the course of conduct which provides the greatest happiness to the greatest number, or avoids the greatest harm to the greatest number." This rule allows personal selfishness (and happiness) if others are not harmed.
It must also be noted that our contemporary sense of morality usually values minor children higher than it does adults; thus it is considered "proper" for an adult to die in the act of rescuing a small child. But this moral code of ours is highly uneven. As soon as that young person is of proper military age, it is now morally "proper" to send them off to die for their country. But military action is, in essence, a return to "The Law of the Jungle," so it is probably incorrect to consider such things in the development of a moral code for civilians.
I do think, though, that the key concept of Utility, "the greatest happiness to the greatest number," is similar enough to the commandment to "love your neighbor as yourself," that you could easily declare them to be merely different aspects of the same fundamental moral rule. If I am going to love my "neighbor," which we must now take to mean all other humans in our society, then I should want to provide "the greatest happiness to the greatest number" of these "neighbors" of mine.
Now, Ayn Rand criticized the concept of Utility because she believed it represented a fundamental altruism, and she was adamantly opposed to altruism as a basis for anything in a modern society.31 Instead, she asserted that a fundamental selfishness was the only proper basis for running any practical modern society. It is selfishness which is at the root of Capitalism, and it is Capitalism (she asserted) which was responsible for virtually all of the great accomplishments of Western Civilization.
But we know from our own history that too much selfishness, embodied in an uncontrolled and unfettered Capitalism, will be bad for mankind. We also know that a forced altruism, certainly as it was implemented in Communist Russia, will also be bad for mankind. Uncontrolled Capitalism gradually impoverishes the masses and leads, at some point or another, to revolution, which is the ultimate disorder. But certainly, Russian Communism, which was born in a revolution against an autocratic monarch, led just as inexorably to its own internal revolution the moment when the West decided to make peace with Russia.32 The clear lesson from the Twentieth Century is that both uncontrolled selfishness (i. e., pure Capitalism) and uncontrolled and forced altruism (in whatever form, including Communism) are bad for mankind. Clearly, we need a third option, and I believe that third option lies in the Golden Rule and/or Utility.
In answer to Ayn Rand, I would assert that the concept of Utility is perfectly compatible with personal selfishness, so long as it is a limited selfishness. I can be selfish to create my own personal happiness, so long as I do not create unhappiness in others, and if I can add to the happiness of others in the process, so much the better. My conduct becomes immoral when, in an attempt to selfishly add to my own personal happiness, my conduct injures others, or reduces their own happiness to any substantial degree. Under this rule, driving drunk, and having an accident, is an immoral course of conduct!
We are back, once again, to the concept of "the rising tide lifts all boats." My own personal "pursuit of happiness" is in no way a zero-sum game! I am certain that we all can envision circumstances when, far from my achieving happiness only by creating an equivalent amount of unhappiness in others, a group of two or more people engages in a course of conduct which makes all of them much happier.33 But we must limit our "pursuit of happiness" so that it does not injure others. That is the key: a concept that there must be some limit.
So, this is by no means the "party hearty" rule of conduct. If I spend myself into the poorhouse with partying, I am not going to be very happy at the end, and those who have to take charge of me in those circumstances are not going to be very happy, either. Thus, my conduct must also be limited by a rule of responsibility.
Is this altruism, as Ayn Rand complained? If it is, then it is a voluntary altruism in the pursuit of my own personal happiness. It is clearly not a forced altruism, because I am free to pursue my own personal selfish needs, if that is what I wish to do to make myself happy.
In reality, Utility is neither selfishness nor altruism, but something in-between. It is not pure altruism, because it allows individuals to pursue their own personal happiness, within limits. It is also not pure selfishness, because the needs of the many are still allowed to impose themselves upon the few. The many must be privileged to not give up their own happiness in return for the happiness of the few. The few must respect that privilege. The few must also respect the needs of the many for a certain amount of what is, in fact, pure and forced altruism, such as obeying a military draft. The few must recognize that, if the many need a draft to provide for the common defense, the few must respond willingly, or else it is likely that nobody will have happiness. But if you think about it long enough, you will probably conclude that every aspect of Utility is embodied in the Golden Rule!
There is nothing in the Golden Rule which prevents me from seeking my own personal and selfish portion of happiness. But, just as I would not wish my "neighbor" to inflict unhappiness upon me, so too I should not inflict unhappiness upon my neighbor. And, just as I would wish my neighbor to act to prevent the inflicting of unhappiness upon me, so too should I act to prevent the inflicting of unhappiness upon my neighbor. The "happiness" of Utility and the neighborly "love" of the Golden Rule are really just different ways of conveying the same concept, sort of like translating between different languages.
Great thinkers have turned these concepts over and over again throughout all of the history of mankind, and it keeps coming back to themes and variations on the Golden Rule. Doesn't that say something to you?
Whether you call it the Golden Rule ("do as you would be done by" or "love your neighbor as yourself"), or whether you call it Utility (the most happiness for the greatest number), it is still essentially the same moral code which has been handed down from the forefathers of most civilized men. It is the only moral code which has truly stood the test of time. Thus, if we need a moral anchor upon which to moor our new civilization, we could do no better than to simply choose the Golden Rule as our moral anchor, or to put it another way, our moral compass.
Just because our intellect may have examined Christianity and found it wanting, that is no reason to discard every word of wisdom which Christianity teaches. As I have tried to show throughout this Section, some of that wisdom is common to many other non-Christian civilizations, such as the ancient Chinese, the Classical Greeks, and even the Jews. While it is true that our Western Civilization has more or less conquered the modern remnants of all of these older civilizations, that does not mean we should ignore the greatest wisdom which each has to offer.
The end result, then, is that it all appears to boil down to a simple dichotomy: "The Law of the Jungle" or "The Golden Rule." If you wish a ruler with which to measure the conduct of any member of the human race, including yourself, just measure the conduct in question against the ruler formed by placing these two rules of morality upon the opposite ends of a piece of wood. The closer that the conduct in question lies towards "The Law of the Jungle," the greater is the immorality which that course of conduct represents. The closer that the conduct in question lies towards "The Golden Rule," the higher is the morality of that course of conduct.
As a parallel point, it ought to be obvious that "The Law of the Jungle" leads towards barbarism, while "The Golden Rule" leads towards civilized behavior. Each of us desires the multitude of benefits which are available to us as civilized human beings. With those benefits comes the obvious obligation to follow the moral code of "The Golden Rule." If any of us choose otherwise, we call those people "criminals," and devise some appropriate punishment.
The concept of Utility is primarily the product of Nineteenth Century rational thought. Yet we see that, all things considered, it is really just a theme and variation on the Golden Rule, which most of us think of as a commandment from God.
It now becomes clear that we need not lose our moral compass when rationalism destroys our Faith. The same moral rule which the Jewish God handed down as a commandment to his chosen people, and which Christ cited as one of two primary rules for his followers to adhere to,34 is in reality more or less the same moral rule which purely rational thought derived when they thought they were starting from scratch with a clean slate!
It matters not, then, whether you put your faith in God, or Jesus, or purely rational thought, the penultimate moral code is the same: "The Golden Rule." The words are a little different in different languages, and at different times, and in different places; but the underlying concept is the same, no matter where you find it. The only way to have a civilized society is for each citizen to respect the rights of all other citizens. The basic rule for accomplishing that goal will always be "The Golden Rule."
Thus, we may happily declare that our "new" moral compass is the same as our old one, and we can get on with trying to repair the damage which roughly two centuries of navigating without a moral compass has done to our society.
26 See the "New American Standard Bible," Matthew, Chapter 7, Verse 12.
27 From Bartlett's "Familiar Quotations," quoting "The Confucian Analects," Book 15:23.
28 From Bartlett's "Familiar Quotations," quoting from Diogenes Laertius, "Lives of Eminent Philosophers," Book V, section 21.
29 While this quotation is not, strictly speaking, "do as you would be done by," it should seem most obvious that if you DO love your neighbor as yourself, you will gladly treat that neighbor as you would wish yourself to be treated, which IS "do as you would be done by."
30 See the "New American Standard Bible," Matthew, Chapter 19, Verse 19; Mark, Chapter 12, Verse 31; Luke, Chapter 10, Verse 27; and Romans, Chapter 13, Verse 9.
31 Ayn Rand, as a former citizen of the former Soviet Union, all too easily equated altruism with Communism, something which we truly know does not work.
32 This outcome was predicted by Will and Ariel Durant. Writing in 1968 in their book, "The Lessons of History," on page 66 they said: "Here too Communism was a war economy. Perhaps it survives through continual fear of war; given a generation of peace it would probably be eroded by the nature of man."
33 The penultimate example for most of mankind would be good sex, which should make both of the people involved in that course of conduct very happy.
34 See the "New American Standard Bible," Mark, Chapter 12, Verses 28-34, and Luke, Chapter 10, Verses 25-28.
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