The crowd at the GOP debate in military-heavy South Carolina got rowdy during a discussion of foreign policy, booing Ron Paul heartily and whooping and cheering when the other candidates took a hard line on foreign involvement.
Scattered boos and jeers drowned out Paul’s call for a “golden rule” in American foreign policy.
“My point is, that if another country does to us what we do to others, we aren’t going to like it very much. So I would say maybe we ought to consider a golden rule in foreign policy,” Paul said as the crowd laughed and jeered. “We endlessly bomb these other countries and then we wonder why they get upset with us?”
If you think that sounds like strong common sense, you’re probably a terrorist-loving, godless, liberal surrender-monkey who hates America; South Carolina Republicans will have no truck with foreign policy realists like that. But, as it happens, you’re in good company: nearly every single religious and ethical tradition is based on some formulation of the Golden Rule.
While evil idiots like Newt Gingrich (Sink helpfully reminds us that Gingrich is a history Ph.D.) might believe that the Golden Rule was made up by “secular-socialists” to “destroy America,” we can trace principle of reciprocity about as far back as we have records, from the Code of Hammurabi in the 18th century BCE, to ancient Jewish and Hindu traditions, to Chinese and Greek philosophers, to Jesus Christ, and beyond. Of course, all forms of humanism rely heavily on this concept.
In his book the Science of Good and Evil, Michael Shermer explains why this concept of reciprocity permeates our ethical traditions, and why it is tied so closely with theories of fairness, justice, and empathy.
The Golden Rule is a derivative of the basic principle of exchange reciprocity and reciprocal altruism, and thus evolved in our Paleolithic ancestors as one of the primary moral sentiments. (If I’m right about this, then it means that religion did not invent the Golden Rule and other moral principles; it co-opted them, then codified them.) In this principle there are two moral agents: the moral doer and the moral receiver. A moral question arises when the moral doer is uncertain how the moral receiver will accept and respond to the action question. …By asking yourself, How would I feel if this were done unto me? you are asking, How would others feel if I did it unto them?
The Golden Rule forces us to see things from the perspective of the people we affect before we act. That is not merely a prudent and practical exercise, it is also one of tremendous explanatory power. The insight that we gain from seeing our actions from others’ perspective allows us to understand much of their behavior that was once inexplicable. For example, what if other countries persistently meddled in our country’s politics, overthrew our government, supported an unpopular dictator, stationed troops in our cities, and starved or bombed our country for decades? Is it possible that some Americans or allies would react poorly to this situation, and, lacking traditional methods of warfare, lash out against the innocent civilians of the other nations? Understanding the motivations of others does not compel us to lose our own perspective, or to sympathize with those trying to do us harm. It does mean that we need to be realistic about our situation and pursue courses of action that will both defeat the enemies we have and reduce support for anti-American terrorism.
Human beings developed the Golden Rule because understanding how we are viewed by other people and how they might react to us are essential features for a social animal. Empathy, or the ability to feel what others feel, is literally in our nature, and because of this it is not surprising that the ethic of reciprocity shows up wherever we see successful social institutions. This capacity to understand the motivations of others is what allows people to live together at all, without merely stumbling blindly from one inexplicable encounter to another. Understanding how others will react, and acting accordingly, is just as important for great nations as it is for individuals. Incorporating a ‘Golden Rule’ principle in foreign policy is a reasonable balance against our instinct to exert our power, even for the best of intentions.
The problem we must deal with (and the reason why Paul got roundly booed in South Carolina) is that while we have empathy and reciprocity, we also have the instincts of fear, xenophobia, vengeance, and superiority, lurking in our Paleolithic brains. We sometimes lose our better judgment when we cannot see or do not know the people we affect, and we only see them in the theater and through the lens of terrorism and war. ‘Do unto others’ is a much needed reality check in a foreign policy debate being fueled by so much fear and hatred.
Here is a very incomplete list that shows the long historical and universal understanding of the Golden Rule:
“As you would have people do to you, do to them; and what you dislike to be done to you, don’t do to them.”
– Muhammad, 6th century CE
“So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you.”
– Jesus of Nazareth, 1st century CE
“That which is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow.”
– Hillel the Elder, 2nd century BCE
“Do not do to others what would anger you if done to you by others.”
– Isocrates, 4th century BCE
“It is impossible to live a pleasant life without living wisely and well and justly, agreeing ‘neither to harm nor be harmed.'”
– Epicurus, 4th century BCE
“You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against your kinsfolk. Love your neighbor as yourself.”
– Leviticus, 6th century BCE (possibly as earlier as 1000 BCE)
“One should never do wrong in return, nor mistreat any man, no matter how one has been mistreated by him.”
– Plato, 5th century BCE
“If people regarded other people’s families in the same way that they regard their own, who then would incite their own family to attack that of another? For one would do for others as one would do for oneself.”
– Mo Tzu, 5th century BCE
“One who, while himself seeking happiness, oppresses with violence other beings who also desire happiness, will not attain happiness hereafter.
– Buddha, 6th century BCE
“Never impose on others what you would not choose for yourself.”
– Confucius, 6th century BCE
“The sage has no interest of his own, but takes the interests of the people as his own. He is kind to the kind; he is also kind to the unkind: for Virtue is kind. He is faithful to the faithful; he is also faithful to the unfaithful: for Virtue is faithful.”
– Laozi, 6th century BCE
“Regard your neighbor’s gain as your own gain, and your neighbor’s loss as your own loss.”
– Laozi, 6th century BCE
“One should never do that to another which one regards as injurious to one’s own self. This, in brief, is the rule of dharma.”
– Mahabharata, 5th-9th century BCE