Perhaps the simplest ethical principle is what is known as the Golden Rule. It has been noted that this principle exists in nearly every religion, worldview, and philosophy in the world, most often in the negative – don’t do to others as you wouldn’t want them to do to you. The classic form of the rule in the Western world, quoting Jesus as recorded in the gospel of Matthew, states it in the positive “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” Rightly so, since ethics requires more than simply ‘leaving one another alone’. We ought to also actively help, care for, protect, encourage, cheer, indeed love one another.
As a general rule this is easy to understand (though often hard to do), and it is best not to overthink it. If someone is in danger, help them. If someone is hungry, or poor, or homeless, give them what food, or financial support, or shelter you are able – if you found yourself in such misfortune, you would want someone to throw you a bone. If someone is feeling low, encourage them, if someone is a bit of an outsider, let them into the group. Put up with one another’s oddities.
It muddies things, though, that different people want different things. You might meet someone and have certain hopes about what you would have them do to you that would coincide with what you’d like to unto them. Like I said, it’s best not to overthink it. The question is, would you want them to do something to you that is purely selfish and for their own gain with no concern for you? No! You don’t want them to take from you. You want them to give to you. Therefore, give to them, rather than taking something for your own pleasure with no regard for them.
Bearing this in mind could clear up a lot of ‘what ifs’. For example: ribbing, banter, friendly teasing, or whatever they call it now (In the artillery, the motto was “never pass a hack”). For many, this is how you feel part of the group: you know you’re accepted when someone gives you a particularly good jab, because they know it won’t offend you. But other folks are more sensitive to that kind of thing and it makes them feel excluded rather than included. The golden rule, then, says not to keep ribbing them (because “I would want them to rib me”), but rather to figure out a different and better way to make that person feel included (since being included is the thing you actually want.)
Now, I’m posted away this summer to study ethics, and particularly the ethics of war. I started off my Courier career with a series of articles about war and killing, and now I only have a couple articles left. So, what about the Golden Rule in war? I definitely don’t want an enemy soldier to shoot me. So, where does that leave me?
Well, sometimes I guess you have to overthink. If I were under the domination of a cruel tyrant, would I want someone to set me free? I think so. If my life was threatened, would I want someone to step in and stop the person threatening? With lethal force if necessary? Actually, yes. I would want someone to do that if my wife and children were threatened as well. By that reasoning, the Golden Rule would have me do the same for others.
If I were a soldier, fighting on the side of such a tyrant, protecting the tyrant from justice, helping the tyrant to oppress and kill and destroy – that is, if I were the bad guy – would I want someone to shoot me? Well… I think I’d want them to give me a chance to surrender gracefully, maybe. I would hope they would at least give me the benefit of the doubt, that maybe I am unaware of the evil I’m defending, that I am a human and an equal. I’d hope they would look for an alternative to shooting me before diving right in. But ultimately, I think I can say that, if I am doing something wrong, that hurts people, and protects evil, then I would want someone to tell me, and to stop me if need be, yes.