What follows are my reflections. I make no greater claim for them but offer them in the spirit of exchange and dialogue.
The principle is obviously similar to the so-called “Golden Rule” at the centre of many moral traditions. However, it’s something that we have heard so many times, and in so many variations, that we don’t usually pay attention to what it might really mean — let alone how we might try to apply it.
It’s easy to prove to yourself that the sustained and honest attempt to apply this principle has important consequences. Among these it leads to a certain openness, a more positive emotional climate, and an increased tendency to connect with others. We know that isolation, selfishness, and self-enclosure can cause serious problems for people. This principle encourages us to open ourselves to others, and to approach them in a positive manner.
There are great differences between this principle and the one we considered last week which spoke of not harming anyone. But they complement each other in important ways. This is also a useful reminder that the principles can be understood, and more importantly transformed into a lifestyle, by interpreting each principle within the context of the other ones.
In some ways this principle is the key to all of them. However, important as it is there is no doubt that, like all principles, it can be misapplied and distorted. There are situations where it is, more or less, intentionally reduced to a slogan, an excuse, or a banner under which I can cause suffering to another by claiming for example that, it’s for their own good, or that’s how I would want to be treated. Leaving those cases aside, there is still a lot of room for misunderstandings about what the principle is suggesting.
Our version of the famous moral edict makes it very clear that the idea is not: “treat others well so that they will reciprocate and treat you well”. That’s a big deal. Though perhaps there is nothing wrong with that approach, we are seeking something else. We say that by acting in this way “you liberate yourself.” This is a result that has little to do with the others’ response to my actions. Of course, like the previous principle this one that leaves us a lot to consider regarding from what and why I wish to free myself.
Versions of, and commentaries on, the “golden rule” can be found in the most ancient teachings and in every part of the world. You’d think that fact alone might have got our attention already!
Here’s some comments on the theme. These are attributed to K’ung-fu-tzu or Kong-zi (aka Confucius) around 500 years BCE.
A disciple asked Confucius, “What is a good person?” The master replied, “You can tell a good person by their good actions. If a king does his utmost for the people and lives only for them you can call him good. However, more than good, they are saintly who first strengthen themselves in knowledge and later give that to others, who treat others as they would have themselves be treated. In this way without being a ruler, any subject can become a saint in their own measure. And this depends neither on rank nor possessions.
I look forward to seeing you at our meeting on Wednesday or just hearing about your reflections.