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Love Thy Neighbor (Question of God – Alt. S.S. 9 of 11)

In this session we turn to what last week I labeled ‘right-based’ (duty-driven) ethics. Dr. Nicholi begins the DVD conversation by, in effect, asking about the validity and applicability of The Golden Rule, so we will start there as well. But that will morph into an exploration of duty and the often difficult and controversial questions of how to act when faced with apparent no-win moral situations. I’ll illustrate this using the well-known ‘Jews in the Barn’ dilemma.

The Golden Rule

What Christians typically refer to as The Golden Rule is not named that in the Bible, but the principle is stated in the New Testament:

  1. “So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets”, Matthew 7:12 NIV
  2. “Do to others as you would have them do to you” Luke 6:31 NIV

Note this admonition is expressed positively (“do to”) rather than negatively. When the same idea is expressed using negative wording it has sometimes been called the ‘silver’ rule. Presumably a positive injunction is better than a negative one, just as gold is worth more than silver. Another term sometimes used for this idea is the ‘Ethics of Reciprocity’.

Some may think this is a distinctly Christian idea but it has been advanced by virtually every religion and many philosophers. For example:

  • Jainism: "A man should wander about treating all creatures as he himself would be treated." Sutrakritanga 1.11.33
  • Confucianism: "Do not do to others what you do not want them to do to you" Analects 15:23
  • Islam: "None of you [truly] believes until he wishes for his brother what he wishes for himself." Number 13 of Imam "Al-Nawawi's Forty Hadiths."

The near universality of this principle, as expressed both by religions and secularists, have led some to propose this concept as a candidate to ground morality from. But while the Golden Rule is both valuable and common-sense, there are problems with such a proposal. Playwright George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950) quipped: “Do not do unto others as you would expect they should do unto you. Their tastes may not be the same”. Or consider the humorous: ‘”Hit me”, said the masochist. “No”, said the sadist.’ Both of these witticisms point to the weakness of the Golden Rule – it is relativistic to the person or society.

Consider these interrelated objections:

  • The one on the receiving end has no say in the matter. In other words he or she has no moral autonomy.
  • Conversely the person on the giving end is presumed to adhere to some sort of universally acceptable ethical norms. The assumption then is that there are some universal norms that would be applied when people implement the Golden Rule. And likely most of the time it would work out that way. But there are no guarantees. It depends on the moral compass of the actor. The difficulty is exposed when we give the ‘doer’ an ethic that instead would be normally condemned. Another way of stating the second of my above quotes is “A sadist is just a masochist who follows the Golden Rule”. Since a masochist, by definition, enjoys hurting themselves, they could be viewed as just employing the Golden Rule when hurting others.
  • Consequently there is a risk of justifying oppression, both at the individual and societal level. One could argue Hitler was just applying the Golden Rule to a subclass in his society – the Jews – by exterminating them. If he actually felt that it was a universal truth that Jews should be exterminated then he was just treating them as he would expect to be treated were the situations reversed.

Tit-for-tat and the Iterated Prisoner’s Dilemma

As a hopefully interesting quick side-excursion, but one that might have distressing implications, consider the game strategy known as ‘tit-for-tat’[1]. A reasonable definition of this term might be ‘equivalent retaliation’. That is, I will do the same as you – in response to your action. So, for example, if you cooperate so will I. If you don’t neither will I. This is different from the Golden Rule. It is a strategy that does to others in response to what they actually do to you. Not what your morality dictates, but what theirs does.

There is a simple game often used to analyze behavior called Prisoner’s Dilemma [2]. If it is repeatedly played, typically many times consecutively, and each player can remember past results, it is called an Iterated Prisoner’s Dilemma. The details of the game are unimportant for our purposes (see my handout for more detail) but the game is structured to examine whether a player would do better (from the standpoint of self-interest) if they cooperated or not. I bring this up because when many different strategies have been compared (using computer programs to perform each strategy) the tit-for-tat strategy has nearly always proven to be the most effective. For this game tit-for-tat operates with these rules:

  1. Unless provoked, the player will always cooperate
  2. If provoked, the agent will retaliate
  3. The agent is quick to forgive

Some of this sounds nicely Christian (turn-the-other cheek style), but the retaliation part – integral to the definition of tit-for-tat – seems distinctly non-Christian. Or does it? Some of the questions raised by this possibly disturbing result include whether Christianity means one should always cooperate, always be altruistic. If the other player does not share these virtues is there a point where it is morally acceptable to protect one’s self-interest, i.e. to avoid being a ‘patsy’?

Immanuel Kant’s Categorical Imperative

Now let’s consider ‘right-based’ ethics, one that emphasizes duty and suggests that there are moral absolutes one can rely on a priori which, if followed, will produce a good outcome. The philosopher most closely associated with this view is the German, Immanuel Kant (1724-1804). He proposed what he called the Categorical Imperative [3] as an attempt to provide a defensible ground for morality. He formulates it three different ways. Here are the first two (of which the first formulation is the best known phrasing):

  1. Act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law.
  2. Act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, always at the same time as an end and never merely as a means to an end.

The first formulation emphasizes the need to operate using principles that are universally valid. So, for example, we should not steal because if everybody continually stole it would destroy the concept of property. Likewise lying would be ruled out because it would undermine trust.

The second formulation emphasizes that you should never treat another person as an object – to be used for your purposes. That would degrade that other person’s humanity by making them into a tool or pawn for you and ignore their purposes, which might conflict with yours.

At first glance it might seem to be saying the same as the Golden Rule, but – according to Kant – it is not. Still these ideas are very consistent with Christianity. They also seem, at least to me, to be very intuitive moral guidelines.

But now let’s consider some problems.

The ‘Jews in the Barn’

A well-known ethical problem that is often used to illustrate conflicting choice is known as the ‘Jews in the Barn’. Here is my version of the story:

You are a believing Christian living in Nazi Germany in the 1940s. Some Jews on the run from the Gestapo have come to you for help and you have hidden them in your barn. Later the Gestapo agents knock on your door and ask you directly: ‘Are there any Jews on your property?’ How should you answer them?

You now have the moral dilemma of whether to lie to them or not. If you lie you would be violating Kant’s Categorical Imperative and, some would argue, violating the 9th commandment. If you tell the truth you, of course, cannot foretell the future, but while you wouldn’t have the full historical perspective of the Holocaust like we do, you would expect the Jews and yourself to be arrested and likely imprisoned, if not put to death. There is also the risk that the barn would be searched anyway but it seems reasonable to presume that lying would give you the best prospects to evade these negative consequences. But Kant gives no wiggle room. Lying cannot be universalized so either Kant’s principle doesn’t always work or you have to tell the truth, even to the Gestapo. But additionally, as a Christian, lying is condemned by the 9th commandment, and there are numerous other Biblical mandates that condemn lying. We all recognize, I think, that in general lying is inappropriate. The point of this example illustrates the difficulties with both Kant’s Moral Imperative (1st formulation) and taking the Biblical injunctions against lying always literally and universally – without admitting the possibility of exception. For many Christians, admitting exceptions seems to risk sinning and also seems relativistic. To re-quote Alden Thompson from last week:

believers in general are reluctant to say privately or publicly that a particular command or example in Scripture does not apply to them. To risk the possibility of the human will overruling the divine will is not an attractive prospect for someone really serious about obedience. [3]

And Adventists have strongly disagreed on this issue in general, not just opposition toward Thompson’s book. A December 1997 article by Roy Adams in the Adventist Review entitled In Defense of Rahab [4] argues that Rahab’s lie to save the spies is morally defensible. He states:

We should not use the 9th commandment to offer simplistic solutions to complex issues of human existence. [5]

But Adventist Ron du Preez vehemently disagreed in a rebuttal entitled A Holocaust of Deception: Lying to save Life and Biblical Morality [6]. Time and space constraints prevent our examining this version of what is essentially the same issue. In fact, du Preez begins his paper with the ‘Jews in the Barn’ example.

Robert Kane’s Moral Sphere

Philosopher Robert Kane wrote a book entitled Through the Moral Maze [7] where he explicitly tackles such moral conflicts. He uses an example that parallels more closely to Kant’s 2nd formulation:

There are situations in life (many of them, in fact) in which it is impossible to treat all persons as ends … If you are walking down the street and witness a man attempting to rape a woman and there is something you can do to stop it (by physically intervening or seeking help), then you have entered a situation of this kind. If you do something to prevent the rape, you are not allowing the rapist to live in accordance with his point of view; you are not treating him as an end. But if you just “walk on by” and do nothing, you are not allowing the rape victim to live in accordance with her point of view without interference; you are not treating her as an end, [8]

Kane attempts in subsequent pages to generalize and deal with these sorts of no-win situations by introducing a concept he calls the Moral Sphere [9]:

Figure 14

  1. The inner circle represents an environment where Kant’s Moral Imperative and all normative Biblical injunctions can be straightforwardly applied – because everyone acts morally.
  2. But outside that inner circle, to state it in Christian terminology, sin enters the picture and there now exist the sort of moral dilemmas we have been considering. The ‘Jews in the Barn’ and the rape examples would fall into this second sphere, where the guilty and innocent parties are readily identifiable.
  3. The third level considers how to choose in dilemmas without a guilty party, such as a plane about to crash with 3 people and only 2 parachutes.

Kane’s resolution (Ends Principle) to our above dilemmas is as follows:

Treat every person as an end in every situation … whenever possible. When this is not possible because the moral sphere has broken down, strive to sustain the ideal … This means, when there is a guilty party (level 2), restrain the guilty and use minimal force to restore and preserve the moral sphere, [10]

This solution is still controversial for many, especially those of a more literalist mentality. Considerable interpretation and human responsibility is involved in both assessing and weighing guilt and how to apply force, if you are to employ Kane’s proposal.

The Video Conversation [7 minutes, 42 seconds] – Transcript

Handout Material for Week 9

Some Questions to Consider:

Q: Should the Golden Rule be used to ground morality?

Q: Do you agree or disagree with the idea that it is sometimes morally acceptable to lie? Why?

Q: Is it sometimes morally acceptable to protect your own interest or should one always ‘turn the other cheek’?

Q: in the video, Michael Shermer, an atheist, states: “I tip the waiter. Why? … Because it makes me feel better.” Is altruism universal? What is it about selfless acts that might make you ‘feel better’?


1 tit-for-tat:
2 Prisoners Dilemma:'s_dilemma
3 Thompson, Alden, Inspiration (Review and Herald Publishing, 1991). p. 105.
4 Adams, Roy, Adventist Review, December 1997, pp. 24-26.
5 Ibid, p 26.
6 Du Preez, Ron, Journal of the Adventist Theological Society, Spring 1998, pp. 187-219.
7 Kane, Robert, Through the Moral Maze (Paragon House, 1994).
8 Ibid, p21.
9 Ibid, p. 38.
10 Ibid, p. 41.

Links to the other essays in this series:

1) Introduction

2) A Transcendent Experience

3) Science or Revelation

4) The Exalted Father

5) Why Believe?

6) Miracles

7) Moral Law – Part A

8) Moral Law – Part B

9) Love Thy Neighbor

10) The Human Condition

11) Suffering and Death

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