by Adam Kirtley
Stuart Coordinator of Religious and Spiritual Life

May 17, 2008

What if the Hokey Pokey is what it’s all about? So asks a bumper sticker I recently saw. Bumper stickers are in some ways the original My Space Page. With enough time at a red light, I’m likely to be able to ascertain the driver’s politics, sense of humor, hobbies, and whether or not her child is an honor student. Don’t mock the last one. I’d be willing to bet that at least half of you had that on the family car when you were a kid.

But sometimes the stickers take themselves too seriously. Especially when it comes to social or political issues, people are on the lookout for that one pithy phrase that sums it all up. This, it seems to me, can be dangerous when the necessities of nuance and reason are sacrificed in the name of brevity and catchiness. Smoke ‘em Out. Flip Flop. Cut and Run. Mission Accomplished.

But is this desire to formulate a simple mantra of terrific relevance a modern phenomenon? By no means. Essentially every religion in the world articulates a radically simple moral code, the Golden Rule. Treat other people, the way that you would like to be treated. Clearly it’s not always been called the Golden Rule, and it’s phrased in numerous ways. But the essential message of reciprocity has enjoyed broad appeal throughout the ages.

Around 500 BCE a student of Confucius asked, “Is there a single word which can serve as the guiding principle for conduct throughout one’s life? Confucius said, “It is the word consideration. Do not impose on others what you do not desire others to impose on you.”

Jesus of Nazareth said, “In everything, do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets.”

Hillel the Elder, the pivotal first century Jewish leader is credited in the Talmud as saying, “What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor. This is the whole Torah. The rest is commentary.”

And as I said, I could go on- Buddhism, Sikhism, Baha’i, Islam- In each of these traditions, and in many more you’ll see the Golden Rule. So have we found the ultimate bumper sticker? Have we found a phrase, a code, a principle that is so simple and yet so transcendent of culture and creed that it is Truth with a capital “T”?

Many do not think so. First, in terms of the religions I’ve mentioned, although the ethic of reciprocity can be located in the vast majority of the world’s great religions, it would be inaccurate to think that it was a central, organizing principle for each of them. For many it was not. For some, however, it was. But even for these traditions, the Golden Rule was applied in very specific, and varying circumstances. Thus one can not say that it is a universal maxim from the perspective of world religions.

Furthermore, a list of modern, intellectual critics of the Golden Rule reads like who’s who of second semester core authors. Enlightenment thinkers like Immanuel Kant sought to replace the rule’s simplistic measure of “whatever I like must also be good for other people”. What matters, according to Kant, is not what an individual desires. What matters is sound rational judgment.

Many critics have demonstrated the inapplicability of the rule by taking it to absurd limits. Strict interpretation of the Golden Rule would, for example, forbid you from calling the police if you hear a burglar in your home. Because, well, if you found yourself stealing from another person, you would prefer that they not report you.

George Bernard Shaw famously criticized the Golden Rule saying, “Do not do unto others as you would expect they should do unto you. Their tastes may be different.” This line of thinking has led to the development of what some refer to as the Platinum Rule. Do unto others as they would have done unto them. That is, don’t be so focused on your own desires to assume that everyone must want what you want. Treat them, rather, as they would be treated. But of course, how can we ever truly know how another individual wants to be treated? I suppose we could text them, but it seems so inefficient. Some have argued that the only safe bet is what has been called the Silver Rule. Do no harm. This rule is broadly applied in the field of medicine and other helping professions.

So maybe there are too many difficulties and pitfalls in the Golden Rule to get it printed and have 6 ½ billion bumper stickers distributed to every human being on the planet. If the goal is to create that simple phrase for which you do not need to apply nuance and reason, then I don’t entirely know what the answer is. But what I can tell you, is that certain applications of the Silver Rule, Do no harm, don’t sit well with me. At its core, it can be seen as a call to non-action. It is far too comfortable, in my opinion, with the idea that we do not engage in relationship with the other.

It doesn’t seem likely that the graduates of Whitman College have set their sights on this sort of inactivity. The golden rule begins by asking us to consider how the self wants to be treated, but then it asks us to move toward placing another on par with our selves. This very act is transformative of the self; by considering the wants and needs of the other, we as individuals are given an opportunity for growth, and as a result our desires themselves mature. Given the level of influence many of you are prepared enjoy in your respective post-Whitman communities, it is critical that you see your departure from this place not as an ending, but as the beginning of a life characterized by an evolving understanding of the humane treatment of the other.

I implore you to access this flawed, non-universally applicable, potentially absurd, antiquated principle. It is not passive. Yes treat others as you would be treated. But teach as you would be taught. Listen as you would be listened to. Challenge as you would be challenged.

This I submit, (not the hokey pokey) is what it’s all about.