The Unfailing Moral Standard

- from "Toleration" by John Bigelow

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So we all hunt foxes that steal our poultry, wolves that eat our sheep, yet we exhibit the same disregard of life in satisfying our appetite as they, and out of our abundance how rarely do we think of providing for the satisfaction of their appetites excepting the better to prepare them for the gratification of our own. When King David was told of a rich man who, to entertain a guest, had violently appropriated a ewe lamb of one of his poor neighbors instead of taking one from his own flock, he was filled with indignation. "As the Lord liveth," he exclaimed, never suspecting he was judging himself, "the man that hath done this is worthy of death." When the prophet said to him, "Thou art the man," the King did not defend himself. By that light which is never extinguished within us, he saw his guilt and confessed: "I have sinned against the Lord." (II Samuel, xii. 5)

However irregular the life we lead our. selves, we are apt to judge others by our highest standards, and ourselves by the lowest. So we expect others to treat us according to our highest standards, but if they treat us according to our lowest standards - that being, perhaps, the way we treat them-we are apt to feel wounded, if not indignant. We speak freely of what we esteem-correctly, perhaps the faults or weaknesses of our friend. Should we hear of his taking a similar liberty with us, we are sure to feel surprised and wronged, and a coolness, if not a rupture of social relations, ensues. The laws of civil society against slander and libel and the judicial decisions for their construction are but a confirmation and amplification of this view.

Professor Sidgwick in his "Methods of Ethics," referring to the Golden Rule as formulated by Jesus, says: "This formula is obviously unprecise in statement; for one might wish for another's co-operation in sin and be willing to reciprocate it. Nor is it even true to say that we ought to do to others only what we think is right for them to do to us, for no one will deny that there may be differences in the circumstances - and even in the natures-of two individuals, A and B, in the way in which it is right for B to treat A."

It is but fair to Professor Sidgwick to say that he was scarcely at his best in the criticism here quoted. He pronounces the Golden Rule unprecise because "one might wish for another's co-operation in sin and be willing to reciprocate it." But no one is willing to cooperate with another in sinning against himself. To be willing to co-operate in sinning against a third person is not the equivalent of wishing the co-operator to sin in the like or in any other way against one's self. It is impossible to conceive of a person wronging another if he knew that he himself was to be wronged and to suffer simultaneously and to precisely the same extent. The obligation to do unto others as we would have them do unto us does not carry with it any implication that a person wishing to act in obedience to it would take precisely the same view of his duty as everybody else, or indeed, as anyone else would take of it.

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