Reciprocal Morality

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David Pyle
Reciprocal Morality

One of the reasons that I am a UU is that I hold a Universalist belief that, if there is religious truth to be found, it can only be found through the confluence of human discourse and ideas... That revelation will happen, sometimes through inspiration, but also through seeing trends in the thought of yourself and others.

On my own discussion forum, we have recently been discussing morality and the Golden Rule, and I desired the opinions of my fellow UU's on the idea of how, what I term as Reciprocal Morality, actually represents a Universal principle.

I wont do this often, I promise, but let me repost some of my thoughts from my fourm and journal....

While I buy the "Golden Rule " aka Reciprocal Morality, I dont think any specific formulation of it composes a moral system all by itself... because one formulation can not fit all situations. I put stock in the principle because almost every major and most minor religious traditions have come up with something involving it. But each formulation is a part of the whole, not the whole in entire.

Where such formlations of Reciprocal Morality often fail is in that how I want to be treated is not necessarily how I should treat others.

Or that how someone wants to be treated is the way you should treat them.

This is where the traditional pagan version fails in my opinion.

"An it harm no one, do what thou wilt".

Well, that depends entirely on your definition of harm, and we humans have proven quite capable of bending that definition around to whatever we wish.

The Christian tradition has two versions of this... One from the Old Testament and one from the New. From Leviticus 19:18 there is

'Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against one of your people, but love your neighbor as yourself."

and from John 15:12

This is my commandment, That ye love one another, as I have loved you.

Ok, now the earlier version "love your neighbor as yourself" appears as the version taught in the three synoptic gospels... but not in John. Now I have serious problems with the sourcing of the Gospel of John, as it was the last Gospel written, and as it appears to have been written to refute another Gospel, namely the Gospel of Thomas.

That being said, the two versions say something different. John tries to address the problems in the early Judeo-Christian version, by saying "ok, how you treat yourself is not a good enough guide, because you dont treat yourselves very well. So, treat each other the way Jesus treated us. "

There is a third version in the Christian Tradition, but you wont find it in the Bible. In The Gospel of Thomas, verse 6.

"Don't lie, and don't do what you hate, because all things are disclosed before heaven. After all, there is nothing hidden that will not be revealed, and there is nothing covered up that will remain undisclosed."

This is different in that it is focusing on negative actions... not on positive actions. In this, I think it reflects reality a bit closer. The Buddhists have a similar saying...

From the Buddhist text, the Udana-Varga, 5:18 comes this take...

"Hurt not others in ways that you yourself would find hurtful."

Now, this take specifically refers only to Harmful action, not all actions, and I think this is another attempt to make reciprocal morality actually reflect reality. We as humans are probably closer together in what we consider to be harmful than what we consider to be beneficial. Yet even so, I think we vary too widely in even what we consider to be harmful for this to be a system of morality in and of itself.

Hinduism keeps this focus on the negative aspects of behavior. From Mencius Vii.A.4

"One should not behave towards others in a way which is disagreeable to oneself."

What is interesting about this one is that it does not refer to specific action, but rather to behavior as a whole. It does not make one think about a specific thing... for example, I could rationalize under "Do unto others" as only specific things that I do to them. If I am just surly and disagreeable, then that would not necessarily be a violation of the traditional view... for I am not doing anything to them. But here, it is all of behavior that is addressed.

I could continue, and perhaps I shall later, but my point is that each of these formations of the principle of Reciprocal Morality have too many flaws to be a system of morality all on their own. However, it is possible that taken together, they may indeed form the foundation for such a system.

My favorite formation of Reciprocal Morality, and the one I use as a rule of thumb, actually comes from Confucius (I know, surprise surprise, as if I were not a Confuciouphile already)... From Analects 15:23

"Do not do to others what you do not want them to do to you"

It focuses on the negative actions, which is where we can be the most harmful. If we can not agree on the positive, then at least let us focus on the negative. And I know, it fails in the same ways all of the others do, and can not by itself form the basis for a system of morality. But I like it as the rule of thumb, the question to which to put situations for a snap judgement.

But, in a conversation with another thinker, Confucius put what I am saying the best.... from the Doctrine of the Mean 13.3:

"Tse-kung asked, 'Is there one word that can serve as a principle of conduct for life?' Confucius replied, 'It is the word 'shu' -- reciprocity. Do not impose on others what you yourself do not desire."

No single formation of this principle can form the basis for a system of Morality, but perhaps they can, if they be taken together. To do that would truely be to form a Universal Principle.

Perhaps a book, someday......


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Acknowledgments is made possible in part by generous support from the Fahs Collaborative