The Theory of Everything in Ethics

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Unlike the Theory of Everything in Physics, the Theory of Everything in Ethics is already known

Helmut F. Kaplan

“Don’t do unto others what you don’t want done to you.” Or: “Treat others as you would like to be treated by them.” Despite all claims to the contrary, the Golden Rule works perfectly when applied in practice. If it is rejected, it is mostly on grounds of intellectual arrogance (“a primitive principle“) or moral laziness – in order to avoid unpleasant consequences for one’s own actions.

It is a matter of fact: If all people adopted this rule, 99 per cent of all problems that can be solved through moral actions would be done away with in an instant! And since, as is also the case with the THEORY OF EVERYTHING IN PHYSICS, the Golden Rule´s scope of application is so wide and it encapsulates what is most essential, I call the Golden Rule the THEORY OF EVERYTHING IN ETHICS.

A popular objection to the Golden Rule is that it fails to take into account that different people have different interests. Adopting the Golden Rule would hence lead to absurd consequences:

* Taken literally, this rule would prompt a masochist to turn into a sadist: someone, who would like to be tortured by others would be commanded to inflict torture on others himself.
* A person too proud to accept the help of others would not be allowed to extend a helping hand to others.
* A teetotaler could happily prescribe a general prohibition of wine or beer.

The objection that the Golden Rule or Theory of Everything in Ethics fails to take into account that different people have different interests or wishes can be countered as follows:
First, human beings hardly differ in their basic interests and wishes: Who would like to be betrayed, lied to, insulted or tortured? The masochist is clearly an exception!

Second and foremost: When humans have different wishes and interests, we automatically consider this when applying the Golden Rule, since everything else would gravely contradict the rule’s very essence!

When confronted with the question if I should help a handicapped person across the street, I do not think: Since I am not handicapped myself and so on, but: If I were in her place, I would want to be helped! Or: If I would like to make someone happy by inviting him for a meal, I, of course, do not serve him MY favorite dish, but HIS favorite dish!

In short: Applying the Golden Rule is OF COURSE not about imposing my OWN wishes on others, but about considering the OTHER PERSON’S wishes. Hence the only meaningful and acceptable interpretation of this rule consists in ascribing not ONE’S own, but THEIR own wishes, interests and needs to one’s fellow human beings. Hence the question must NOT be: How would I, with all MY qualities, like to be treated in his or her place? But: How would I, with all HIS or HER qualities, like to be treated?

The meaningful formulation of the Golden Rule or Theory of Everything in Ethics is hence: Treat others the way you would like to be treated in their place. And for anyone WANTING TO ACT MORALLY, this rule is an excellent and most effective means to make this world a more beautiful, better and happier place!

The objection that this principle was not applicable to animals, because we do not know how animals would like to be treated, is, considering our knowledge of the interests and needs of animals, factually absurd and morally dishonest. If we want to, we do know very well how animals would like to be treated. And especially how they would NOT like to be treated. Everyone who is not completely out of his mind knows that the life that we expect many animals to live is not the life that they want to live – and that we would want to live in their place!

The real problem in applying the Golden Rule to animals, or to be more precise, in putting ourselves in the place of the animals, is that it is so EASY – and that the result is so terrible in many cases: Anyone who is informed, even superficially, about what happens on animal transports, in factory farms, in abattoirs etc., and then imagines his dog or cat in such a situation (as a sort of bridge to putting himself in the place of other animals), is in danger of going mad with empathy and horror.

It is precisely this illustration of what the Golden Rule implies, factually and emotionally, this intensification of moral situations that cuts right to the heart of moral value and moral responsibility, that reveals what is probably the most common reason for the Rule’s rejection: All of us who accept the Golden Rule, this Theory of Everything in Ethics, are—in a moral sense—putting ourselves on the spot.

This text is based on the segment “Golden Rule” in my latest German book “Ich esse meine Freunde nicht oder Warum unser Umgang mit Tieren falsch ist” (English translation of the title: “I Do Not Eat My Friends or Why the Way We Treat Animals is Wrong”)

© Helmut F. Kaplan

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Helmut Kaplan (Mon, 27 Sep 2010 12:16)
helmut_kaplan@yahoo.de

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