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The Limited Usefulness of Moral Codes for Ethical Behavior (Part II)

By Dr. Gary Deel, Ph.D., J.D.
Faculty Director, School of Business, American Public University

In the first part of this article, we looked at two of the moral codes that have been propounded by philosophers to address ethical decision making — the iron rule and the brass rule. We concluded that both have very limited utility in today’s peace-loving society. In this second part, we will examine some of the other rules offered for ethical guidance, and how each of them is also limited in its own ways.

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The Golden Rule and the Silver Rule Are in Fact One and the Same

The golden rule is perhaps the best-known “rule” of all. Some interpretation of the golden rule can be found in almost every major religion on the planet. Although, like the brass rule, there is historical evidence of the golden rule’s inception some 5,000 years ago, earlier than the establishment of most of the world’s religions today.

The golden rule is typically written as “do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” The silver rule, which is usually written “do not do unto others as you would not have them do unto you” is actually just an implied derivative of the golden rule. The only actual distinction between the two is the negation of the active voice in the silver rule.

For many who read the golden and silver rules in sequence for the first time, it may be difficult to see any meaningful distinction. However, the difference lies in the fact that the main philosophy of the silver rule is to simply prohibit conduct that the actor would not wish done around him or her; in other words, the silver rule is all about the omission of action. By contrast, the golden rule implies an affirmative duty to perform positive acts in service to others, so long as those acts are consistent with the behavior the actor would want others to exercise around him or her.

We might be tempted to think that the golden rule is flawless, especially because of its widespread teaching in faith systems. However, closer examination in context reveals obvious weaknesses.

Let’s look to the World War II example again. Suppose that we are members of the Allied forces who have just witnessed unprovoked attacks by Germany and Japan. If violence is not the sort of ethical conduct that we desire from others, then both the silver and golden rules demand that we refrain from any type of military response.

Note that these two rules do not admit exceptions for revenge, retaliation or even self-defense. If we were to maintain rigid compliance with these two rules, we would be left with no option but to “turn the other cheek” and stand idly by as Nazi Germany and imperial Japan slaughtered their way across the globe.

It’s worth noting that Gandhi really struggled with these absurd admonitions from the silver and golden rules. As a pacifist, Gandhi rejected any type of violence, even in self-defense, but he could not reconcile these ostensibly moral rules with their obviously unacceptable outcomes.

Gandhi eventually revealed some serious flaws in the pacifist’s position. When asked about how Jews in concentration camps should respond to the Holocaust, he once suggested – in an obviously flawed attempt at moral reckoning — that they should commit mass suicide as a non-violent admonishment of the Nazi cause. Clearly no one is perfect, and in fairness to Gandhi, he was honest about the fact that this was a point of conflict and difficulty for him.

The Tin Rule Is a Special Conglomeration of Two Previously Discussed Rules

The tin rule suggests that individuals should behave with brute callousness toward those who are inferior to them. In addition, they should behave with careful consideration and compassion toward those who are their superiors.

In this sense, the tin rule is something of a melding of the iron rule (toward those below) with the golden rule (toward those above). This rule would advocate a bullying stance toward those who are weaker and an obsequious stance toward those who are stronger.

Using our World War II example again, historians might argue that Benito Mussolini adopted a tin rule policy for fascist Italy. The Italians respected and allied themselves with the militarily superior Nazi Germany, but used their power to help conquer smaller and weaker European and North African countries.

Although we obviously frown upon this type of behavior in civilized societies today, it’s worth noting that much of the animal kingdom, including the rest of our primate brethren, practice the tin rule with regularity. As unjust as it may be, it nonetheless holds significant survival value.

The Nepotism Rule Is Actually More of a Caveat to the Rest of the Rules

The final rule to be discussed in this article, the nepotism rule, is actually more of a caveat to the rest of the rules we’ve discussed. The nepotism rule is simply a condition by which priority in treatment and consideration is given to those who are personally close to the actor at the expense of those who are not.

So family and friends receive privileged treatment with respect to ethical decision making, while strangers or enemies receive no such consideration. This is also sometimes referred to as favoritism.

In World War II, the Nazi leadership emphasized loyalty to the party and loyalty to the fuhrer above all else. Those who pledged allegiance to Hitler and the Third Reich were rewarded with positions of power and authority. Those who defied the will of the party were severely – often fatally — punished.

The same was true in Imperial Japan as evidenced by the feudal cliques or hambatsu that caused division and rivalry within Japanese society for centuries. In all cases, nepotism and favoritism obviously violate the objectivity that should underpin sound moral reasoning.

One thing should be strikingly clear from this article’s analysis of moral codes: There are no one-size-fits-all rules that have superior value in all circumstances.

Instead, if we wish to make the most ethical decisions possible, we must assess each situation on its own merits; we must adopt the moral positions that best meet the challenges of the circumstances. Unquestionably, this adaptability is a difficult skill to learn, but it is perhaps the surest way to lead an optimally ethical life.

About the Author

Dr. Gary Deel is a Faculty Director with the School of Business at American Public University. He holds a J.D. in Law and a Ph.D. in Hospitality/Business Management. He teaches human resources and employment law classes for American Public University, the University of Central Florida, Colorado State University and others.

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