Friday, July 13, 2007

The Mason Catechism

Catechism sometimes takes the form of question and answer. In our home, I often run through a little moral catechism with my children. I ask the questions, and my children answer.

Q: What's more important: being strong or being smart?
A: Being smart.
Q: What's more important: being smart or being good?
A: Being good.
Q: What is it to be good?
A: To treat others the right way.
Q: What is it to treat others the right way?
A: To treat them the way that I want to be treated.

I do this because I want for my children to first have a firm grasp of right and wrong. Religious education should, I think, only follow on this, for if it does not, a child might wrongly conclude that the sole motive to do what's right is divine reward and punishment. We do what's right because it's right - no other reason.

The Q and A above is incomplete, and my older children have, I think, begun to realize why. My little girl recently asked if she could hurt someone if she herself wanted to be hurt. (I don't think she meant that she really did want to be hurt. Her question was hypothetical.) The answer of course is "No, you may not." But if the last A - treat others the way that you want to be treated - were in all strictness true, one may hurt others if one oneself wishes to be hurt.

So then that last A has to be fixed. But how? Should we say this: "Treat others the way that you would want to be treated if you wanted to be treated the right way." True enough, but it doesn't really help us get clear about what it is to treat others in the right way. Rather it presupposes that we already understand it.

How about this: "Treat others in such a way that the goals they pursue are to you as important as the goals you pursue". I very much like the idea here, but the formulation just won't do. Some goals are quite wicked and should be given no weight at all. Nor can we add that the goals must be good ones. If we did, we would be as much in the dark as we were before; "good goal" is as much in need of explanation as is "right action".

So, then, my question is this: What really should be the last A? Can the Golden Rule be rescued? Any suggestions would be most welcome.


jdavidb said...

So, suppose someone wants to take a risk that they might get hurt, for a reward that is possible, but not certain. Is it then acceptable to, at their request, take the action that might hurt them?

And if so, where's the tradeoff point? How certain does the harm have to be, and/or how low does the possibility or the value of the benefit have to be, and/or how low or high does the ratio between those figures have to be before it ceases to be acceptable to take an action that might hurt someone, for a potential benefit?

:) Sorry; I hope you don't mind people who show up and throw a monkey wrench into your musings and make you think more. :P :)

If you're looking for examples of when those situations might be possible, think of risky medical treatments. And if you're wondering how blurred the lines could be, think about whether or not people can pursue alternative treatments that they think evidence supports but which haven't been studied in detail enough scientifically to say what the odds are for sure.

Of course, this applies to a lot more than medical decisions. I might "hurt" my family by spending an extra hour at work. But that extra hour might somehow net me a million dollars and enable me to retire and spend the rest of my life with my family without working. Okay, now suppose it's an entire year at work, and the reward is only half a million dollars. Where's the point at which I must, morally, say no?

Franklin Mason said...


I saw the smile, but do let me reply to your comment "Sorry, I hope you don't mind people who show up and throw a monkey wrench into your musings and make you think more." One reason - maybe the most important - why I post is so that others might help me to refine my views. So of course I don't mind. In fact, I'd mind if someone didn't do it.

Your point about harm is well taken. It might be that in some cases, it would be acceptable to harm someone who wishes to be harmed. (An example: a man wishes his leg amputated so that his life might be saved.) But as to the point where the degree of harm makes it unacceptable, I have no idea how to answer in general. There is such a point, no doubt; and we can sometimes tell when it's been crossed. But where precisely it lies, I have no idea. (Perhaps there is no precise point at which it lies. Perhaps there's real moral vagueness here. If there were, I don't think that we should be overly troubled.)

But though it is permissible in some cases to harm someone who wishes to be harmed, this doesn't mean that we can rescue the Golden Rule (viz, Do unto others as you would have them do unto you). You might wish harm done to you for no good reason at all. It might be an outgrowth of insanity, for example. In such a case, the fact that you wish to be harmed does not give you permission to harm others. You wish harm done to you, but this does not sanction harm that you might do to others.

Erik said...

Hmm...I've always read this verse as saying "Don't interpose your will or body to another person unless they request it" or "Don't do anything detrimental to another human that might cause a halt to their personal progression".

Just my 2¢

Franklin Mason said...

Those two principles may well be true, but they don't seem to capture what the Golden Rule says.

1. "Don't interpose your will or body to another person unless they request it."

It does seem right to say that no one wishes another to impose on them unless they say otherwise. But this isn't the only thing that people want. They also want, for instance, to be loved and respected. So since the GR is about everything we wish for ourselves, 1 seems narrower than the GR. Think of it this way: 1 is purely negative. It only says what others can't do to you. But the GR also speaks of those positive things you owe to other people.

2. "Don't do anything detrimental to another human that might cause a halt to their personal progression."

Life before, this is a purely negative rule. It only gives an example of something you can't do to others. It doesn't say what positive things - like love or respect - you might owe them. But the GR isn't purely negative, and so as before 2 seems narrower than the GR.

Erik said...

Can a person look at this rule exclusively and keep it within the parameters of optimism? I think there is a negative aspect to it, as both Confucius and Hillel framed the ethic of reciprocity negatively:

"What you do not wish upon yourself, extend not to others." -Confucius

"What is hateful to you, do not to your fellow man." -Hillel

Of course, I'm just an observant teenager and you have the phd in philosophy (which I hope to get one day)

Franklin Mason said...

Age doesn't matter a bit here. Only the quality of the argument.

Your point is well taken. The Golden Rule does have a negative aspect, at least implicitly. The idea seems to be both that we do to others what we want them to do to us, and don't do to them what we don't want done to us. But the negative aspect is only half of it. It has the positive half as well, which tells us that we can't just sit back and not mistreat others. It tells us to get up and do those things for them that we wish done for ourselves.

Erik said...

Yes, this is true. "Therfore to him that knoweth how to do good, and doth it not, to him it is sin."

But this is not really accomplishing your original goal, and that is to perfect the Mason Catechism.

Have you come up with any solutions thus far?

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