Meru Foundation eTORUS(tm)
Number 25 – 1 November 2004
Copyright 2004 Meru Foundation
Edited by Levanah (Cynthia) Tenen
On September 1-2, Stan was the featured guest on the national overnight
radio program, "Coast to Coast AM with George Noory". The response we
received -- both during and after the program -- was extraordinarily
positive. The producers of "Coast to Coast AM" listen to feedback from
their audience -- so if you would like Stan to be invited back, please
let them know. (If you didn't hear the interview live, it's still
available on the "Coast to Coast AM" website via a subscription to
their "Streamlink" service -- see http://www.coasttocoastam.com/shows/2004/09/01.html for details.)
I want to welcome all of you receiving this Meru Foundation eTORUS
newsletter for the first time because you listened to Stan's interview,
and contacted us. Thank you all for your feedback -- and for your
support of our work. eTORUS is published four to six times per year.
It's the best way to stay informed about Stan's guest appearances (such
as the "Coast to Coast AM" interview), about articles published on the
Meru research, and our US travel schedule. We occasionally review books
of interest; and often, we offer eTORUS readers a "first look" at some
of Stan's articles and essays in progress.
Previous issues of eTORUS are archived on Meru Foundation's website, at http://www.meru.org/Newsletter/journalindex.html .
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TO DO OR NOT TO
DO: Some Thoughts on the Golden Rule
A few weeks ago, I was watching a round-table discussion that included
a number of theologians and a number of skeptics, including Michael
Shermer, who writes the monthly column "Skeptic" for Scientific
American. In defense of the theological position, it was suggested that
one of the benefits of religion is its advocacy of the Golden Rule.
This is undoubtedly so, and we are planning to discuss this issue at
greater length in the future. What was initially surprising -- but on
consideration, not surprising at all -- was Michael Shermer's response.
He pointed out that any thinking creature sufficiently advanced to have
a theory of mind* would naturally also appreciate the Golden Rule. In
other words, the Golden Rule is not dependent on pre-existing belief or
faith; it is also desirable from the objective perspective of a person
who recognizes the humanity and feelings of other people. The Golden
Rule forms a bridge that connects theology and the world of faith, with
the life-sciences and the world of reason. One might even say, "As
above" (in the world of faith), "So below" (in the world of science).
There are many different versions of the Golden Rule. These range from
the terse "alchemical" Golden Rule, "As Above/So Below" at one extreme,
to the vernacular "What goes around, comes around," at the other
extreme, and to the two different formal versions that are most
well-known -- one stated in the positive and most identified with
Christian tradition, and the other in the negative, the earlier form
that is most identified with Jewish tradition.
1) Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.
2) Do not do to others what is hateful to you. (R. Hillel's traditional
version, otherwise known as "Torah on one foot"**)
What's the difference?
As an example of the difference, here is a moral test that scholars and
philosophers use to illustrate problems one encounters when attempting
to apply the Golden Rule.
You're standing on a high point, overlooking railroad tracks. In front
of you is a switch that can divert an oncoming train from one track,
where ten people are standing, to another track, where one person is
standing. Neither the one person, nor the group of ten, know about each
other, nor are they aware of the approaching train. The train will
inevitably kill either the ten people if you do nothing, or the single
person if you throw the switch.
Currently, the track is set so that the ten people will be killed, and
you -- standing on the high point -- control the switch. If you do
nothing, ten are killed. If you throw the switch, one is killed.
The Golden Rule, stated in the positive, leaves you in a quandary. You
would _like_ to treat others as you would want to be treated. But how
can you choose?
If you are one of the ten, you certainly would want a person standing
on a high point (controlling the switch) to divert the train to the
track that will kill the single person -- and not you.
If you are the single person, you would want the person controlling the
switch to leave it where it is -- pointing _away_ from you. You would
find it very hateful for someone to throw a switch that diverts a train
from a track that was not bearing down on you, to the track where you
are standing, and thus take your life. This would be all the more true
if you never knew about, nor ever heard of the fate, of the ten people
grouped on the other track. All you would know was that someone had
thrown the switch, and caused the train to bear down on you. Clearly
you would find this hateful.
The Golden Rule, stated in the positive, does not offer moral guidance
here. By telling you that you are to do something, when both choices
are what you would not want for yourself, you are left with no good
choice at all.
In this situation, the Golden Rule, stated in the negative, does offer
moral guidance. It tells you not to act when your action would be
hateful to you, if you were subject to it.
Since you could as easily be the single person as one of the ten, in
this instance taking any action would be as likely to be hateful to you
as not, regardless of what action it was -- while taking no action
leaves the outcome in the hands of God. While from your (and our)
finite perspective, the train must surely and inevitably kill someone,
from a higher perspective, "miracles are possible", and the train, even
while barreling down on either the one or the many, could derail and
hurt neither the one nor the many. And if you interfered and switched
the track, you might prevent this "save" from ever happening.
In the abstract, in this situation, the positively stated Golden Rule
does not offer unambiguous moral guidance, while the negatively stated
Golden Rule does.
Of course, we don't live in the abstract. In the real world, even a
morally unambiguous Golden Rule isn't necessarily going to allow us to
feel any better, and certainly not more virtuous, when anyone dies. But
the point is that every individual is a world, even a universe, and we
can't possibly choose between one and another. Perhaps the Golden Rule,
both positive and negative, is not here just for moral guidance, nor
only as a result of a theory of mind* that enables us to empathize with
the predicament of others. The Golden Rule, whether stated in the
positive or in the negative, enhances our humility by reminding us of
the limitations of our finite view.
*A person who has a theory of mind is a person who realizes that other
people have feelings, strengths, and weaknesses just as they do, and
thus they are aware of the effects on another person when they cause
that person joy or injury. And since they identify with the other
person -- "There but for the grace of God (or the luck of the draw) go
I" -- a person with a theory of mind treats others as they would like
to be treated themselves, and refrains from treating others as they
would not like to be treated themselves. For more on the concept of a
theory of mind, here is a link that may be helpful:
**From the Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Shabbat 31a: "On another
occasion it happened that a certain questioner came before Shammai and
said to him, "Make me a convert [to your beliefs], on condition that
you teach me the whole Torah while I stand on one foot." Thereupon,
[Shammai] responded to him with the builder's cubit which was in his
hand. When he [the questioner] went before Hillel, [Rabbi Hillel] said
to him, "What is hateful to you, do not to your neighbor: that is the
whole Torah. The rest is the commentary; go and study."
I hope you enjoy this Meru Foundation eTORUS(tm) Newsletter.
We welcome your comments and suggestions, and would like the
to speak with you personally.
If you have comments or questions, please send an email to Cynthia
at firstname.lastname@example.org with your phone
and a good time to call -- or, please call us at 781-784-8902 (Boston
I would like to brainstorm with you.
Thank you for your interest in the work of the Meru Foundation.
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