Failures of the Golden Rule

We can view the Golden Rule as a kind of mechanism implanted in us by our Creator, which serves as a means by which any of us can derive the basic principles of the moral law, as we wish, at any time. It is an internal compass, an internal failsafe.

Love God and love your neighbor as yourself: "On these two commandments depend all the law and the prophets" (Mt 22:40). You don't like to be harmed, to have someone take your stuff, to assail you, or subvert your family? Then "thou shalt not" steal, kill, or commit adultery yourself. Allow this mechanism to work, and we all enjoy security.

But if we are really intent on doing so, we can disable this mechanism, just like any safety mechanism. We can make it stop working as it should, so that we evade its force.

There are four common ways of doing so. It's easy to see -- simply as illustrations -- that each was at work, disabling the Golden Rule, so that we would accept the "peculiar institution" of slavery, and each still is at work disabling the Golden Rule so that we accept legal abortion.

The correct working of the Golden Rule requires that we (1) view the other as a being of the same kind as ourselves; (2) view the other as truly other and not simply as an extension of oneself; (3) view harm as harm, not glossing it as a benefit; and (4) that we be truthful about what it means to love oneself.

Here's what I have in mind. We must truthfully view the other as a being of the same kind as ourselves: "because that human being has a different skin color, he is a different, lower kind of being, not the same as myself"; "because the unborn child is immature, living in a liquidity dark space, it is not one of us, but a 'clump of cells.'" Adopt this stance, and the Golden Rule obviously becomes disabled.

Again, we must view the other as truly other, and not simply as an extension of oneself: "the chattel slave is the master's property, and you have no business telling him what to do with his property"; "the clump of cells is the woman's body, and you have no business telling her what to do with her own body." The rhetoric of the "right to privacy" has the precise purpose of disabling the Golden Rule in just this way.

Again, we must be honest that harm is harm: "the chattel slave actually is better off than he would have been in Africa, and he is well taken care of"; and "every child should be a wanted child," so that this child is saved by abortion from being unwanted. Or maybe let's fool ourselves into saying (as an MIT professor, Judith Jarvis Thomson, once did) that rather than poisoning or slicing up the clump of cells, we are simply detaching it from one place and repositioning it somewhere else. No harm no foul -- and the Golden Rule cannot do its work.

Or, again, we may simply misrepresent self-love, as if someone out of self-love might prefer slavery or death. If I wouldn't mind slavery, and I might prefer to kill myself in some circumstances, rather than face hardship, then for all we know slavery or death for others might be a form of love for them. To this line of thought, Lincoln replied: "as I would not be a slave, so I would not be a master." And I haven't met anyone yet who truly wished that he had been aborted.

What follows from all this? First, let's be clear that society as a whole has a responsibility for seeing that we all observe the Golden Rule and do not deliberately work to disable it, which throws all of our liberties and laws into jeopardy. Legal abortion requires many willing and self-deceived collaborators who should know better.

Then, let's also be clear that, although the Golden Rule should be at work for you and for me when we look upon any unborn child, for the mother and the father the mechanism of the Golden Rule should not even be required. Ordinary fatherly love and motherly love should suffice. As Our Lord remarked, "What man of you, if your child asks for a fish, will give him a serpent?" (Mt. 7:10).

So, we must ask the hard question: Why does the love of a mother fail in this case? Why does the love of a father fail?

But the moment we ask this question, we see the answer. These fail, because marriage is the ordinary means of procreation intended by God and supplied by human nature. We are not meant to have children outside of marriage, because having a child is too great a responsibility and needs the help of a spouse over a lifetime. And this is what marriage is, an institution ordered to procreation. Love for the child easily fails, the child becomes vulnerable and exposed, outside the "safety" of the marriage bond.

The upshot: divorce, cohabitation, sex before marriage, deluded "soul mate" understandings of marriage, marriage as self-fulfillment -- these are all of a piece with legal abortion. By no means should a woman in difficult circumstances be made into a scapegoat for these sins.

The Golden Rule tells us this.

- Michael Pakaluk, an Aristotle scholar and Ordinarius of the Pontifical Academy of St. Thomas Aquinas, is a professor in the Busch School of Business at the Catholic University of America. He lives in Hyattsville, MD, with his wife Catherine, also a professor at the Busch School, and their eight children. His latest book is "Mary's Voice in the Gospel of John" available from Amazon.