The Golden Rule

Humanist ethics - a foundation for secular morality

‘Someone going to take a pointed stick to pinch a baby bird should first try it on himself to feel how it hurts’ – that’s a traditional saying from the religious tradition of the Yoruba people of Nigeria. I know this because each day I see it written out on a poster, designed for classrooms, which I have on the wall of my office. I’m looking at it right now.

The poster displays, in a rainbow of differently coloured text, the many various versions of the ‘Golden Rule’, the moral principle of treating others as you would wish to be treated in their situation (the Yoruba version is my favourite). They range in time from the bang up-to-date UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights, through the philosophy of Cicero in ancient Rome and of Mill and Sartre in modern Europe, to the earliest recorded versions of the rule, more than two and a half millennia ago, in the teachings of Confucius and Buddha. They span the globe from the sayings of the Guru Granth Sahib in the East, through Africa, Europe and the Middle East, to the native ethical tradition of North America. They come from traditions that are commonly described as secular, and from those that are commonly described as religious.

In a society where religion and virtue are often portrayed as correlating, those seeking to live good lives without religion can sometimes be made to feel that they are somehow deficient in their morality or ethics. But, for humanists, the widespread appearance of the golden rule, determined for themselves by human communities around the globe and across time, provides a foundation of secular morality.

History is a laboratory of human nature and when we see how communities of people in all parts of the world and in all times have discovered for themselves this principle of shared living, it should give those who live humanist lives great encouragement. Part of the humanist approach to ethics is that humanity doesn’t need gods or their prophets to deliver the precepts of good living to us.

This is a part of the rational approach to ethics, morality, and human relationships that people living humanist lives take as their ethical bedrock. Not handed down by a god or the prophet of a god, the golden rule is not an inflexible commandment but determined through trial and error, and the experiments in community living that were made by our earliest ancestors. It is a rule necessary for the survival of communities, which speaks of the long cooperative history of our species. Whether its origins are biological - our closest relatives, chimpanzees, also live in communities - or cultural, it is a principle that all people of good will, humanist and religious, can aspire to embody in our own lives. If it is liberated from doctrine, and allowed to become a living rule, refreshing itself with its application to each new ethical problem, it can resolve most of the dilemmas that we face.

The trick is to make it applicable to all situations – to divorce it from scripture and commandments – and to apply it universally, not just to those we consider like us, in appearance, or beliefs. The far-flung and ancient existence of the golden rule gives secular ethics its foundation stone, and is a constant reminder of the shared adventure of life that all people alive today are so lucky to be experiencing.

Andrew works for the British Humanist Association on education and public affairs. As well as campaigning for the inclusion of non-religious philosophies such as humanism in the school curriculum, he has published articles criticising worship in schools.
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David Cameron's prisons speech could be the start of something good

If the Prime Minister puts his words into action, then this speech could mark the beginning of a big shift on prisons policy. 

David Cameron’s speech condemning prisons as violent and failing could herald a seismic change in policy. He is absolutely right to point to the waste of money, effort and lives that characterises today’s prison system. He is also right about the direction of travel that needs to be taken and some of his ideas are at the very least worthy of discussion. The most important reform was missing, as none of his aspirations can happen unless the sheer number of men, women and children in prison is cut, and cut radically. Sentencing reform is the lynchpin.

The detailed proposals will be scrutinised as they are rolled out over the coming months, but the urgent over-riding challenge is to cut the prison population. Last week the number of men in prison increased by 185, and in the last four weeks the prison population has gone up by 684 men and women. Prison overcrowding is not standing still, it is rapidly deteriorating.

Chris Grayling closed 18 prisons and wings, reallocating the population into the shrunk estate. He cut prison staff by more than a third in each prison. The result was overcrowded, understaffed, violent prisons full of drugs and very disaffected staff trying to control frustrated prisoners on restricted regimes.

I was expecting some thinking on who we send to prison and what we do with them when they are incarcerated to create the conditions for radical reform. I was disappointed as the proposals were oddly reminiscent of things that Labour tried and contributed to this mess in the first place.

Labour was very proud of building lots of new prisons, hoping that they would build their way out of an overcrowding crisis. What happened of course was that new prisons were filled even before they were completed so the old prisons couldn’t be closed. Today we hear that £1.3 billion will be spent on building ‘reform prisons’ that will pilot new ways of working. My worry is that they will become warehouses unless the sheer number of prisons is restricted and resources are allocated to allow for just the sort of flexibility being proposed.

Giving governors more autonomy sounds good, and I support it in principle, but they always used to have their own budgets with discretion to choose how to spend it, including commissioning education and other services. It is no good having increased autonomy if they are constantly firefighting an overcrowding crisis and not given the resources, including well trained prison staff, to implement new ideas.

We already have league tables for prisons. Every few months assessments of how prisons are performing are published, along with regular inspections and independent boards monitor conditions. Reoffending rates are published but this information is less robust as prisoners tend to move round the system so how can one establishment be accountable.

I was pleased to hear that work inside prisons is going to be a key reform. But, the Prime Minister referred to a small project in one prison. Projects with desultory training in the few hours that men get to spend out of their cells will not instil a work ethic or achieve work readiness. Prisoners get a pack of cereals and a teabag at night so they don’t have breakfast, are not showered or clean, are wearing sweaty and shabby clothes.

Every day men and women are released from prison to go to work in the community as part of their programme of reintegration. This is extremely successful with incredibly few failures. So what is the point of adding extra expense to the public by tagging these people, unless the purpose is just to feed the coffers of the private security companies.

There are imaginative ways of using technology but what was being suggested today looks as though it is just adding restrictions by tracking people. That would be neither creative nor effective.

David Cameron is looking to his legacy. I fear that I could be listening to a Prime Minister in five or ten years bewailing the dreadful prison conditions in institutions that are no different to today’s overcrowded dirty prisons, except that they were built more recently. He will have achieved a massive investment of capital into expanding the penal estate but, whilst there will be more prisons, even the new jails could be overcrowded, stinking and places of inactivity and violence.

I want the Prime Minister to look back on today’s speech with pride because it achieved humanity in a system that is currently failing. I would like to see a prison system in decades to come that is purposeful, with men and women busy all day, getting exercise for the mind, body and soul. I would like to see prisons that only hold people who really need to be there because they have committed serious and violent crimes but whose lives will be turned around, who achieve redemption in their own eyes and that of victims and the public.

My job is to hold him to account for this vision. If what he announced today achieves radical reform and changes lives for the better, I will cheer. I will be watching.

Frances Crook is the Chief Executive of the Howard League for Penal Reform.