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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Jeremy Corbyn's opponents are going down a blind alley on tuition fees

The electoral pool they are fishing in is shallow – perhaps even non-existent. 

The press and Labour’s political opponents are hammering Jeremy Corbyn over his party's pledge/ambition/cruel lie to win an election (delete depending on your preference) to not only abolish tuition fees for new students, but to write off the existing debts of those who have already graduated.

Labour has conceded (or restated, again, depending on your preference) that this is merely an “ambition” – that the party had not pledged to wipe out existing tuition fee debt but merely to scrap fees.

The party’s manifesto and the accompanying costings document only included a commitment to scrap the fees of students already in the system. What the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats are claiming as a pledge is the following remark, made by Jeremy Corbyn in his Q&A with NME readers:

“First of all, we want to get rid of student fees altogether. We’ll do it as soon as we get in, and we’ll then introduce legislation to ensure that any student going from the 2017-18 academic year will not pay fees. They will pay them, but we’ll rebate them when we’ve got the legislation through – that’s fundamentally the principle behind it. Yes, there is a block of those that currently have a massive debt, and I’m looking at ways that we could reduce that, ameliorate that, lengthen the period of paying it off, or some other means of reducing that debt burden. I don’t have the simple answer for it at this stage – I don’t think anybody would expect me to, because this election was called unexpectedly; we had two weeks to prepare all of this – but I’m very well aware of that problem. And I don’t see why those that had the historical misfortune to be at university during the £9,000 period should be burdened excessively compared to those that went before or those that come after. I will deal with it.”

Is this a promise, an aspiration or a target? The answer probably depends on how you feel about Jeremy Corbyn or fees policy in general. (My reading, for what it’s worth, is that the full quote looks much more like an objective than a promise to my eyes but that the alternative explanation is fair enough, too.)

The more interesting question is whether or not there is an electoral prize to be had, whether from the Conservatives or the Liberal Democrats, for hammering Labour on this topic. On that one the answer is open and shut: there really isn’t one.

Why not? Because the evidence is clear: that pledging to abolish tuition fees largely moves two groups of voters: students who have yet to graduate and actually start paying back the fees, and their parents and grandparents, who are worried about the debt burden.

There is not a large caucus of fee-paying graduates – that is, people who have graduated and are earning enough to start paying back their tuition fees – who are opposed to the system. (We don’t have enough evidence but my expectation is that the parents of people who have already graduated are also less fussed. They can see that their children are not crippled by tuition fee debt, which forms a negligible part of a graduate’s tax and living expenses, as opposed to parents who are expecting a worrying future for their children who have yet to graduate.)

Put simply, there isn’t a large group of people aged 21 or above voting for Corbyn who are that concerned about a debt write-off. Of those that are, they tend to have an ideological stance on the value of a higher education system paid for out of general taxation – a stance that makes it much harder for the Conservatives or the Liberal Democrats to peel those votes off.

The whole thing is a bit of a blind alley for the parties of the centre and right. The Tory difficulty at this election wasn’t that they did badly among 18-21s, though they did do exceptionally badly. With the exception of the wave year of 1983, they have always tended to do badly with this group. Their problem is that they are doing badly with 30-45s, usually the time in life that some younger Labour voters begin to vote Conservative, largely but not exclusively because they have tended to get on the property ladder.

Nowadays of course, that cohort, particularly in the south of England, is not getting on the property ladder and as a result is not turning blue as it ages. And that’s both a bigger worry and a more lucrative electoral target for Labour’s opponents than litigating an NME interview.

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.