Enlightened Self-Interest

Without recourse to any other source of legitimacy, it is possible to explain to people why it is rational to adhere to the Golden Rule.  Put simply, it is in one’s self-interest to show consideration to other people, on the assumption that one may (eventually) receive similar consideration in return (though not necessarily from the same people).  This way of putting the argument invokes the concept of reciprocity.  The self-interest which underpins it can be referred to as ‘enlightened’ because one might not gain benefit for oneself from a good deed.  The benefit is to society as a whole.  One might benefit from the good deeds of others in a society accustomed to the practice.

In summary, it is rational to use the Golden Rule as a guide to moral behaviour.  That is not to say that everybody would agree with such a conclusion – as David Brooks remarked, in a New York Times review of the Edge seminar on The New Science of Morality:

“it might not satisfy those who want their morality to be awesome, formidable, transcendent or great”.

But an individual who does not see the need to show consideration to other people would perhaps not receive much kindness in return.  This would not be a happy situation for such individuals or anyone who came into contact with them.


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