Peter Singer's universal ethics under fire

The pitfalls of the golden rule

“Treat others as you would expect others to treat you.” This seemingly simple and benign imperative is, according to several world religions, the “Golden Rule”, the cornerstone one morality. But others claim it is in fact deeply misguided, unrealistic, and even undesirable as a guide to ethics. At HowTheLightGetsIn festival in London, Peter Singer, one of the most celebrated contemporary ethicists, defended the value of this universal moral principle against strong critique from professor of law at Yale Law School Daniel Markovits, and renowned feminist, ethicist, and psychologist Carol Gilligan.


The question of how to build any moral system is inherently vexed. Friedrich Nietzsche in Beyond Good and Evil proclaimed that ‘systems of morals are only a sign-language of the emotions’. And ‘with a philosopher nothing is at all impersonal’.

The objection that the moral systems of philosophers derived from reason and

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Larry Colero 1 October 2023

In my view, the Golden Rule endures as the mother of all ethics principles. Various versions of the Rule are expressed in virtually all faiths and many philosophies, reflecting the aspirations of selfless love, empathy and compassion. In some cases, the Golden Rule alone can provide all the clarity needed to understand how to treat others, i.e., how to put ethical principles into practice.

But often, instinctive or emotional motivation may require thinking through, or at least attempting to understand the other person’s perspective before taking action. A sincere concern for the well-being of others often (not always) requires that the “other” agrees with our concepts of their well-being.

The article above highlights the importance of this situational analysis prior to taking any rule-based action. Understanding the circumstances and how others think and feel can be critical to effectively enacting the Golden Rule. (They may not need or want our help!)

Perhaps that is why this overarching principle is often revealed through the heart - as an instinctive guide towards an unselfish, perhaps even self-sacrificing action (or inaction). In the end, there remains a need to empathize with the other, and to respect that their situation, perceptions, needs and desires may be very different from our own.

For anyone interested, I chose to portray the Golden Rule as the fundamental principle in my widely-used "universal" framework of 19 ethics principles at UniversalEthics [dot] com, first published on the University of British Columbia’s Centre for Applied Ethics website.