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 reflection were subject to the very same biases they claimed to be free from, was profoundly devastating. Whether it be the Stoics, Immanuel Kant, Rene Descartes or any system of ethical law that claimed to be totalizing and universal, they would always at some level reflect the prejudices and worldview of those who constructed them.

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A century and a half later though, in the philosophy departments of many universities, some still believe themselves to be impervious to this critique. The great moral philosophers from Derek Parfitt to Henry Sidgwick, and now the influential Peter Singer, argue that they can maintain an objective system of moral principles, true for all times and places.

One of these principles being stubbornly defended is the Golden Rule. Found in almost every world religion, uniting everyone from the late Christopher Hitchens to evangelical Christians and 92% of the American population, ‘do unto others as they would unto you’ is one of the most profound and far-reaching moral laws to have entered humanity’s consciousness. As John Locke famously put, the Golden Rule is ‘the most unshaken law of morality’.

But recently the legitimacy of the Golden Rule has been put into question. First, it has been suggested that people with a sense of extremely low self-worth, of which there are surprisingly many, should not treat others as they would wish to be treated, as this would result in these individuals valuing others in the same, lowly way that they value themselves.

But far more importantly, in a study conducted by Kirsten Corrazini and others in care settings, they concluded that ‘it is unrealistic to assume that you could truly understand an individual's wishes, needs, interests or preferences’. Thus, the application of the Golden Rule is sometimes harmful as it results in individuals imposing their own preferences on others regardless of whether they would want that.


The Golden Rule applied literally has the potential to lead to unintended harm.


For instance, in health economics, it is very common to defer to Quality Adjusted Life Years (QALY), which multiplies years to live by ‘Quality of Life’ to determine who should be allocated medical resources in times of scarcity. A common complaint that is now being taken extremely seriously is that disabled individuals are often assigned a lower quality of life than they subjectively feel. This primarily is because those who assign non-abled bodied individuals with a lower quality of life often fail to understand their experience, and shoehorn their own conception of what such a condition would mean to them. Therefore, the Golden Rule applied literally has the potential to lead to unintended harm.

These were just some of the important ethical questions debated at the most recent Howthelightgetsin Festival on one of the most hotly anticipated panels that weekend, ‘A Rule To Live By’. The panel comprised of one of the most decorated ethicists of the 20th and 21st century Peter Singer, Professor of Law at Yale Law School Daniel Markovits and renowned feminist, ethicist, and psychologist Carol Gilligan.

The opening question was clear enough, and first presented first to Carol Gilligan: Should we abandon the Golden Rule?

Sort of…The problem with the Golden Rule she argued, was that in a series of interviews that she had conducted with women after the passing of Roe v Wade by the US Supreme Court, the application of the rule was incompatible with the attitudes they held towards themselves. That is, when women were deciding whether to have an abortion or not, they thought of their own choice to be driven by selfish, rather than moral considerations, even though they were more charitable towards other women making the same choice.

In some situations, the Golden Rule ought to be inverted so that one should ‘do unto yourself, as you would have to others’. By treating yourself with the same respect that you afford to others, you can empower yourself with moral agency.

Peter Singer was quick to jump to the defence of the Golden Rule. It is a strong, generalizable principle that should be treated with care. We should be mindful that when we apply the rule we imagine that we were in the other person’s situation and we ought to take an ‘impartial’ moral view. ‘Impartial’ being a subject that would be hotly contested on the panel.

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Daniel Markovits disagreed with Singer. In his professional teaching career he has to teach views that he finds abhorrent with the same enthusiasm that he teaches views that he finds true and honourable. The Golden Rule doesn’t work here because we have to allow for the possibility that, for example, university professors expose students to worldviews that could potentially lead to damaging consequences for them. The impartiality that the Golden Rule seems to call for here doesn’t guarantee the ethical treatment of the other.

In what followed, Singer doubled down on his support of the Golden Rule. We need to be a little more sophisticated. ‘We should put ourselves in the position of everyone’ whose interests we ought to weigh impartially. In the same vein as Henry Sidgwick, morality is a rational enterprise whose axioms are self-evident. Morality is not simply about our intuitions and in fact these have evolutionary routes that should often be discarded. This marks a considerable shift from Singer’s early view.

Gilligan and Markovits remained unconvinced. Impartiality is far more complicated. As Markovits put it, how would an Evangelical Christian treat the interests of an atheist Jew impartially? On the one hand, they should devote time and energy to converting someone who is non-religious as they would believe that their soul is at stake. But on the other hand, this might be deeply offensive and counterproductive. What is one to do? In circumstances like these, impartiality is simply not possible. We need a politics and an intersubjective set of practices to mediate these kinds of situations.

Gilligan buttressed this point further. Who is the we? Who is the impartial agent? And how do we even  ground an impartial ethics -- a view from nowhere -- in the absence of a God?

Singer remained unconvinced. He argues that we should draw a distinction between making ethical judgements for ourselves and building a society that instantiates those ethical judgements. Whereas it might be easier to exercise impartiality when it comes to our own moral deliberations, politics is a lot more complicated, and impartiality might be harder to achieve in that context, as Markovits was pointing out.


Whilst there are a series of complaints about the Golden Rule, the instinct that everyone’s life is equally important and we shouldn’t treat people in ways that are harmful or humiliating, is a good place to begin an individual ethic.


Markovits was still not content that Singer had dealt with the thrust of his argument and attacked Singer’s notion of an impartial ethics from another angle. Ethical judgements are embedded within a context and a reciprocal relationship with others. Any relationship has the feature that no one in that relationship has the whole, impartial perspective on it. We have to take part in an ethical system whilst realising that our perspectives are never the full story. Given this, we need to realise that ethics isn’t objective in the way that Singer would like to think.

Singer felt this critique not particularly substantive. We can simply respect other people’s values when we disagree, and without riding rough shot over them, try subtly to persuade them out of views that we might find abhorrent. We should certainly apply the idea of ‘how would I like it in that situation?’ much more widely to those suffering in abject poverty or non-human animals.

Myriam Francois, the host, interjected: Would a move away from the Golden Rule, therefore, risk us losing our moral compass? Here, Markovits’s conclusions were more modest. It’s true that you can’t make an omelette without breaking any eggs, but as Hannah Arendt once said, you can break a great many eggs without making an omelette. Whilst there are a series of complaints about the Golden Rule, the instinct that everyone’s life is equally important and we shouldn’t treat people in ways that are harmful or humiliating, is a good place to begin an individual ethic. To jettison this too quickly would be dangerous.


Gilligan emphasised that ethics must be considered within the context of a community of relationships, and we need to be vigilant that rational systems of ethics don’t lose this. Any search for the ‘we’ or the ‘impartial’ agent of ethics is a pointless excursion.


Singer held true to his opening statement. We need a broad Golden Rule principle that takes into consideration distant strangers, animals that are not members of our species and interestingly those not yet born. A momentary salute to longtermism, popularised by Will MacAskill, that we ought devote far greater resources to lives not yet lived.

In closing, Gilligan emphasised that ethics must be considered within the context of a community of relationships, and we need to be vigilant that rational systems of ethics don’t lose this. Any search for the ‘we’ or the ‘impartial’ agent of ethics is a pointless excursion.

We have not yet reached a cultural moment where we believe morality can be objective and impartial in some way, despite the efforts of moral realists. But at the same time, we long ago abandoned the idea that morality was merely perspectival. In fact, it can be somewhat self-undermining to claim that ‘all moral laws are perspectival’, this statement itself acting as a universal moral law.

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Aristotle’s virtue ethics seems apt here. We must practice our moral character within a polis, relative to a certain set of guides — the virtues. We cannot simply follow a set of moral laws. Ethics is a reciprocal relationship, and we need to develop our moral wisdom to navigate certain situations. This could even be taken as a warning against Aristotle himself, as he famously believed that women and slaves could never be fully virtuous; an attitude that we have thus outgrown. And if moral principles like the Golden Rule help us outgrow the prejudice of philosophers, as Nietzsche put it, surely this can only be a good thing.

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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.