Last time we suggested that value pluralism1 should only pose a problem for the Golden Rule if we apply the Rule simplistically, which the Rule itself should steer us away from. We will now consider another aspect which, ironically, could imply the Golden Rule might often be impossible to obey in practice, and particularly when we need it most.
We said last time that Kant did not want his readers to think his notion of duty – formulated as the categorical imperative – was just a rewrite of the Silver Rule (the Golden Rule in its negative formulation). He saw the Silver Rule as both banal and flawed.
Kant’s second objection to the Rule is that it excludes benevolent duties to others. Yes it might be true that
many a man would gladly consent to not receiving benefits from others if that would let him off from showing benevolence to them. (1785, 2017:30)1
But we have already said the Rules can and should be applied in their own spirit. If I want to be treated according to my own preferences, then I should treat others according to their preferences. So I would only be let off showing benevolence to others if those others did not want benevolence. It would be a strange duty which persisted even though its intended beneficiaries wanted the opposite.
Immanuel Kant was rather scathing about our Rules. He was talking about Silver rather than Gold, but he could have had both in mind:
Don’t think that the banal ‘Don’t do to anyone else what you wouldn’t want done to you’ could serve here as a guide or principle. It is only a consequence of the real principle, and a restricted and limited consequence at that. It can’t be a universal law, because it doesn’t provide a basis for duties to oneself, or benevolent duties to others (for many a man would gladly consent to not receiving benefits from others if that would let him off from showing benevolence to them!), or duties to mete out just punishments to others (for the criminal would argue on this ground against the judge who sentences him). (1785, 2017:30)1