A friend of mine (thanks Karl!) sent me a link to a story in the Irish Times, way back on January 31: Unthinkable: Which ‘golden rule’ of ethics is best, the Christian or Confucian? It is an interview with Yinya Liu, who lectures in philosophy at NUI Maynooth. The central question concerns the difference between the "golden rule," most notably its Christian expression (i.e. do unto others as you would have them do unto you) and the so-called "silver rule," most famously in its Confucian form (i.e do not do to others what you would not want done to yourself).
Before we get to the central issue here - whether ethical reciprocity stated in a positive way is substantially different than ethical reciprocity stated in a negative way - let me first dispense with the "gold" v. "silver" silliness. On the face of it, branding the Confucian perspective as "silver" is a devaluation. I suspect it is the work of trans-lingual Jesuits, who came early to an understanding of Confucianism and worked hard to situate it in terms of Christianity. We really need to let go of such hierarchical categories if we are to think clearly about the subtleties of ethical reciprocity.
Regarding those apparent differences, let me suggest two points. First, at the end of the day, it seems to me that whether ethical reciprocity is expressed in a positive or a negative manner, we are still talking about the same thing: when thinking about the rightness or wrongness of a particular action or non-action, we should consider how we might evaluate the situation from the point of view of the other. Liu suggests some differences in negative and positive formulations:
“In either case, it is about human desires and human wants. The positive way – the golden rule – will emphasise what kind of person we are. But the problem is each individual is different. For example, if I am a greedy person I want more from the others. So this is the problem with the golden rule, or the positive way.
“The negative formulation commands us not to do onto others what we ourselves do not desire. There is not the same subjective imposition of preferences so we can find more common ground in the negative rather than the positive.”
I don't think this makes much of a difference. In the example of the greedy person, it would still be the case that he or she would not want another to treat him or her greedily, especially to the extent of some kind of personal harm. A masochist poses a greater challenge here, but this is obviously not in keeping with the spirit of the "golden rule." It is an exception that proves the rule's general applicability. Most of us, most of the time, are not masochists. And, in any event, the problem of the masochist is not settled by a negative expression of ethical reciprocity.
There are other problems with the "golden" rule, which are not settled by its "silver" expression. Perhaps most notably: how do we know how another person wants to be treated? Following our own preferences could violate the cultural and social norms of the other. But, again, this need not be fatal for ethical reciprocity. Obviously, making good moral choices, esepcially in inter-cultural contexts, can be a complex undertaking. What ethical recipricity provides is a cautionary standard: would we be willing to accept the treatment, or indifference, we are ready to mete out to another? Not a bad thing to keep in mind. It may not be the only thing to keep in mind, but it can oftern be of good practical use.
There is a second point to make here: Confucianism is not simply a matter of negative ethical reciprocity. There are a couple of well known expression of that notion in The Analects. 15.24 comes immediately to mind:
Zi Gong asked, saying, "Is there one word which may serve as a rule of practice for all one's life?" The Master said, "Is not RECIPROCITY such a word? What you do not want done to yourself, do not do to others."
As does 5.12:
Zi Gong said, "What I do not wish men to do to me, I also wish not to do to men." The Master said, "Ci, you have not attained to that."
Pretty clear statements of negative ethical reciprocity. But that is hardly the whole story of Confucian ethics. When you read the whole of The Analects, you find many expressions of positive reciprocity. Here is one of my favorites, passage 6.30:
Zi Gong said, "Suppose the case of a man extensively conferring benefits on the people, and able to assist all, what would you say of him? Might he be called perfectly virtuous?" The Master said, "Why speak only of virtue in connection with him? Must he not have the qualities of a sage? Even Yao and Shun were still solicitous about this. Now the man of perfect virtue, wishing to be established himself, seeks also to establish others; wishing to be enlarged himself, he seeks also to enlarge others. To be able to judge of others by what is nigh in ourselves - this may be called the art of virtue."
Those last couple of lines are as good an expression of the "golden rule" as you wil lfind: "...the man of perfect virtue, wishing to be established himself, seeks also to establish others; wishing to be enlarged himself, he seeks also to enlarge others...." Or, more elegantly: 己欲立而立人.
So let's just stop with this "silver rule" silliness.