woman writing letter

Incidental to Robert Mayhew’s article “The Rise and Fall of Ancient Greek Justice,” Hillel, a famous rabbi who lived in the 1st century BC, reputedly was asked if he could summarize Hebrew law (i.e., the Torah) while standing on one foot. His alleged reply was, “Do not do unto others what you would not have them do unto you.”

Although the validity of Hillel’s response may be subject to debate (an instance of the Christian version of the “Golden Rule” can also be found in the Torah), Hillel’s version with the “not” included has some interesting implications.

This “negative” version of the rule comes close to implying a primitive or crude version of what the concept of individual rights later clarified; it is intended to summarize a mandate to “live and let live,” admonishing primarily against the initiation of negative behavior toward others rather than imposing obligatory positive action toward them. It does not literally and conclusively say this, but I think that is clearly its connotation, especially when considered in the context of the Old Testament’s “eye for an eye” concept of justice.

What I find interesting is that the presence of the “not” eliminates the concept of altruism from morality. The “Do unto others . . .” version demands altruistic action as a requisite for virtue, with the failure to so act branding a person as immoral or evil. Hillel’s “negative” version, however, ascribes no moral significance to taking such action; it simply admonishes against the initiation of (presumably) harmful actions toward others. Failure to be altruistic is not deemed a moral shortcoming; indeed, the very idea of altruism is absent from this version of the “Golden Rule,” which by implication relegates altruistic acts to a moral status of irrelevant or, at least, inessential.

I wonder if this rough idea of moral law, abbreviated by Hillel, bears some responsibility for the relative material success of those brought up in the Judaic culture as compared to other religious cultures, since it does not impose a burden of moral guilt for simply minding one’s own business.

Morry Markovitz
New York, New York

Robert Mayhew replies:

I appreciate Mr. Markovitz taking the time to comment on my article. Let me preface my reply by pointing out that I know nothing about Rabbi Hillel, and very little about ancient Hebrew thought. But that having been said, I must disagree with Mr. Markovitz’s positive characterization of the (logically) negative version of the Golden Rule: “Do not do unto others what you would not have them do unto you.”

What I said in my article about the Golden Rule applies to this version as well:

[T]his rule has no content outside of any context. . . . In the context of a rational morality, the Golden Rule is fine, if taken as an endorsement of integrity—to mean, for instance, that whatever code of ethics that I think is correct for me I must regard as correct for others. But in the Christian context, the Golden Rule turns out to mean something very different—for example, that I should love others unconditionally just as I should want them to love me unconditionally—and that is not an endorsement of a rational conception of justice.

I assume Jesus and his disciples—and Christians generally—would endorse the notion that you should not do unto others what you would not have them do unto you: Do not murder them, do not steal from them, do not judge them, do not ignore their suffering, do not refrain from sacrificing for them, and so on. So I disagree with the claim that “the presence of the ‘not’ eliminates the concept of altruism from morality.” Similarly, and as I make clear in the above passage quoted from my article, I reject the view that “The ‘Do unto others . . .’ version demands altruistic action as an absolute. . . .” (Whether Hillel’s actual version admonished people to act altruistically I do not know.)

Now the discovery and application of the concept of individual rights (by John Locke and the founding fathers) and the full identification of the nature of rights and their proper philosophical foundation (by Ayn Rand) are monumental achievements. The concept of rights is light-years beyond simply enjoining people not to do unto others what they would not have done unto them—even if we interpret this positively as “a mandate to ‘live and let live’” or to mind one’s own business. (For more on the proper conception of rights, see Ayn Rand, “Man’s Rights,” and Leonard Peikoff, Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand, ch. 10.)

If religious Jews (generally or during some period in their history) interpreted and practiced this maxim in a way that was better than what Jesus intended in the Sermon on the Mount, that must have something to do with other features of Judaism or Jewish culture more broadly, and not with any philosophical advantages to the negative statement of the Golden Rule.

Robert Mayhew
Seton Hall University
South Orange, New Jersey

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