The Table Video

George Hunsinger, Nicholas Wolterstorff & Thomas M. Crisp

Hunsinger Responds to Wolterstorff on Grounding Rights in the Golden Rule

Hazel Thompson McCord Professor of Systematic Theology, Princeton Theological Seminary
Noah Porter Professor Emeritus of Philosophical Theology, Yale University
CCT Scholar-in-Residence and Executive Board Member / Professor of Philosophy, Biola University
May 17, 2012

Philosophers George Hunsinger and Nicholas Wolterstorff debate the validity and weight of Hunsinger’s Golden Rule Theory. Is this strict, man-made framework something that can hold up in the wake of a world with radically different convictions about social and moral responsibility?


I want to get to the issue, say something about motivation. But I think on the Alzheimer’s and reasonable and discursive rationality and so forth. I have a certain view as to how I would want to be treated if I were an Alzheimer’s patient and I would want to be treated with dignity and roughly in the way that the better nursing homes do in fact take care of Alzheimer’s patients. But we both know that there are other people in our society who would not want to be treated like that, who would in fact want to be allowed to commit suicide. And many of these people have reflected seriously about this. It’s the result of discursive rationality on their part. It’s not some gut intuition but they’ve given long thought to it and so forth. So my difficulty is that some people just don’t accept the golden rule. But maybe more relevant and maybe some whole societies don’t. More relevant is when we get down to the nitty gritty of how I would want to be treated, there is in lots of very important cases no consensus as to how we would want to be treated. On the issue of motivation…

Can I just intervene quickly?


Yeah, but to me there would be certain questions of how I would want not to be treated.

Yeah, yeah, I mean…

To me those are the salient ones. You know whether a person with Alzheimer’s should be morally permitted whether legally or whatever’s another matter, but morally permitted to commit suicide. That’s somewhat different than saying it should be permissible for society to decide that they can be put to death and dismissed.

Yes, no these are two different cases.

There’s the Alzheimer’s case

Yeah, these are.. See I think the golden rule…

The suicide case is even more dramatic.

The golden rule would I think would be applicable to not just treating this person as someone who is useless and dispensable and so on. Then you know, beyond that, what range of reasonable moral options would exist. I mean, I’m not sure that it would be necessary for my golden rule account to say that suicide would be impermissible even if I myself like you would feel that it’s not permissible. But there I think I’m not operating on the basis of merely golden rule considerations.

No, right.

So, it’s more a matter of preventing abuses than it is a matter of finding optimal solutions for proper treatment in difficult cases.

The point I’m emphasizing there is the variability and how people would want to be treated were they in the same sort of situation as the person in front of them. Doesn’t track to the universality of human rights and person rights. But let me say a word about motivation. You mentioned Michael Perry. Yeah, Perry’s got the view that even when I’ve established and persuaded you that this person has dignity, I have to do something more yet to motivate you to do anything about it. And here he becomes a eudaimonist. I’ve got to show that my honoring your dignity somehow conduces to my own well-being. And I know Michael very well. He just, he’s Catholic though he’s not deeply embedded in the Catholic tradition. But he’s just bought into the eudaimonist part of the Catholic moral tradition. And I just don’t see it it seems to me. If I’ve shown that you have dignity, I don’t then have to do some additional thing to energize you to do something about it. I mean if you acknowledge that I have dignity, I don’t have to do some additional thing to show that honoring it conduces to your flourishing. I think establishing the goodness of something is often sufficient motivation for, sufficient argument for people to honor the goodness.

I agree.

If I say this is a really good symphony, I don’t have to say in addition, you’re gonna be really happy listening to it. [laughing]

You know most people will say, well then I wanna listen to it.

Right, right. I mean I think along with the idea of rationality or what you could reasonably expect, there’s some sort of principle of non-contradiction. See it would be contradictory to expect a certain kind of treatment in my own case that I’m not prepared to extend to someone else. So, yeah it would be a kind of treatment that would be extended to others. And whether I would really be motivated to act on these principles is a somewhat separate question. But whether I could reasonably deny that others are entitled to the same kind of treatment that I expect for myself, I couldn’t. I mean I think that’s what the golden rule is about. I think that’s its intuitive appeal. I mean in the parable of Jesus about I think it’s called the Unjust Steward where he’s been forgiven a great debt but then he won’t forgive the debt of someone that someone owes to him, that’s much smaller. And people see right away that he’s acting in a way that’s inconsistent with how he has been treated and that this is kind of hypocritical and self-contradictory. So within those limits, I think you can get a rough and ready good enough grounding for some sorts of human rights. And that’s all I’m saying. You know, it’s really a rather modest claim I think. And yeah, rights of humans and rights of persons, you know how to deal with Alzheimer’s patients and what. Could you allow for a person to commit suicide in difficult situations where they’re terminal anyway and you wouldn’t do that yourself. I’m not sure the golden rule would have much to say there nor would it need to have much to say in order for my account to hold up reasonably well.

Nick let me press one point that George raised and see what your thoughts about it. So, if you add a rationality bit to the golden rule like this, you say the golden rule tells us that I’m obligated to treat you in a way that I would rationally want to be treated were I in your situation. And if you have a thick enough conception of rationality so that what’s rational to desire isn’t just any old thing it’s what’s proper to our design plan given the way God has built us or something like that. Could you get around some of the variability worries that you’re raising where people have all kinds of…

Well you can get around some of it. And I suppose you could thicken rationality so much that the results become sort of necessary analytic. But take the two people involved in the banking profession. The one thinks that there ought to be minimal regulation, the other thinks no, no, no, human beings are too fraught to greed, too inclined to greed and too inclined to let the allure of profit obscure their rationality. We need a lot of regulation. So each one has a view as to how they would want to be treated. They and others, I mean they’re willing to universalize it. Absolutely, so it’s not a violation of the universality principle. But very different views as to how they would want to be treated. And I would think that both of them are, I mean it’s likely that both of them are fully rational. They’ve thought about. They’ve argued it out with each other. It’s gonna be very difficult to point to one and say you’re being non-rational, irrational, arational whereas you’re a fully rational without just being arbitrary in ones assignment of the epithet rational.

Well first of all the banking case is not a human rights case it seems to me. And secondly…

Well it might be.

I don’t think that…

But let that pass.

Yeah I don’t think that this is an unresolvable questions. I mean there’s a lot of evidence that things go wrong when what is it, the Glass-Steagall bill or yeah, when that’s waived. You know, we’re in this financial crisis because regulations were lifted.

I know but Jamie Dimon knows this evidence even better than you and I do.

Yeah and of course, he’s up for criminal charges. You know, he’s not sort of a credible witness. I mean he’s like the person with some disorder who tells us about how he would like to be treated. You know, we may not be able to convince him or a large number of other people but people have interests here in terms of how they would like to be treated. Which will give them an advantage in society over against a large majority maybe the vast majority of others. I mean, I think on the basis of kind of Kantian rational grounds these people could be censured.

Well, Nick did you have a concluding thought before we…

Not really. [laughing] of course, the Jamie Dimon’s of the world are going to go off into a riff, riff to the effect. Yeah, but all this regulation stifles creativity. It’s not greed we’re after, it’s creativity, imagination. It stifles imagination, creativity. That’s the riff that they tell. So it eventually becomes, comes down to a matter of Aristotelian phoenicis, what is judgment? Judging these countervailing values. What does judgment say? And I happen to think that Glass-Steagall regulation, but I don’t think the other view is stupid.

No, but it you know these people who are…

I think it’s mistaken, but [laughing]

You know or telling us that they need to unleash creativity aren’t ending up in the poor house.

No, no we might but they won’t. [laughing]

Yeah, I think we have grounds for suspicion here. An appeal to creativity. I mean they’re getting awfully rich at the expense of the most of the rest of us.

About the Authors