In search of fairness, morals and good sportsmanship | Whale’s Tales

Ah, the Golden Rule.

We all know it: do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

And it’s been on my mind in this troubled, angry, election year.

Many of the big-brained people who think deeply about morals and ethics will tell you that the Golden Rule is one of those maxims found in cultures, like thou shalt not murder, be loyal to your family, don’t be a coward.

Ethnologists and anthropologists may deny the universality of any maxims, noting that variances exist between individuals, between nations etc.

And of course that’s true. But there’s more to the problem than that.

No one anywhere has ever admired a coward or a traitor. Indeed, Dante in his Divine Comedy relegated traitors to the deepest regions of Hell. Or to consider other offenses, even little Johnny is keenly aware when someone has taken more than they should or has cheated in a game.

“That’s not fair,” says Johnny.

A goomba setting out to whack someone knows, deep down, that what he is about to do is wrong. He knows. What he wants, however, is to carve out an exception to the rule only for himself, but certainly not for everyone else on Earth.

Criminal gangs steal, but don’t you dare steal from them. Once more, there is that underlying desire to carve out an exception to a principle understood even before thought, prior to experience.

In short, such assessments imply awareness of an underlying moral duty of which we are all aware, but that many choose not to obey. We all do this. Jones plans to cheat on his taxes, but does he want everyone to cheat on his taxes? No. Only himself.

So, it seems we know inherently, apart from our passions and whims, that certain acts are wrong. Is that something we learn entirely from others, from outward experience, or is there an actual moral law that exists outside of us, and is and has been the same everywhere and at all times?

No, say many scientists, ethnologists and anthropologists.

Yes, said C.S. Lewis in his book, “The Abolition of Man,” which traces the moral code through all cultures and epochs.

Yes, said the 18th century German philosopher Immanuel Kant, there are.

“Two things fill me with wonder. Thestarry heavens above, and the moral law within,” Kant wrote.

Kant uses a fancy-shmancy term to define the moral law, but hear me out. Kant defines categorical imperatives as commands or moral laws, categorical in that all persons must follow, regardless of their desires or extenuating circumstances. As morals, these imperatives are binding on everyone.

As the late Princeton philosopher Michael Sugrue said in a lecture on Kant’s moral system in 1992, the categorical imperative “allows us to establish the good or evil of every action by every, free, rational, moral agent under all circumstances independent of space and time. This universal, moral algorithm will be true in China and true in England, true at the north pole, true at the equator, today, tomorrow, true in a thousand years, true forever.”

The test of a maxim’s universality is to consider before we do something whether we would want all people to act in such a way toward all people, including us, in similar circumstances. That is, before Jones fleeces a friend, he should ask himself, is this something I would wish all other rational people to do in similar circumstances?

For instance, what if all human relationships were based exclusively on what one can get out of the other person? That is, if we treated all other people only as means to an end. What would be the consequences? I’ll tell you: meaningful relationships, warmth, intimacy would break down.

Or what if the result of every contest, game or election were to be declared valid only if X wins? Is that a maxim fit to be universalized? I say no. Games would not exist, as they depend first of all on the players’ agreement on the rules.

Contests must have winners and losers, and the rules of good sportsmanship demand we accept the results, even if we lose.

All of this has been on my mind in this fraught election season in terms of the central question we might all ask ourselves: Is candidate X planning to do something once in office that could be universalized to a principle that everyone should follow? Or would it benefit the narrow interests of only one person and his or her supporters and disadvantage everyone else? And what if the tables were turned? Would the proponents of the maxim be content for it to be employed against them?

My sincere hope is that before we vote in November, we — in the memorable phrase Abraham Lincoln directed in 1861 to a distracted nation as it teetered on the brink of civil war — consult “the better angels of our nature.”

Robert Whale can be reached at