The Golden Rule
Most people do not think of applying the Golden Rule in their relationship with animals. But they can. Treat others how you would like to be treated; this is the Golden Rule, a moral maxim that guides our behaviour to others. This simple rule has been an attractive philosophy for over two thousand years because it can often resolve conflict and almost anyone can grasp and apply it without any special reasoning or learning. Diverse cultures and major religions celebrate and affirm the Golden Rule. In the Christian tradition it is well-known by the phrase: do unto others as you would be done by.
Applying the Golden Rule
The Golden Temple or Harmandir Sahib, India, foremost shrine for Sikhs. Many cultures and religions affirm the Golden Rule. Photo: Vinish K Saini.
To apply the Golden Rule you should know or imagine what result your action could have on the recipient. Then ask yourself whether you would be willing to suffer similar treatment. Finally, you should act accordingly. Say someone is about to get a flogging for stealing a sheep. Putting yourself in their shoes, would flogging be an effective solution to prevent theft? What might be a better course of action? You can also apply the Golden Rule to communities. Appeal to the majority to end discrimination against the minority. Ask the majority how they would feel if they were second class citizens living in run-down housing, receiving second rate health care and exposed to the whims of misfortune. If they would not like to be in this situation themselves, ask them why they should tolerate it for other people.
Applying the Golden Rule to Animals
It is easy to apply the Golden Rule with animals you find empathy with, such as domesticated and wild animals. Seeing them in cages prompts the question whether the people who put them there would like to be treated the same way. The animals are isolated from their peers and driven to apathy by boredom and frustration; their freedom of movement and expression of natural behaviour are gone.
Of course, the Golden Rule is not an unfailing guide to identify the best moral action to help anyone. You cannot be certain of what someone wants or how they feel. Fathoming the requirements of animals is more difficult, especially when they cannot readily indicate their needs. Furthermore, the Golden Rule can be misapplied. People can use it to justify bad action by appealing to the supposed wishes of the party they ostensibly are helping. They might incarcerate animals, such as in a zoo, by assuming that what they or their species want is conservation. Or they might shut animals away for their 'health', such as in a laboratory that develops drugs usable on animals as well as people.
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