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ISSUE 117 VOL 9 PUBLISHED 11/21/2003

Golden rule yields to consent

By Nick Nelson
Contributing Writer


Friday, November 21, 2003

How many of us have heard the story about the woman whose life was saved by the Heimlich maneuver? You know, the one whose ribs were broken in the process, who later sued her rescuer for it?

The basic claim of the lawsuit was that if the woman hadn’t agreed to have the Heimlich performed on her, then the rescuer had no right to do it. Of course she was happy with the fact that she was still alive. But fractures in her ribs were, she claimed, an offense against her, because she hadn’t consented to the Heimlich in the first place! “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” It was Jesus who put this Golden Rule into its best-known formulation, but almost every advanced culture from the ancient Chinese onward has had an ethical lesson of this type. The moral and ethical decisions of the human race, as far back as we can trace them, have been guided by the admonitions of our great teachers to imagine ourselves in the other guy’s shoes.

The above story is troubling: why should someone be punished simply for trying to help a stranger? The answer, I believe, is something we don’t think about often enough: we have abandoned the Golden Rule in exchange for “consent.”

Two of the greatest pleasures of modern life are money and sex, and our parents and grandparents can attest to the fact that Americans today have a lot more of both than ever before. What most people do not see is that we have gotten them, to a large degree, by abandoning our culture’s traditional commitment to the Golden Rule.

A lot of people tend to think that earlier generations didn’t have as much money or sex as we do today because those things were prohibited by religion and society. This is true. But to accept the decline of religious and societal taboos as the only cause seems premature.

Could it be that societies and people of the past behaved differently because they made their moral decisions based on the Golden Rule? Think about it: it is not hard to imagine men and women of the past turning down a business deal because it was “dishonorable,” or passing on the chance for a romance because it wasn’t “proper.” Maybe they were worried about what other people would think.

In the past, the behavior expected of civilized people was to “do as you would be done by.” So young men of the past had to think of the physical risks and emotional hazards they would be imposing on the ladies they wanted to sleep with. And businesses and commodities traders had to consider the effect their schemes would have on the world beyond their own pocketbooks. Not always, but often, society dictated decisions.

What does society dictate now? Consent, of course, in both personal and business spheres. If you want to do something with or to someone, it is expected that you get their honest “okay” on it, and nothing more. The new standard for morality is getting permission, based on the idea that each individual is the best judge of what is good for him or herself.

I don’t know as much about your life as you do; in many cases, my telling you what’s good for you would come off as patronizing, and probably as less fun. But in many other ways, the replacement of the Golden Rule with our new “Consent Rule” has made the world an uglier place. The reason? One is a pretty lonely number.

If the only rule is consent, we should all be looking out for ourselves, right? I figure out what’s good for me, you figure out what’s good for you, and we go from there. And so the whole universe that each person is contemplating is really just one person: his or herself. What do other people think or feel? How do they experience things? Who cares? The only thing that matters is how I think or feel about them.

On the other hand, if you’re trying to live by the Golden Rule, each person in your life is not just an opportunity for getting something – they’re people. You’re compelled to wonder what their lives are like, how their culture and upbringing affect their view of the world, and a thousand other rich and fascinating details about everyone you meet. You’re also compelled to take a more real and permanent interest in them beyond the passing affection we give to many people we know just so they will consent to what we want.

The Heimlich rescuer in the story, who didn’t know the victim and had nothing to gain by saving her, was acting on the Golden Rule. The lawsuit that followed is a glaring example of living by consent only, without regard for others. The choice of which model to follow is with us all the time – not just in glaring examples like that one, but in every action we take, every word we speak, every thought we think. It’s a choice that our generation has to make. And it’s not an exaggeration to say that the moral rule that each of us chooses to live by, day in and day out, will determine the character of our nation and our world for decades to come.


Staff Writer Nick Nelson is a junior from Owatonna, Minn. He majors in economics and mathematics.


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