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Beware! The Golden Rule May Have Unintended Consequences

The Golden Rule
‘One should treat others as one would like others to treat oneself‘. Its corollary, ‘One should not treat others in ways that one would not like to be treated‘ is sometimes called the Silver Rule. Both were part of the religions and philosophies of ancient Babylon, China, Egypt, Greece, India, Judaea and Persia. There are three well-known passages in which Jesus preaches the rule:
Matthew 7.12In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets.
Luke 6.31Do to others as you would have them do to you.  

Luke 10.25-28 Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” He said to him, “What is written in the law? What do you read there?” He answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbour as yourself.” And he said to him, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.”

The passage continues with Jesus answering the question, “Who is my neighbour?”, by telling the parable of the Good Samaritan, indicating that “your neighbour” is anyone in need.

So far, so uncontroversial. But I want to inject a cautionary note at this point, along the lines of:

‘All that you’re liable to read in the bible, it ain’t necessarily so!’

Before you complain that I am being disrespectful to the bible, consider St Paul’s advice to the Ephesians (4.26), ‘let not the sun go down upon your wrath’. I have already suggested on this blog that you might do better to sleep on it and this view has been endorsed by Penelopepiscopal , and Will Cookson, both priests. We of course agree with the general point that one should not let anger harden in one’s heart, but in practical terms a short ‘cooling off’ period overnight may help the healing process.

The Golden Rule, in my view, comes into this category. The first – and main – problem was identified by George Bernard Shaw:

Do not do unto others as you would that they should do unto you. Their tastes may not be the same.’

In the case of the Good Samaritan, he was presumably pretty sure that his help would be welcome. In Maslow’s ‘hierarchy of needs’ (see diagram below), the needs that he was seeking to meet were basic physiological and safety needs.

As you move up the pyramid into psychological and self-fulfilment needs, it is much less certain that outside involvement would be welcome; indeed it may be perceived as unwarranted meddling. As most of us know to our cost, this does not seem to prevent some of our most well-meaning friends from jumping in to give good advice because in our place they would like to receive it.

Foreign aid is an example of good intentions occasionally having unfortunate unintended consequences,  as set out in this paper, which – though simplistic – nevertheless has some good points.  I will take Tanganyika/Tanzania as an example, as I lived there from 1993-97 with my husband who, as British Council director, had oversight of several British government aid programmes. I hasten to add that the micro-projects in health and education in which he was involved were all very well-managed but  in 1951 the then Attlee government introduced the Tanganyika Groundnut Scheme, a macro-plan to cultivate large tracts of what is now Tanzania with peanuts.  It was soon abandoned because:
“ground nuts require at least 500 mm of rainfall per year; the area chosen was subject to drought”. 
In 1967, Presiden Nyerere introduced ‘Ujamaa’, a macro-policy which was in many ways disastrous.
In 1969, the brilliant economist, Bevan Waide:

‘advised on Tanzania’s second five-year plan, during the turbulent years when Julius Nyerere was consolidating his country’s socialist stance to development, and the World Bank was less concerned than today about nationalisation and substantial state expenditure…

From 1984 to 1988, he was chief of the [World] bank’s resident mission in India.
He left the bank to become a partner in the management and economic consulting firm of Coopers and Lybrand in London, specialising in privatisation and public enterprise restructuring work in developing countries…
From 1993 to 1996, Waide was seconded to the government of Tanzania, this time as lead adviser on privatisation… and played a crucial part in unwinding some of the excesses of the earlier socialist period.’

He, more than anyone, relished the irony of being the foreign expert put in charge of nationalisation when it was the fashion in the 1960s, and then privatisation when it became the vogue policy in the 1990s. 

I do not know what the present mood is amongst Tanzanians, but they are entitled to feel a certain cynical world-weariness and perhaps a wish that, however kindly meant, large-scale macro-economic projects be shelved in order to allow the country to find its own salvation (albeit with help at the local, micro-level).

So, if you wake up tomorrow morning with a burning desire to do good to your neighbour, may I respectfully suggest that you consider ‘this above all, primum non nocere, ‘first do no harm’.

Postscript: Ivor Stolliday just tweeted President Reagan’s famous line: “The nine most terrifying words in the English language are, ‘I’m from the government and I’m here to help.'”

1. The illustraton of ‘The Good Samaritan’ by Vincent Van Gogh is via wikipedia.
2. The YouTube version of ‘It ain’t necessarily so’ from Porgy and Bess is by the Ranot Vocal Ensemble uploaded by eldadindustrialmovie on Jun 20, 2010 
3. The diagram is of Abraham Maslow’s ‘Hierarchy of Needs’
4. The quotation from George Bernard Shaw is from ‘Man and Superman’ (1903) 
5. The description of Bevan Waide’s role in Tanzania is an extract from the Guardian obituary by Roger Cooke of 22 May 2003 (follow hyperlink). I wrote a book about Dar es Salaam with his wife, Uma.

8 comments on this post:

UKViewer said...

Sometimes I think that altruistic elements of colonialism and missionary efforts in the so called undeveloped world, blinded us to our own stupidity.

England, Great Britain, United Kingdom, call you what you want, had its own history of being conquered or overrun by others. Even the accession of the more recent foreign born rulers such as William of Orange, should be showing us that our own National Survival must have a high priority. If we aren't producing and earning, how can we help others?

Why on earth did we want to get involved in owning and governing half of the world, except through greed and a lust for power that could only be requited by subjecting others. We consoled ourselves that we had given them 'British Democratic government and Christianity. We had actually unsuccessfully tried to impose our culture over theirs. As we later found to our cost – a cost, which we still count today.

We had systematically stripped the world of its resources to make us richer and more affluent. At home, the end result was the the rich got richer, while the poor stayed down trodden and ignored. Nothing changed there than.

We owe payback, not on our terms, but in helping governments in the developing world through schemes that they ask for, not by just whole sale distributing sacks of money, which, the evidence shows, due to corruption doesn't always end up helping the people its intends to, but is stashed away in secret bank accounts by corrupt rulers.

Its time for realism in recognizing that sometimes the best help we can give is to only support efforts through the united nations, otherwise we risk continuing to appear to be colonialist in ambition, whether covertly or openly.

04 July 2011 06:08
Charlie said...

Surely this is a case of over-analysis?

"Do unto others…" is naturally and easily understood without a great deal of caution. The Samaritan saw someone lying in the road. If I was in this situation, he thought, I would like somebody to pick me up and take me somewhere safe. So he did likewise.

This is not the same as relentless do-gooding, which is what you are actually writing about here.

04 July 2011 07:37
Lay Anglicana said...

Good morning UKViewer. Thank-you for your feedback.
Tanganyika was a German colony which was handed over to the British after WW1 as a League of Nations mandate. But I chose it as an example because I don't think anyone has ever made money out of the country. Nyerere, a devout Catholic and sincere socialist, was President of his country from 1961, so everything after that date that had unfortunate effects on the country was with his blessing (Bevan Waide was a member of the Tanzanian cabinet in the 1960s). Nyerere was famous for not having made money while in office. I therefore think it fair to say that all the schemes I have described (as well as many more) were undertaken for purely altruistic motives.
They still had unfortunate consequences and attempts to correct the consequences (e.g. wholesale privatisation after wholesale nationalisation) created unfortunate consequences of their own.
Having seen the UNDP in action over many years, I am afraid I do not share your faith in it as the best example of aid administration. I do think that small quangos like the British Council, or indeed NGOs like Oxfam or Medecins Sans Frontieres are best at this, working in supportive partnership with local equivalents.

04 July 2011 08:56
Lay Anglicana said...

Good morning Charlie,
I think I probably have to plead guilty to the charge of over-analysis. I can only plead in my defence that it is the inevitable consequence of putting a retired analyst with time on her hands in possession of a blog…but I apologise if I made you choke on your cornflakes!

I am not of course criticising the Good Samaritan – in fact I say that since he was only attempting to resolve immediate physical problems, he was unlikely to be received with anything other than gratitude.

What I am criticising – and after consideration, I don't think I want to withdraw this – is 'help' by people who think they are Good Samaritans but who have not taken the time or made the effort to consider whether their help will be welcome.

I chose the example of governmental aid, because it is a frequently-aired issue. To take a personal example, I was recently telephoned by the husband of a village acquaintance who was then undergoing treatment for breast cancer, as was I. He offered to come round with his wife and brief me on the disease and its treatment. I refused his well-meant offer as politely, and I thought as firmly, as possible. This made no dent in the 'good' he was determined to do me, and he said that he would instead brief me on the telephone. This he proceeded to do, despite two further attempts by me to shut him up. I would have had to have been seriously rude in order to stop him, and I realised that he was indeed doing as he would be done by.
I am not sure this is relentless do-gooding; I have seen no other evidence of him behaving like this in the 10 years I have known him, and we are both churchgoers so I see him most Sundays.

04 July 2011 09:11
Erika Baker said...

Your example about overseas aid actually shows that the aid providers did NOT do unto the developing countries as they would have others do unto themselves.

The first thing we expect of others is that they consult us and not lord it over us as though they knew best and we knew nothing.

If that rule had been followed, things might not have got into the state they did.

04 July 2011 09:37
Lay Anglicana said...

Hello Erika,
Thank-you for commenting.
You're right so far as the groundnut scheme goes – this is the one that is often quoted as an example of government to government aid getting it wrong. A further complication is that Britain's real colony in East Africa was Kenya, which got most of the attention. Tanganyika was not really 'ours' and I suspect got short shrift on that account (I am beginning to regret choosing a big topic like foreign aid to illustrate quite a simple point!)

Since independence in 1961, no aid has of course been given without the approval (usually request) of the host government. The difficulty is of course that in comparing the average citizen of Tanzania with the average citizen of the UK, you are not comparing like with like in economic terms, so it does require knowledge and imagination to identify what might be helpful.
Individual Tanzanians may not be aware of what is available and government officials of both sides have their own pet theories.

Tanzania has always been a land of great potential; the sadness is that this is what it remains. Its Oldupai (formerly Olduvai) Gorge ( was the site of the first man- Homo habilis – to be able to make tools and it is therefore sometimes called the Cradle of Mankind.

04 July 2011 10:29
Charlie said...

LOL, I don't choke into the cornflakes often, I'm just pedantic about things like that. I'm sure your example is a good one, still I like to think that with a little wisdom it is possible to put the GR into action without inflicting oneself unnecessarily on one's neighbour.

04 July 2011 19:02
Lay Anglicana said...

Ah, and there's the rub: 'with a little wisdom'. Absolutely!
But glad you didn't choke…

04 July 2011 19:57

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