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The Golden Rule

There seem to be so many ways to think about what is right and wrong. I believe that sometimes people use this variety of opinions as an excuse for not taking anything seriously. They assume tolerance implies accepting every statement as equally valid, which would mean that you can’t complain about intolerance either since there are no standards.

Are there any time-tested ethical principles or rules that seem to emerge in various cultures? I’ve heard this question asked many times when someone confronts an ethical issue. Often, people answer, “It’s all relative,” which I believe means that they aren’t sure if there are any hard and fast rules that apply to every situation. There’s some truth in that statement, but we tend to get so arrogant that we believe only our opinion is the true one. Respecting differences is an important way to live and grow and I hope part of what it means to be an educated person. But having an opinion is also important, as long as you are open  to testing and changing it when required.

Without some central moral focus we cannot judge others no matter what they do.

While there may be no absolutely perfect moral rule, there is one that history seems to believe is crucial for a moral life, whether that of an individual or of society. It’s called the Golden Rule, and I have found upwards of 15 different versions of this rule in many cultures and times. This rule usually is expressed as treating others as you wish to be treated.

One word that helps to make the Golden Rule clear is compassion. Compassion means not only showing kindness to ourselves but to others, a deep feeling of  sympathy toward them and a commitment to helping alleviate their suffering. Compassion is active, not passive. It’s what I would call “practical philosophy” of  a way of life that sits at the heart of many spiritual traditions.

When I remember my days at Albright, I must admit I don’t remember much from the textbooks I read or even the lectures I heard. What I do remember are the relationships I formed with students and especially faculty at a time when I was struggling with the perennial questions of a student about to enter the world outside the campus: Who am I? What should I do with my life? To what am I committed?

Two faculty in particular, Dr. Eugene Barth and Dr. James Reppert, were instrumental, not in giving answers, but in helping me struggle through the questions until I arrived at my own answers. At the time, I was editor of Agon, the  campus literary magazine. Dr. Reppert was the faculty adviser, and we spent  many hours talking about not only producing a magazine, but also life. Dr. Barth convinced me to do what he called “leaning into your questions.” The Great Books course he taught literally opened up the joy of learning and eventually led me to follow him to a college he attended and into a graduate program in philosophy at Oberlin College in Ohio. It was not just what these two faculty members taught, but how they lived that has lasted me a lifetime.

And here’s the most important lesson I learned from them: what one believes and how one lives are not opposites, but complementary qualities. Sometimes how you live speaks as clearly as what you say you believe. These two faculty members taught compassion but also were compassionate. They took time with me. They listened to me. Those are the keys to healthy relationships with oneself, others and indeed, the whole world. And they are the keys, I believe, to learning how to be a whole person in a sometimes broken world.

– John C. Morgan ’63 teaches philosophy and ethics in
Albright’s School of Professional Studies (formerly ADP)


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