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Making our Choice Between The Golden Rule and The Rule of Gold
By: James LaVeck
Submitted by the author - 5 Mar 2003

There was once a bearded wanderer who grew up not so far from Baghdad. He had some simple words of advice for those who wished to do right in the world but who lacked the sophisticated training of scholars and politicians.

"Do unto others," he said, "as you would have them do unto you."

This idea may be found in one form or another in just about all of the world's religions and wisdom traditions. It has garnered such respect over the centuries that it is commonly referred to as "The Golden Rule."

As individual people living in community with others, just about all of us intuitively grasp the rightness of the Golden Rule. It is easy to understand, absolutely fair, and versatile enough to meet just about any situation that comes along. But when we move beyond the scope of our friendships and local communities, into the realm of national and international affairs, somehow we find ourselves confused. When those affected by our actions are far away, have a different language, race, religion, or national identity, or belong to a different species, the Golden Rule often gets pushed aside in favor of such ideas such as "Every man for himself" or "Looking out for number one" or "Survival of the fittest." In other words, "Do unto others as best serves oneself," or, to put it even more bluntly, The Rule of Gold--those who've got the gold, make the rules.

The conflict between The Golden Rule and The Rule of Gold runs deep, down to our very cores. One tells us to look inward, to recognize that what we have in common with others is what is most important, and to understand that goodness is defined by compassion and cooperation, by giving others the same consideration we give ourselves. The other tells us that we can't afford such lofty ideals, that our differences with others are what matter most, and that we have to do whatever is necessary to compete and win, to acquire and protect as much as we can for ourselves and those we consider our own.

Lately it seems like The Rule of Gold is gaining the upper hand in our country. The corporate commandment to maximize quarterly profits at all costs is becoming a kind of state religion. Buildings that might have once been adorned with symbols of spiritual significance and community meaning are emblazoned with corporate logos. We feel more empowered as consumers than as citizens, the votes we make with our dollars carrying more weight than the ones we cast in the ballot box. Sincerity is increasingly seen as a naive anachronism, superseded by the artful science of impression management. An endless barrage of media messages train us to view all interactions with others, from the interpersonal to the international, as business deals in which buying low and selling high are all that really count. When the spoils are being divided up, "What's in it for me" is becoming the only relevant question. And when it's time to deal with the consequences of the level of acquisition and consumption now considered our sacred right, "Not in my back yard" is our collective refrain.

Under the Rule of Gold, those who are not shareholders in our great corporate enterprise become commodities, to be bought, sold, or disposed of as the market dictates. The human beings who will be vaporized by the weapons of mass destruction designed in our labs are no longer people. They are ABTs, "air breathing targets." Barefoot, brown skinned boys and girls shot in the head during a military assault are no longer somebody's children. They are "collateral damage." The billions of animals raised in abject misery on our factory farms are no longer living beings. They are FPUs, "food production units." It's not much fun when you aren't a shareholder of the great corporate enterprise, but someone has to pay the freight for all the privileges we enjoy, and since it is surely not going to be us, it is going to be "them."

The Rule of Gold is hard for us to get away from once we get started, a little like joining the mafia, or getting addicted to a drug. The benefits--things like cheap consumer goods, 500 TV channels, power windows and air conditioning, the ability to flout international agreements at will and settle disputes with overwhelming military force--are all a little intoxicating, and can be very hard to give up. In the midst of it all, however, there are moments of troubling sobriety, twinges of guilt and remorse when we read that a pesticide deemed too dangerous to use in America is being profitably sold for use in the poor countries of the world. Or that the obesity of American children is at record levels, while every day of the week, tens of thousands of children worldwide die of starvation. Or that in the process of achieving rapid victory in the first Gulf War, our military scattered hundreds of tons of bullets and tank shells made of depleted uranium over vast areas of Kuwait and Iraq, and as a result, the rates of leukemia and bone cancer have skyrocketed amongst Iraqi children, and will continue to remain elevated for generations to come.

It's clear that our nation's blind obedience to The Rule of Gold is causing a great deal of suffering to others. In us, our complicity over time gives rise to a kind of soul sickness. It is as if we as a people are wandering across the face of the earth in a sleepwalker's haze, only dimly aware that our heavy steps are crushing the very life out of those more vulnerable than ourselves, the very ones The Golden Rule would have us uplift from poverty, relieve from suffering, and protect from harm--no less than we would hope to receive ourselves, were we in their position.

So we find ourselves today at a crossroads, about to unleash our full military might on the destitute women, men, and children of another country, contemplating the trade of the murder of countless innocents in exchange for the possibility that doing so might somehow lower our already low risk of being killed or injured by an angry few, might somehow lower the already low price we pay for a gallon of gasoline, might somehow lower the level of fear, anger and despair our government's policies are producing at home and abroad.

We would be well served at this turning point in our history to take our lead from the life and lessons of that bearded man who grew up not so far from Baghdad, the man whose picture hangs in millions of American homes, and whose words, though often ignored, might yet help us overcome the toxic self-centeredness that has possessed our once great institutions. The time has come for us to accept a level of responsibility commensurate with the power and wealth we have acquired. The time has come to shun fear and greed as the prime movers of our national affairs, and to open ourselves to the courage of love and voice of truth that dwells deep within our hearts. War and The Rule of Gold have no place in our global village. "What you do unto the least of them," he taught us, "you do unto me."

James LaVeck

James LaVeck is the Co-founder of Tribe of Heart ( ), a non-profit organization that produces documentary films that encourage compassion for both people and animals.

For further information on some of the topics discussed in this essay, see the following links:

On peace/Iraq/stopping war:  

On the fate of children in Iraq:  

On health effects of Depleted Uranium Munitions:  

On factory farming:  

On exporting pesticides to the Third World:  

On consumption:  


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