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Jan. 11 2010 - 12:07 pm | 754 views | 1 recommendation | 6 comments

The Ask-First Principle: How to Tell Right from Wrong

Picking up from my previous blogessay, if we cannot reliably turn to the Bible and other sacred texts to determine moral right and wrong, to whom shall we turn? If we cannot ask God, whom shall we ask? One answer can be found in the first moral principle, the golden rule: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

The golden rule is a derivative of the basic principle of exchange reciprocity and reciprocal altruism, and thus evolved in our Paleolithic ancestors as one of the primary moral sentiments. (If I’m right about this, then it means that religion did not invent the golden rule and other moral principles; it co-opted them, then codified them.) In this principle there are two moral agents: the moral doer and the moral receiver. A moral question arises when the moral doer is uncertain how the moral receiver will accept and respond to the action under question. By asking yourself, “how would I feel if this were done unto me?” you are asking “how would others feel if I did it unto them?”

But the golden rule has a severe limitation to it: what if the moral receiver thinks differently from the moral doer? What if you would not mind having action X done unto you, but someone else would mind it? Two examples come to mind, one light-hearted and the other deadly. (1) Most men are much more receptive toward unsolicited offers of sex than are women. Most men, then, in considering whether to approach a woman with an offer of unsolicited sex, should not ask themselves how they would feel as a test (“Let’s see, how would I feel if she asked me for sex? Terrific! So she’ll probably feel the same”), they should ask female friends. (2) Most terrorists are much more receptive to dying for their cause than their victims are, so they should not ask themselves how they would feel if someone wanted to kill them because they would likely say yes.

We need to take the golden rule one step further, through what I call the Ask-First Principle: to find out whether an action is right or wrong, ask first. The moral doer should ask the moral receiver whether the behavior in question is moral or immoral. If you aren’t sure that the potential recipient of your action will react in the same manner you would react to the moral behavior in question, then ask. You will almost always receive your moral answer swiftly and without equivocation. And, as often as not, you do not actually have to ask the question to know the answer. The thought experiment alone should give you a strong sense of what is right and wrong.

The Ask-First Principle is not full proof, of course, just a small improvement on the already sound Golden Rule (again, I wrote about these in Chapter 7 of The Science of Good and Evil, which contains a fully defense of this argument. We need to reach another level higher to resolve moral dilemmas that are not resolvable by asking, and this next level is what I call the Happiness Principle, which states: it is a higher moral principle to always seek happiness with someone else’s happiness in mind, and never seek happiness when it leads to someone else’s unhappiness. I’ll discuss this principle in my next blogessay.


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  1. collapse expand

    If consent to participate is all that matters, how do you answer questions like these:

    1) How does one ensure that one’s friends actually share the interests and wishes of a given target of a proposed act, much less a broader, unspecified group of targets?

    2) How does one gain consent when there are certain or potential costs to another individual beyond the immediate participants?

    3) How does one gain consent when society at large may or will bear a consequence as a result of the act?

  2. collapse expand

    An unexamined life is not worth living… but an over-examined life can be pretty dull too. Sometimes doing the wrong thing is a mitzpah as it gives others a reason to more closely examine their lives. We’ll call it the Suzy Brown principle: sometimes you have to be bad just so you know you’re alive.

  3. collapse expand

    You’ve pointed out a major issue that I’ve noticed with the “Golden Rule.” I often ask others “how does a masochist follow the Golden Rule?” as a preface for my modification of the general rule:

    Don’t treat others how you wouldn’t want to be treated.

    What’s interesting about this rewording is that it restricts action instead of forcing it based on the preferences of others.

  4. collapse expand

    I’m not sure how making a universal injunction (always treat others as you would have them treat you) into a particular injunction (as adding “first get permission from someone” certainly does) helps us along.
    I understand some want to avoid “universal” because they see it as identical to “absolute,” and think any claim to an absolute necessarily leads to the sort of intolerance that ethical injunction ought to lessen or even aim to eliminate.
    I don’t understand how our only other choice is binding ourselves to particulars (as it seems you do) and in the process abandon broad ethical claims.
    That’s a false dilemma, and not simply because I’ve set it up that way.
    I think there are rational ways to achieve some universal declaration of ethics (Kant, a rule-based utility that incorporates Kant) that can even answer “what about the masochists?” — we mark masochists as tormented by “affairs of the heart,” quite beyond reason, and work our way around them like we do the alien abduction crowd … smiling, nodding, backing away slowly.

  5. collapse expand

    Addendum:
    I like the Happiness Principle, assuming I know what you mean by “happiness” and hoping it’s Aristotelean. It’s sort of Kant’s notion of others as ends in themselves, never to be treated merely as ends, with a dash of consequence thrown in that Kant never admitted to but demonstrated whenever he bothered to give examples.
    I wonder, though, why it doesn’t negate the idea of “ask first.” Does it?

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    About Me

    Dr. Shermer is the Founding Publisher of Skeptic magazine and editor of Skeptic.com, a monthly columnist for Scientific American, and an Adjunct Professor at Claremont Graduate University. His latest book is The Mind of the Market, on evolutionary economics. His last book was Why Darwin Matters: Evolution and the Case Against Intelligent Design, and he is also the author of The Science of Good and Evil and of Why People Believe Weird Things. He received his B.A. in psychology from Pepperdine University, M.A. in experimental psychology from California State University, Fullerton, and his Ph.D. in the history of science from Claremont Graduate University (1991). He was a college professor for 20 years, and since his creation of Skeptic magazine he has appeared on such shows as The Colbert Report, 20/20, Dateline, Charlie Rose, and Larry King Live (but, proudly, never Jerry Springer!).

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