Assuming virtue is one thing we'd like to achieve in life.

One way to determine whether we live a life with virtue is the golden rule, "Don't do the thing to others, when you don't like it to be done to you".

However, let's say if it is an eagle. If it doesn't kill the rabbit and feed its children, then it will die and the children will die. Certainly, the eagle doesn't want to die himself, but he wants the rabbit dead, when the rabbit apparently doesn't want to die.

So can we say the eagle does not live a life with virtue? It seems the golden rule might need to be:

Don't do the thing to others, when you don't like it to be done to you, unless you absolutely have to.

Then for many people, they steal, lie, con, rob. And we see them not virtuous, but if they state, "We have to. We just want a roof and some food to eat" and perhaps, "The rich people are more rich and the poor are more poor by the current system, so we have no other ways to put a roof over our head and some food on the table (and perhaps put the kids through school)". So then, they are really not much different from the eagle above. Do they still live a life of virtue? Does the golden rule need to have that clause "unless you absolutely have to"? It actually appear to be quite strange if the golden rule has to have such a condition.

  • The so called golden rule, while it has its merits as a general principle, is not golden at all and has major flaws. Think about any form of justice system: are the cops who apprehend a thief, and the judge who put the thief in prison 10 years to be called not virtuous because they themselves clearly do not want to be arrested? Also, if I don't like something, but my friend do like it, should I refrain from pleasing my friend because of my personal taste ? If you consider all those limit cases and add an exception for each, the golden rule becomes a total mess.
    – armand
    Commented Jan 22, 2021 at 22:58
  • There's no such thing for a human which he "absolutely have to" do. (I don't mean instrumental mode, "absolutely needed in order to...", I mean motivational: do or not do.)
    – ttnphns
    Commented Jan 22, 2021 at 23:16
  • @armand for the crime and justice system, it appears, "they themselves don't want to go to jail" BUT because they didn't commit any crime, but if they did, it is just an expectation that they could and they should know about it. About people's preferences, there are something obvious you don't want happen to you. If we blend it with the taste of ice cream flavor, we can argue about it, but people don't want their money robbed, and that's apparent enough. Commented Jan 22, 2021 at 23:20
  • @armand having said that, there is an ancient saying "person who steal bread goes to jail. Person who steal the city or country becomes royalties" Commented Jan 22, 2021 at 23:21
  • 1
    @nonopolarity: i think you missed my point. See the whole paragraph of justification you had to produce to address a few shortcomings of the rule? You have now to add them to the rule if you want it to be an accurate standard of virtue and not a vague principle : "Don't do the thing to others, when you don't like it to be done to you, unless they want it done, and unless they committed a crime (because reasons), or unless you really have to, and other stuff we haven't figured yet". It is a very primitive tool, that's why we had 1000s of years of moral philosophy tradition coming after.
    – armand
    Commented Jan 22, 2021 at 23:45

3 Answers 3


Immanuel Kant formulated the principle Ought Implies Can. It says that if morality (Ought) applies to a situation, then it must be that free will (Can) also does. It is easier to understand this in reverse; if free will does not apply to a situation, then neither does morality. Philosophers who reject to Ought Implies Can are fall into 2 groups; people with different conceptions of free will than we typically use and moral nihilists. Any statement about morality that not made by one of these people needs to have clause "unless you do not have a choice" appended to the end. Usually this clause is just left unsaid since it gets annoying repeating it again and again. Can you imagine sitting through a 1 hour philosophy lecture where every sentence ended with the same 7 words?

However, I think your question is poorly phrased, in the sense that the topic you are actually curious about when do people act without free will do to outside influences, not the relationship between free will and morality. If I am mistaken, feel free to ignore everything else below. Otherwise, let me tell you a story about a hungry eagle, an unlucky rabbit, and a sadistic baboon.

One day Lion, the king of all animals, goes out for a stroll and comes across Eagle sitting next to Rabbit, who is injured. Rabbit tells Lion that she wishes to call Eagle to court for the crime of assault. Lion agrees and the trial begins. Rabbit's case is that a part of her is now in Eagle’s stomach; a rather convincing argument. However, Eagle argues that actions taken without free will are not punishable by law and claims that Baboon forced him to act without free will. Lion accepts Eagles argument regarding free will, but asks him to describe to actions of Baboon to determine if he acted under coercion.

Situation 1:
Rabbit, Eagle, and Baboon come across one another in a field. Baboon applied mechanical force with his fingers to Eagle’s talons such that they tore Rabbit’s flesh and moved a piece to Eagle’s mouth. Then, Baboon applied mechanical force to Eagle’s jaw and talons so that his jaw opened, the piece of flesh was put in, and his jaw was closed. Baboon massaged Eagle’s throat such that an instinctive reflect caused Eagle to swallow Rabbit’s flesh. Baboon then ran off.

Situation 2:
The same as Situation 1, but Baboon does not massage Eagle’s throat. Instead, he holds his fingers over Eagle’s nose. Eagle, no longer able to breath through his nose, swallows and start breathing through his mouth.

Situation 3:
Rabbit, Eagle, and Baboon come across one another in a field. Baboon grabbed Eagle and said that he would strangle Eagle to death unless he ate part of Rabbit. Eagle used his talons to tear her flesh, puts that flesh in his mouth, and swallowed it.

Situation 4:
The same as Situation 3, but Baboon said he would break Eagle’s wing.

Situation 5:
Same as Situation 3, but Baboon said he would fire Eagle from the only job Eagle could possible have.

According to every philosopher in history, Eagle is not liable in Situation 1. In a very literal, mechanical sense, there was nothing Eagle could have done such that Rabbit’s flesh would not be end up in his stomach.

According to every philosopher in history except maybe Hobbes, Eagle is not liable for assault in Situation 2. If I understand Hobbes correctly, which I very well may not, he believed coercion had no relationship to morality. If Eagle swallowed, the result (not dying) would be something he wanted; if Eagle did not swallow, the result (dying) would be something he did not want. Eagle had 2 paths before him. Even if one path lead to a dead end, it still existed. He choose the path that he desired most, and is therefor responsible.

Situation 3 differs from 1 and 2 in that now Eagle is active, rather than passive. Before, Rabbit had been hurt by the time Eagle could perform an action not mechanically forced. No matter if he swallowed or not, that flesh would not be attached to Rabbit. His choice was between dying and not dying. Now however, Eagle’s actions are the cause of Rabbit’s injuries. If he chose not to act, Rabbit would have not been injured. His choice was between dying and injuring another. Most philosophers would say that Eagle did make a chose to eat Rabbit, but because that chose was made under coercion Eagle is not liable.

The only difference between Situation 4 and Situation 3 is that now Eagle must choose between himself being injured and another being injured. Since being injured is less harmful than dying [citation needed], whether Eagle acted under coercion is debatable. Until now I could make broad claims about the community of philosophers overall, but at this point the devil is in the details. Just about everyone will look at this situation in a slightly different way and you really need to research each one individually to figure out what they would believe.

Situation 5 is really tricky because most philosophers never wrote about situations like this. The simple fact of the matter is that this situation could only happen in very modern society. Someone with valuable skills, sound body, and fit mind being unable to find work is an extremely foreign idea in many economic systems. In feudalism, the concept of firing a worker doesn’t even make sense! The job of many 20th and 21st century philosophers has been to imagine using a time machine to meet these older philosophers and explain situations like this to them to see what they say. As you can imagine, this is a very hard job. Different modern philosophers can reach different conclusions even when they are considering the same primary source.


Formulating the Golden Rule - negative and positive

I note that you have chosen a negative formulation of the Golden Rule:

'Don't do the thing to others, when you don't like it to be done to you' or as it is often (archaically) expressed : 'Do not do unto others what you would not have them do unto you'.

The rule can be and usually is usually stated positively:

'Do to others what you would have them do to you' or (again archaically) : 'Do unto others as you would have them do unto you'.

It is not immediately obvous, however, that the negative and positive formulations prescribe or proscribe different lines of conduct. (But perhaps they do, and the difference escapes me.)

Not a rule but a principle

The Golden Rule is not specific in the way I take moral rules to be. 'Promises should be kept', 'Lies should be avoided' - these are moral rules. The so-called Golden Rule by contrast does not identify any such specifically determinate kind of action as promising or lying. The Golden Rule is a principle from which or in accordance with which moral rules can be derived.

Criticism of the Golden Rule

A common criticism is that the Golden Rule is that individuals' tastes, needs, interests, and desires can be and often are divergent. I should not feel quite comfortable the presence of a sado-machoschist who averred complete adherence to the Golden Rule.

Personally specific versus general constructions of the Golden Rule

The example of the sado-machoschist represents a narrow, personally specific reading of the Golden Rule; it applies the rule to tastes, needs, interests, and desires that are specific, particular or peculiar to the agent. As a moral principle thus construed, it is seriously defective. But there is another possiblity, another reading of the rule according to which the rule applies only to general ways in which I would wish others to act towards me quite distinct from my particular tastes, needs, interests, and desires. There are such ways: it is in my general interest, for instance, for others to keep their promises to me. The Golden Rule works in this kind of case: 'Do to others as you would have them do to you', e.g. keep your promises as you would want others to keep their promises to you. Or 'Don't break your promises to others as you would not want them to break their promises to you'.

I don't think the general version of the Golden Rule assumes a uniform human nature, only a range of common interests. But if there aren't such interests, this defence of the rule won't work.

The Golden Rule and Supererogation

Supererogation occurs when one does more than moral duty obligation strictly requires. I may have a duty to help someone in need but if I not only help her adequately to her need but also bestow nine-tenths of my wealth and assets on her, then I would not consider that the Golden Rule were a principle generally binding on other people. I might perfectly well not want others to act in the same way towards me; I might prefer them not to want to regard themselves as morally bound to make such a sacrifice.

Unless you absolutely have to

I am not sure that this proviso has to be added to the Golden Rule. It is implicit in the rules it licences. 'Do to others as you would have them do to you' is a principle that licences moral rules and only the most rigorist ethical systems do not admit of exceptions, the abrogation of rules, in particular cirucmstances. (A)'Keep a promise as you would have others keep a promise to you - except where keeping the promise is overriden by a more serious moral requirement such as saving a life ('which you absolutely has to do')'. A reflective moral agent, as distinct from an inflexible ethical rigorist, is always aware of the tacit 'except' clause.

And if Kant is mentioned, I don't see how (A) is not consistently universalisable, whatever Kant himself may have thought.


Marcus G. Singer, 'The Golden Rule', Philosophy , Oct., 1963, Vol. 38, No. 146 (Oct., 1963), pp. 293-314.


Humans kill and eat animals. That case makes the problem you identify clearer: who are considered moral persons? The Bible, one of several ancient sources for the Golden Rule, implicitly considers only humans to be under consideration, as 'made in God's image', and capable of sin (having gained the knowledge of good and evil). Buddhism, and philosopher Peter Singer, would look to a capacities-based picture relating who can be responsible to who can be held accountable, elevating intelligent animals like apes and dolphins closer to humans even while considering their behaviour differently.

We might also require maturity (eg age of criminal responsibility, to be held to account for things), and sanity (diminished responsibility of various types).

An interesting edge case, is whether a person has a right to steal food when they are starving. British law in the 17th to early 19th century has come to be called 'The Bloody Code' for enforcing draconian compulsory measures against minor crimes, including death for stealing a lamb to feed a starving family. Refusal of juries to convict in such cases, led to reform. It's interesting as an edge-case because it makes us consider whether economic conditions factor into when someone can be held accountable to behave by the Golden Rule. And then further, how someone has been raised. Can we reasonably expect someone to 'do unto others as they would done by', without say physical and emotional security? Arguably this underpins the need for basic welfare provision.

So a possible amendment morally, is 'there but for fortune go you or I'. I would relate this & the Golden Rule, to the essential intersubjectivity involved in our ability to cooperate and communicate, and I would argue this has resulted in 'hard wiring' of our sense of fairness.

Economists Kate Pickett and Richard G. Wilkinson find substantial support for this, in how egalitarianism is perhaps the single most profound predictor of wellbeing across a society.

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