Amy Winehouse and breaking the Golden Rule

Maybe my mind is just less well ordered than most people’s, but for me some the moments of real intellectual breakthrough come when I find myself thinking something that surprises me, and so am forced to analyse that surprising thing to work out why I was thinking it. Whether the thing turns out to be right or wrong, or just complicated, I understand better my own instincts and assumptions as a result. One such happened last week, in an ETS panel session in Atlanta. One of the other panelists, David Gushee, closed an impressive impromptu peroration with an appeal to ‘the golden rule’ – ‘do unto others as you would have them do to you.’ I realised that I was thinking that this principle was wrong.

Doubting the golden rule, of course, is one of those ethical positions that you are really not supposed to entertain. If there is a universal ethic, it is this. And Jesus says it, identifying it with the core teaching of the Mosaic law: ‘Do to others what you want them to do to you. This is the meaning of the law of Moses and the teaching of the prophets.’ (Mt 7:12) So I thought a bit about why I was doubting it, or at least David’s application of it.

My analysis goes something like this: so stated, the ‘golden rule’ assumes a level of moral awareness that I am sure is not universal, and am not sure is at all common. If our instincts about what we would like others to do to us are bad instincts, the golden rule offers bad advice. More commonly, I suspect, our desires are extremely conflicted, and so the golden rule offers no meaningful guidance at all.

I rarely watch movies on planes, but I had watched one on the way to Atlanta. It was the recent biopic about Amy Winehouse, which intersperses clips of her – astonishing – musical performances with the story of her life spiralling out of control, finally to her tragic death. The film portrays her essentially as a victim, thrown into impossible contexts by decisions made by her partner, her manager, or her father. The sympathetic characters were female friends from childhood, who tried to help her. In the middle of a drugs binge they would come and try to encourage her to get clean, whereas her partner would be encouraging her to try something even stronger. Who was doing the thing she wanted to be done to her?

The answer is profoundly ambiguous: straightforwardly, she wanted to be high; no doubt there was a part of her that wanted to be clean. According to the portrayal in the film, what she actually needed – whether she ever wanted it or not – was to get out of the celebrity spotlight, because she was unable to cope with it and was using drugs to deal with that inability. ‘Do to others what you want them to do to you’ is not a straightforward piece of advice here… (This is, after all, the woman whose biggest hit was built around the lyric ‘They tried to make me go to rehab; I said no, no, no’…)

Now, it would be possible to suggest that, because of her relative youth and her addiction issues, Amy Winehouse was considerably less rational than is normal for human beings; I suspect, however, that this is false. I reflect on my own pastoral experience, and supremely on my own life: there are questions I desperately don’t want people to ask me, whilst at the same time I know that it would do me good to face those same questions. What do I want them to do to me? I don’t know, so I don’t know what I should do to others, if I am following the golden rule.

More, I remember moments of genuine intervention, such as when my fellow leaders at a previous church banned me from preaching for several months because they had decided I was neglecting family relationships too much in my desire to serve that fellowship. (We had been going through some tough times; I still don’t regret stepping up to do what I did, but in hindsight I accept that it was unsustainable, and I had reached, or gone someway past, the point where I needed to stop and pass the baton.) Did I want them to step into my life like that? No. Am I now grateful they did? Yes. Do I hope I would have the courage – and love – to do what they did to someone like me in future, despite her not wanting the intervention at all? Absolutely.

At that point, what I wanted my colleagues to do to me was – I can now see – basically destructive; this seems to me to be a common position for human beings to be in. The golden rule then fails, because of a defect in moral intuition on my part. My ‘wants’ are – routinely – sufficiently ill-directed that to impose them on others would be actively cruel.

Augustine writes somewhere that the law of the Christian life is ‘love God, and do what you like.’ The point being, of course, that if you truly love God, what you like to do will be the right thing. The advice is profoundly right, but dangerous, since most of us love God rather imperfectly, and so like to do at least some things that are expressions of hatred of God and ourselves.

When we have learnt to want as we should, the golden rule will teach us well how to act towards others; until we reach that point, listening hard to Moses and the prophets (and, now, apostles) remains an important, necessary, check on our wayward desires.

1 Comment

  1. Carolyn
    Nov 30, 2015

    I’ve been struck, recently, by a related reflection on Matt 22:34-40. There’s a temptation to view it as an excuse to bypass ‘the law and the prophets’, but actually it’s at least as much (almost certainly more) an affirmation of the continuing relevance of all of scripture. And of course a criteria for interpretation. (And then my head gets all dizzy at the circularity of it all and I have to watch an episode of Masterchef to recover).

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