The Golden Rule tells us, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” What exactly is the Golden Rule telling us to do? There are several possible interpretations.

It could be telling me to treat others as I would wish to be treated if I traded places with them while keeping all of my current preferences intact. Thus, if I love loud rock music at all hours of the day and night, turning up my stereo at 3:00 a.m. would be treating my sleeping neighbors as I would wish to be treated. Hmmmm –somehow that doesn’t quite capture the spirit of the Golden Rule, does it? As George Bernard Shaw once said, “Don’t do unto others as you would have them do unto you – their tastes might be different!”

Another interpretation is that it could be directing me to treat others as I would wish to be treated if I traded places with them while assuming all of their preferences. This leads to a more favorable outcome for my sleeping neighbor who really hates being woken up at 3:00 a.m. However, what if my neighbor is a masochist who loves being beaten, or a sadist who wants to beat me up? Surely I can’t be obligated to set aside my aversion to beating or being beaten just to humor a pervert living next door.

One solution here might be to weigh and compare the preferences involved. If I really hate beating or being beaten as much as my neighbor loves the opposite, then my neighbor’s application of the Golden Rule to me would cancel out my application of it to him. After all, we both ought to be following the Golden Rule. And my sleeping neighbor’s interest in sleep is much stronger than my desire to hear loud music at 3:00 a.m., so he is not violating the Golden Rule by asking me to turn down the volume. So maybe what the Golden Rule is demanding is that I view the preferences of all those affected by an action from the viewpoint of an impartial spectator who benevolently wants to maximize the satisfaction of everyone’s preferences. Think of two people in the check-out line at the grocery store, one with a full cart and one with a gallon of milk. If I have the full cart, I should let the guy with the milk go first, even if I am next in line and have to wait a bit longer as a result. A minor wait for me is better, from an impartial standpoint, than a long wait for him.

But consider a problem with this approach. Suppose I have only a moderate aversion to hurting people, while my masochistic neighbor has a passion for being beaten. If I am obliged by the Golden Rule to maximize the satisfaction of preferences, then it seems I morally ought to beat him. Surely this can’t be right. I am reminded of a line from the movie Jesus of Montreal, spoken by a female character who was having a sexual affair with a Catholic priest. When asked why she was doing this, she answered, “Because it gives him so much pleasure and me so little pain.” Was she just following the Golden Rule!??! Surely not!

What have we missed? Just this, I think: The Golden Rule cannot be applied in the absence of some other moral rules for assessing preferences. Some preferences are inherently debased and have no claim on satisfaction, as with the sadist and masochist (and the wandering priest). Some desires are for things that hurt and degrade us; others are for things that genuinely build us up and help us to flourish. Perhaps the Golden Rule is really telling us to help others and not harm them, just as we wish others to refrain from harming us and to help us when they can do so at no unreasonable cost to themselves. And an important aspect of helping and harming has to do with respecting our dignity as persons. As John Stuart Mill observes in Utilitarianism, our unwillingness to sink into “a lower grade of existence” is rooted in “a sense of dignity, which all human beings possess in one form or another.” Helping and harming must be defined in terms of some account of what it means to flourish as a human being, to lead a fulfilled human life. Thus, an account of human flourishing is necessary for us to know how to follow the Golden Rule.