Retirement has given me way too much time to think about questions that have no answers. I find myself waking up at odd hours to mull over issues I am clearly incompetent to resolve–something I rarely did when work-related tasks occupied my thoughts.

Earlier this week, I woke up in the middle of the night and returned to one such question–a question that has frequently bedeviled me: what do we humans owe each other? That is, what are our basic, unavoidable obligations to our fellow humans?

I suspect that the people refusing to be vaccinated against COVID  triggered this particular visit to that question, but the question itself is considerably broader. It seems to implicate the Golden Rules. Note plural.

The rule as I learned it was in the negative: if it pisses you off, don’t do it to someone else. (Okay, okay–the text  actually reads “What you yourself hate, do to no man.” Or, presumably, to no woman.) The rule as it is commonly recited in the U.S., however, is framed as a positive: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” 

So–what’s our basic obligation to other people? To refrain from behaviors that are hurtful or damaging to them? (Doesn’t that require some awareness of their specific fears and/or challenges?) Or are we obliged to do affirmative things to help others, based upon what we would want those others to do for us? (And if that is indeed our obligation, what if the things I would like to have done to or for me are things that would royally piss you off?)

It’s a puzzlement….

And what about government? America’s founders knew what they didn’t want their new government to do–in the Bill of Rights, they crafted a system of negative liberty. Government was supposed to butt out of our moral and intellectual decision-making and respect our personal autonomy–our right to self-govern. (Well, it was a right of White Male property owners, anyway….) When the Great Depression came along, however, Americans decided that government has some positive obligations as well.

Americans have been arguing about all of that–about what government should and shouldn’t do– pretty much forever. It’s a central preoccupation of this blog.

Legally, at least, we start with “live and let live.” So long as your behavior isn’t harming me, you are entitled to do your own thing. Sounds simple and straightforward– but then we realize that the definition of “harm” is very hotly contested.

I don’t think your decision to read that dirty book affects me, but the guy down the street is convinced that by both your willingness to read it and your support for the publisher by purchasing it, you are, in fact,  committing social harm–that you are polluting the culture and that affects us all.

I believe that having to inhale your passive smoke in my favorite bar is a tangible, demonstrable harm, but you believe the decision to smoke and endanger your own health is entirely yours to make, and you further believe the bar owner has the right to decide who does what in his establishment. 

And don’t get me started on vaccinations….

My middle-of-the-night (why can’t I just go back to sleep?) conversation with myself recognized that modern realities have altered the obligations we owe to each other–we are more densely packed into our cities and towns, more connected to each other by virtue of communication and transportation technologies, and immensely more interdependent in a multitude of ways thanks to the operation of all contemporary economic systems. (Jeffersonian agrarianism was something of a fantasy even in his time, and it’s even more untenable now.)

Even if we leave government out of the equation, and just concentrate on personal responsibility, both of those Golden Rule formulations require a certain degree of judgmentalism.  How do I identify the less obvious harmful behaviors I need to avoid?(Other than the more obvious stuff–don’t lie, cheat or steal, don’t injure or kill–the whole question gets very slippery)…On the positive side, what if am I doing unto you something I think is positive, but it’s something you don’t want done unto you? (I can’t help thinking of the moral scolds who want to control and direct my most intimate behaviors and beliefs “for my own good…”) 

My apologies for sharing my stream-of-consciousness internal debate. Mark it down to retirement-related dementia. I’ll return to more concrete and timely concerns tomorrow.

Other people who wake up in the night read a book, or have fantasies about sex or money. Obviously, there’s something very wrong with me….


  1. Ha ha ha! Try not to solve the world’s problems alone in the middle of the night. It’s bad for your health. Take care Professor.

  2. There is a meme floating around FB that talks about Native Americans who view life thru their obligations rather than rights. It seems modern America, especially on the right but somewhat on the left, can’t be bothered to worry about obligations or responsibilities.

  3. As some spiritual-related people would request, “What time is the middle of your night?”

    My muses speak to me around 3-3:30 am. However, since I’ve been collaborating with my foreign chaps, I wake up at 4 am. The musings begin then.

    I didn’t make this up, but the piece that spoke to me this morning apparently spoke to others because they’ve already shared nearly the exact question you asked yourself on social media.

    What’s ironic is the piece came from Einstein’s dictum in 1949:

    “I have now reached the point where I may indicate briefly what to me constitutes the essence of the crisis of our time. It concerns the relationship of the individual to society. The individual has become more conscious than ever of his dependence upon society. But he does not experience this dependence as a positive asset, as an organic tie, or as a protective force, but rather as a threat to his natural rights or even his economic existence. Moreover, his position in society is such that the egotistical drives of his make-up are constantly being accentuated, while his social drives, which are by nature weaker, progressively deteriorate.”

    We all recognize that Albert was a thinker years before his time, but if we adjust the timeframe, isn’t it the same question we find ourselves posing today?

    I am two halves; a solitary being and a social creature. But, as Albert noticed in 1949, we began resenting our ties or need for society a long time ago, although most were unaware of it until 2021. What is driving this resentment?

    No peaking, because Albert also posted his solution. 😉

  4. I think you should be doing more blogging in the middle of the nite. This was great. I am hoping you don’t mind if I post your negative golden rule.

  5. Well, those who violate the basic “golden” rules tend to be – if they aren’t altogether all in – self-centered, self-absorbed, self-indulgent and utterly selfish. In other words, they just don’t give a single shit about anybody else. They possess NO idea of community as it relates to the bigger pictures about a thriving society.

    To be fair, they’ve been taught this ME FIRST meme since their parents plopped them down in front of a TV that showed violent, self-centered cartoons interrupted by commercials selling sugar-laced foods. Without better parenting nothing will change for that 25% who carry guns on their hips, wave Trump signs and whine about “those” people taking money for doing nothing.

    So, there are answers, but they are not easy to implement.

  6. When I was young I went along to get along by not speaking up. Growing up in a Republican family and primarily Republican neighborhood, it was because I didn’t understand what was behind their views of “others” as being wrong and less worthy of consideration. In my teens I ventured into the real world in high school where I met other races, religions, ethnic groups, and sexual orientation who became my friends. As Opie Taylor would say, “they are of my own kind”; some learned the same about me. Many of those from my world before my enlightenment walked away and out of my life. I don’t miss them.

    Today, I still see a basic sameness about daily lives within the drastic “Positive/Negative” of today’s world in family, friends and neighbors which was unleashed on us when Trump came down that escalator in 2015 but nothing seems the same. Many have again walked and out of my life as we pass one another on the same street.

    “Even if we leave government out of the equation, and just concentrate on personal responsibility, both of those Golden Rule formulations require a certain degree of judgmentalism.”

    I left government out of the equation long ago and still do not judge them for their political or religious beliefs which are tightly woven together. Attempts to continue friendly neighborly talks ended when Trump “won” his presidency which confuses me yet today. It “is a puzzlement” nationwide today. It is me still trying to resolve my mistakes from decades ago that cause my middle-of-the-night-mental-wanderings.

  7. It all depends on your philosophy. The industrialists and yes the liberals of the 19th century foisted the dominance of the marketplace on humanity. They had the capital, the slaves, the cotton, the coal, the railroads to dominate the whole world. In their world we are all solitary individuals who either make money or work for a living. The only way we are going to survive is to bring about a modern version of “the commons”, to join in collective action. In this we owe our fellow human beings our support, our nurturing. We also owe it to all the other life on this planet. We have to be more than solitary individual consumers, or we are going to perish. We need new philosophies.

  8. We all have two kinds of responsibilities, responsibilities each is capable of performing according to our individual physical, mental and emotional ability.
    The first is a responsibility FOR ourselves. The rules/laws we live by dictate those responsibilities.
    The second kind of responsibility is TO others. We individually decide what those responsibilities are. This is called freedom.
    As time passes these types of responsibilities change. We mature and take our self responsibility more seriously. Society changes and with those changes our responsibilities to others as we perceive the world changes too.
    Finally, responsibility is not the same as rights.

  9. What do you need me to do? That’s the question I start with when I offer help to anyone. It keeps me from doing unwanted or unnecessary things to or for others.

  10. Enjoyable essay! Most people regard libertarianism as the hyper-individualism peddled by the QOP over the last 40-50 years but in fact is grounded in The Golden Rule and the rationalism of the Enlightenment, i.e. facts, science and logic. A true libertarian wouldn’t hesitate to get vaccinated because of their belief in “do no harm to others” over anything else. So, if everyone in a society shares such values then there would be no need for such laws or regulations as mask and vaccine mandates because everyone behaves in ways that promote the well-being of society.

    Of course a libertarian society is aspirational at best and relies on the fiction that men and women will always subordinate their individual wants and desires to what’s best for their communities and society at large. In that regard pure libertarianism is no more realistic than pure Marxism – they are both so far afield of human nature to be useless as models for governance.

    Instead we live in a society founded on principles largely designed to manage greed – i.e. the competing interests of individuals and corporations. This is good but unfortunately it has devolved into a crony-capitalist oligarchy that puts the interests of the wealthy and their puppets permanently ahead of others to inconceivable levels (CEO’s earning 400 times more than their workers average salary).

    I’m still hopeful that after all this political and social conflict we will preserve the institutions needed to operate as a democratic republic but one where the federal government plays a substantive role in living up to our country’s true ideals – that of enabling all persons to enjoy life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. The mere idea that 50 separate states ranging in population from 600 thousand to 40 million can effectively govern the vast majority of our civil affairs just seems ridiculous, and the recent flood of restrictive voting laws is proof.

  11. As I read your blog, I realized that the golden rule has severe limitations. Being a man I have no experience from of a women’s point of view. I don’t know what it is like being Black. So I am going to agree that we may never be able to agree since all of us operate with incomplete information.

    Thanks for a thought provoking blog today.

  12. As the wonderful old song suggests, “walk a mile in my shoes” takes us on a path to…empathy.

  13. That was eerie, as though you were inside my head putting my thoughts into words.

  14. Ahhhhhh, the middle of the night frets and questions. I think almost everyone over 60 who is a thinker has them. I resolved the issue by using the time to listen…..and to list and be thankful for my blessings. Now it has become a time of meditation, not wondering.

  15. Sleepability, the burden of the world aside for a moment, is all accounts settled or current with others. Take insurance, for example, as a pooled risk. We share risk with others by investing in insurance. We have a long term care policy to insure we are not a burden to others as we age. We hope we never have to use it, but we have sleepability now not to worry. What do I owe others? My small part to sustain and grow goodwill. I benefitted from that all my life, and while I have no score card, it is my commitment (not obligation) to offer goodwill even to strangers. As my benevolent West Texas farm grandfather would say often: “what goes round … comes around.”

  16. There is NOTHING wrong with you, Sheila!
    What do we owe to others, is a massively important question. I have come to answer it this way: Although we are all here by random fluctuations of the universe, we may as well hold one another’s hands, as we spin wildly through the void. There is another maxim I have attached to all my e-mails, as my signature: “I am because we are.” This is the essence of Umbutu.
    No one exists in a vacuum, despite the lessons attributed to the characters John Wayne portrayed.

  17. I suppose as far as rules of conduct they were once we humans moved to the agricultural lifestyle became codified. Given the concentration of people in the agricultural world vs hunter-gather laws were needed to ensure society as whole applied to all. The Code of Ur-Nammu is the oldest known law code surviving today. The punishments by today’s standards are rather draconian.

    The idea of “how to act” toward the state and your peers tried ensure stability for all. As someone wrote during our Civil Rights Legislation of LBJ, we can change the law but not what is in a person’s heart.

    It seems amazing to me that The Trumpet and the GOP took what seems to be simple hygiene, i.e., wearing a mask or receiving a vaccination to be a political statement. The scientific community urging masks and vaccines has somehow become the “Libs” and thus the enemy.

  18. Your blog today was a gift Sheila. It illustrates the kind of discernment’s we can make in what Richard Rohr refers to as the second half of life. It is the ability to spent time in the gray or the muddy middle. It is devoid of judgement for much longer than our American culture tolerates well. The second half of life is not about chronological age. It is about letting go of brittle notions of right and wrong, good and bad , moral and immoral. I hope you blog today encourages people to enter or go more deeply into the second half of life. We sorely need more people with this approach to the problems in our country and the rest of the world.

  19. Its all our fault, smokers are very bad people. even the movies say so, posting , warning, about exposure to language & smoking. No same signs hang on building & sites that spew fowl air, pour trash into our water & soil. Its our fault with our bad language & sexual choices ruin everything. Its cant be those whom we elected to run our government who stand and lie daily to protect their job & political party. What ever we are doing that once was good & now is beyond bad, seems based on if it makes money or not. This is not a defending smoking bad language or poor sexual choices. The point is we over or under regulate everything, makes my head spin.

  20. Whenever I start to get anxious at night, 2 words come from within “Fear not.”

    There’s a Ted talk titled “How to trick your mind into going to sleep.” I am going to watch that talk.

    The balance between caring for one’s self and others is highly ambiguous. I learned a long time ago not to give unwanted advice or help. I have also noted over the years that many people have severe difficulty asking for help and/or admitting their limitations. Many of us avoid vulnerability at all costs because we are not certain that others will treat us with respect and kindness,especially now. The severe divisiveness in our country has eroded trust. Social media had the mission of connecting us, but instead has shut us into silos.

    We do live in a very interdependent world and in that statement I include all sentient creatures of the earth and even those we assume are not sentient(like trees). I do believe that when others are harmed or deprived of basic needs, we are harming ourselves. The most recent example of this is the inequitable distribution of the vaccine around the globe.

    The Golden Rule seems to be such a simple ethical guideline. Our individualistic society and growing diversity have made it more complex because of the difference in cultures, in our belief systems and values.

    For me wearing a mask and taking a vaccine is guided by the golden rule. Not only do I protect myself with these public health measures, I protect others. That’s a win /win. People have been very creative with their rationalizations for refusing the vaccine and their refusal to wear masks. They made it complicated and politicized it. It really is tragic that some people believe that such public health measures are an assault on their individual rights rather than a way to live out the golden rule and also the second commandment “Love your neighbor as yourself.”

    I hope all of you stay well and safe in these uncertain times. Ihope that all of you and yes, you too, Shiela learn how to trick your minds into falling asleep at night.

    Sweet dreams.

  21. When wee hour sleeplessness comes on, make a Gratitude list, starting with “A”. Usually by the time I get to “M” I am back to sleep.

  22. Over a thousand people voluntarily drank poison at the behest of their cult leader in Jonestown Guiana. Millions of Americans are risking death at the behest of their cult leaders. Same mentality, same insanity.

  23. Could hardly be more timely. Thanks, as always, for injecting some reason – in every sense – into the discourse. Your writing helps keep me safe and sane, whatever that means in 2020-21-infinity

  24. The Agricultural Revolution of some 6,000 years ago in present day Iraq which (finally) provided humanity with an agricultural surplus and escape from daily root and berry searches allowed us to build cities, engage in philosophy and the arts etc. Different venues organized their societies differently, and ours included as one of its organizing principles followed in theory if not in paractice the Golden Rule of doing unto others as you would have them do for you. Some such rule or variation thereof is necessary in any society if it is to be cohesive, of course, and we can see today how abandonment of such participation by the greedy and narcissists can sunder our social and other such structures – not a pretty picture.

    I, too, sometimes awaken at night and lie there, as does Shelia, contemplating the state of the world, the economy, and my role in trying to live out the Golden Rule in a society that in substantial measure seems to be abandoning such an organizing principle which may, unless aggressively treated, bring us social rot, and mere identification of our problems as either individuals or as societal members in some Lockean sensitivity to context does not solve them (Trump, the environmental crisis, pandemics etc.); that is left to the politicians and philosophers we choose to follow under (I hope) a continuing system of democratic choice, a system itself under current attack by authoritarians.

    What to do? Use every waking hour in the defense of our democracy, by far our most precious asset held in common and one of the last few things left worth dying for.

  25. Thanks so much for the much needed laughter today! Please consider inserting this type of off-the-wall humor into your blog every now and then 🙂

  26. When you awake in the middle of the night,
    think about how to get big money out of our
    politics, then let us know how you’d do it!

  27. What Pete Daggett said: That was eerie, as though you were inside my head putting my thoughts into words.

    Your blog post defines the angst I feel everyday, trying to wrap my brain around the moral dilemmas of our day.

  28. I love this/you, Sheila! And I do not believe there’s something very wrong with you!
    Thank you!

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