The primary teaching of every religion? Don’t be an asshole.
Yay! The theme of my new book is topical!
But what are the limitations of the golden rule?
Two nitpicks and a gesture in the direction of an answer to the question of limitations (or, perhaps, a further question that might further clarify the original question):
Nitpick 1. It is difficult for me to see how the Sikh proverb belongs with the rest of these, at least at first blush. It is probably, however, that the manner in which the terms are being used in the proverb are simply not the way I am used to using them.
Nitpick 2: That “the primary teaching of every religion” is “don’t be an asshole” is, no doubt, said for humorous effect. At least in the case of Christianity and Judaism (I am not qualified to comment on matters of comparative religion, only those religions with which I am most familiar) the comment by the Jewish commentary which is echoed by Christ refers to a tradition of positive law and its interpretation. It’s worth noting that this is not simply a matter of religion, but also of the State, which is to say that the basis of all law is that you should not act to compromise the right of another as that would undermine the same right in you. I realize that is a bit of an enlightenment spin on the maxim, but it strikes me as a good reading of it on its face. At any rate, we would not be free of such a divine law, at least as a necessary concept, as there must be something that the laws that we give to ourselves have to commend them. They must pass the test of reason, whether or not they are consistent in themselves. Reason stands over the laws and judges between them whether they are good laws or not (of course, we are not always good at reasoning). One simple test is that proposed in the “Golden Rule”, and that is to ask whether or not I can do something without undermining the conditions for my doing it.
The Gesture: As the rule is stated in these dressed down and dogmatic presentations, a problem does present itself, though. I will try to illustrate this with a story. Suppose you know a fellow who has ‘played the field’ quite a bit, and now he finds himself deeply in love with a particular woman. Also, she has told him that the feeling is mutual. However, as a result of his irresponsible sexual lifestyle (I realize that what counts as irresponsible in such matters is controversial, but just imagine whatever you think counts as irresponsible), he has contracted a disease or two, and is distressed because he feels he must be honest with this woman with whom he is in love as he might infect her by acting on his love. He appeals to the Golden Rule, however, to say that if the tables were turned, he would not want to know. He would not want her to tell him, as that might disrupt the purity of the feelings shared between them, and, at any rate, he wouldn’t care once their love had been consummated. There are problems with his line of thinking, of course, but they are not evinced by the maxim as it appears above. This is not to say that the maxim allows for this kind of behavior (this scenario is NOT a refutation of the maxim), but rather that the scenario that I have just laid out reveals the need to clear up the terms that the maxim uses. So, there must be a meta-perspective by which the Golden Rule can be made sense of. One limitation then, is that it is simply no good on its own.
Them are my thoughts right now.