The Zeroth Law

English: Wildboar Clough (Bedrock) Looking to ...

English: Wildboar Clough (Bedrock) Looking to Longdendale. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Golden Rule is not religious.

It’s not even “spiritual.”

It’s universal.

It never ceases to amaze me how many people don’t seem to understand that.

I realize that in the “west” its most closely associated with Christianity. Both Luke and Matthew have Jesus say And as ye would that men should do to you, do ye also to them likewise.

Or, as we more commonly phrase it today, do unto others as you’d have them do unto you.

It is the foundation of all life-affirming religions, but it isn’t religious.

It is the cornerstone of all equitable canons of justice, but it isn’t a set of rules.

It is the bedrock of all moral and ethical systems, but it isn’t a cut and paste blueprint for social harmony.

In all times and places and cultures since humanity has begun attempting to codify its behaviour, the Principle of Mutuality has formed the single most basic tenet. Paul McKenna, who has compiled an impressive array of Golden Rule resources, has several hundred verified individual formulations. They come from across millennia of time and from every culture that human beings have created in every corner of the world.

On this foundation all of our laws and codes of conduct are built. As the writer of Matthew has Jesus state – “It IS the Law and the Prophets.”

But it doesn’t stand alone. Jeffery Wattles, in his book “The Golden Rule”, cautions that we always need to understand and apply the Golden Rule in the context of our place and time and culture. Rabbi Hillel, whose formulation of the Golden Rule uses the opposite approach (what you don’t want done to you, don’t do to others), is recorded as having said that all the rest of the Torah was “commentary.” And then he said, “Now go and learn it.”

Our challenge is to realize that learning the context means that we have to be prepared to modify our body of “Law and Prophets” when the context changes.

Isaac Asimov seems to have thought that the Golden Rule was a good foundation for his “Three Laws.” I’ve no idea if Asimov knew that he was referencing the Golden Rule when he created them or not; but its influence is easy to see.

1. A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm. 2. A robot must obey the orders given to it by human beings, except where such orders would conflict with the First Law. 3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Laws.

Years afterward, he would add a fourth Law, one that overrode the others –

0. A robot may not harm humanity, or, by inaction, allow humanity to come to harm.

He called it the “zeroth law.”

Which, among other things, reminds us that numbering things isn’t always the best approach. But the world had changed drastically in Asimov’ lifetime. We had begun to understand that we are not just individuals randomly interacting with each. We’re part of a greater whole.

The context had changed.

And so Asimov added fourth, zeroth, law.

We too, who live in probably the fastest-changing culture that human beings have ever created, need to realize that our context is changing. Our world is shrinking while our recognition of our interconnectedness is growing.

The question now becomes one of adaptability. How do we modify our codes of conduct, our “Laws, to accommodate the global civilization that we’re becoming?

I don’t have the answer to that, save for this –

Whatever we do, if we ground it in the Principle of Mutuality and live it through the Golden Rule, we’ll have built on the right foundation.

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