When the Golden Rule Fails
Larry David’s Ethics in Curb Your Enthusiasm
By Justin Kitchen
Curb your Enthusiasm is a TV series broadcast on HBO, created, produced, starring and co-written by Larry David and returning for a tenth season this year. Larry plays a fictionalized version of himself and the show revolves around his many faux pas, confrontations, and misunderstandings with other characters. Larry doesn’t seem to have much respect for social conventions and normal rules of etiquette, so it’s difficult to discern what guides his decision-making. What are his ethics? In Season 9, Larry explicitly says that he follows the ‘Golden Rule’ … but I’ll argue that he fails miserably.
Where does the Golden Rule come from?
There are two versions of the ‘Golden Rule’. The first is the standard positive version and the version that Larry explicitly mentions in Season 9: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” The second version (traditionally called the ‘Silver Rule’) is negative and may be just as important to Larry though he doesn’t mention it on the show: “Do not do unto others as you would not have others do unto you.” The first version demands action; the second version demands a refraining from action (perhaps a better rule to follow for those that are prone to laziness). Again, though Larry seems more likely to use the Silver Rule to avoid the conventional acts of etiquette that he finds unnecessary, he only explicitly mentions the Golden Rule throughout the series. Thus, I’ll be focusing on the standard positive version of the Golden Rule.
First thing’s first: where did Larry get the Golden Rule from? Though Larry is Jewish, neither the Golden Rule nor the Silver Rule is in the Jewish bible (neither the Tanakh nor the Christian Old Testament). The passage that people often conflate with the Golden Rule is called the “Second Greatest Commandment” (or, the “Second Greatest Love Command”) which is mentioned in the Torah at Leviticus 19:18 (Cf. 19:34) and repeated verbatim by Jesus at Matthew 26:39 (Cf. Luke 10:27, Galatians 5:14): “Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself” (This is the same translation found in the Jewish Publication Society translation and the King James Version). Note the crucial inclusion of the word “love” … So you’re not only required to reciprocate some sort of polite gesture, you’re supposed to love the people around you?! I don’t think Larry would (or could) endorse that rule. He admits his inability to exercise love or compassion in a couple scenes of Season 9. First, when Larry fails to express any compassion to his oldest friend, Richard Lewis, after the latter’s pet parakeet died:
Lewis: You know why I’m laughing? At the sadness of your entire existence.
Larry: I take that as a great compliment.
Lewis: Well, there’s a lack of empathy and compassion and sympathy for practically everything in your life.
Larry: There’s a lack of everything.
— S09E01 (“Foisted”)
Then again when Susie’s ‘little sister’ is missing and yet Larry is concerned about his missing ‘Dr. Strangelove’ sunglasses (and her husband Jeff is concerned about his missing Cubs hat):
Susie: (to Larry and Jeff) You two have no compassion, have no caring about another human being.
Larry: There’s some partial truth to that.
Larry: It’s an illness, for sure. I don’t know why I have it, but I definitely do.
— S09E03 (“A Disturbance in the Kitchen”)
In fact, the Golden Rule as expressly endorsed by Larry is not the Second Greatest Commandment, but is a paraphrase of Matthew 7:12 and Luke 6:31 (Cf. Luke 10:27) in the Christian New Testament: “whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them” (KJV). This is a call to action, but not necessarily backed up by any loving or compassionate feelings. It seems Larry, like most people, gives the Golden Rule authority because he recognizes it as an important and popular rule in Christian America and something that everyone would recognize if appealed to during an argument. He picked it up either from popular culture or from his ex-wife’s Christian family.
How does Larry use the Golden Rule?
The Golden Rule is inherently ambiguous and malleable. Essentially, it says “Do unto others as you think it right for them to do unto you.” The term “right” can be defined in whatever way the speaker likes, so we must look at how Larry uses the Golden Rule in order to clarify his understanding of it. Although Larry does mention the Golden Rule in Season 2, I will focus on the two Season 9 examples throughout this article. In Episode 6 he used it when confronting an airport gate agent:
Larry: I got caught up watching this movie in the hotel – Arabesque with Sophia Loren and Gregory Peck! Please let me in here. It’s so ridiculous! There’s the plane right there!
Gate Agent: But, really, it’s as if the plane’s not there.
Larry: Wha? Are you a magician?!
Gate Agent: No, but the door is locked.
Larry: I see the plane. If you’re doing a trick, it’s not a good trick.
Gate Agent: I’m trying my best to accommodate you.
Larry: It doesn’t seem like it. You’re not Golden-Ruling it. You’re not doing unto others as you would have others do unto you.
Gate Agent: Unfortunately, the Golden Rule is not a federal regulation.
Larry: Golden Rule trumps everything. Golden Rule’s on top, federal law is second.
— S09E06 (“The Accidental Text on Purpose”)
And in the following episode, Larry appeals to the Golden Rule when explaining to his friend Leon why he’s leaving a note on a car:
Leon: What you gonna write?
Larry: I’m gonna tell them I’m sorry and leave my name and number. What else can I do?
Leon: I wouldn’t write shit! Just drive the fuck off!
Larry: I’m not gonna do that! I follow the Golden Rule, okay? “Do unto others as you would have others do unto you.” – the Golden Rule.
— S09E07 (“Namaste”)
In the first scene, Larry is implying that it’s right to hold planes for late travelers if they were caught-up watching a Sophia Loren movie. Although some kind of exception to the ‘locked-gate’ restriction may be permitted, the excuse that Larry uses would not be acceptable to many reasonable people. He is not basing his actions on love, but on a strange exception to a reasonable airport regulation and the exception seems based on one’s personal taste in movies.
In the second scene, Larry is implying that it’s right to take responsibility and leave a note when the owner of the car is absent. This seems admirable… until the end of the episode (as is often the case) when Larry discourages a bus driver from leaving a similar note while he’s in a rush to get to his girlfriend’s house to have sex:
Bus Driver: Shit.
Man: You clipped a mirror.
Bus Driver: No shit, Sherlock.
Larry: What’s going on? What are you doing?
Bus Driver: I gotta pull over.
Larry: What? Pull over? Are you kidding? Why?
Bus Driver: I have to leave a note.
Larry: A note? Oh, no, that’s a terrible mistake. Terrible. People don’t appreciate them anyway. I’m telling you the truth.
This shows that what Larry thinks is right is to take responsibility and leave a note if there’s no rush (or, if the car owner will properly appreciate the note). So, in both scenes, Larry is actually using the Golden Rule in conjunction with a kind of egoism (a pursuit of self-interest). In the second scene, it may be the case that Larry is just being inconsistent. We should get more philosophical about it in order to really pinpoint what’s wrong in Larry’s use of the Golden Rule.
Is the Golden Rule a particular rule or a general principle?
There are two interpretations of the Golden Rule that philosophers discuss: one can interpret the Golden Rule as a particular rule or as a general principle. A particular rule is meant to direct a specific action in a particular situation. This is how the Golden Rule is often interpreted in popular culture: “I should [some specific action] for others because I would have others [some specific action] for me.” When Larry uses the Golden Rule, he is interpreting it in this way: “I should leave a note for others because I would have others leave a note for me”. It’s maximally helpful in directing one’s behavior because it’s so formulaic and because it’s so particular to the moral agent himself. If I have a moral dilemma, it seems easily resolvable with reference to this interpretation: “Should I spend the day with my wife or go golfing? Well, if my wife was forced to choose I would want her to go golfing instead of spending the day with me. Therefore, I’ll go golfing.” Again, a common use of the Golden Rule as illustrated here and in the scenes from Season 9 is in conjunction with an egoist or self-interested stance. This problem seems to emerge if one only adopts a particular interpretation because it appeals to the moral agent’s personal desires and goals.
The second way someone may interpret the Golden Rule is as a general principle. That is, as a standard or test by which to evaluate general behavior or an ethical theory itself. A famous general principle is Immanuel Kant’s “Categorical Imperative,” which he used to evaluate particular rules or maxims of behavior. General principles can be used as a foundation for one’s ethical worldview, but are not things one can appeal to when they’re in the middle of an urgent moral dilemma. They are simply a call for universality and uniformity in one’s behavior: “Whatever generally I would expect others to do for me (regardless of my personal desires and goals), I should do to or for them.” Interpreted in this way, the Golden Rule demands that whatever ethical theories or social norms others adopt, I should adopt too. Most religions don’t take this interpretation for the simple reason that they already assume a universality and uniformity in how the religion is practiced throughout its community. And I think most people today are in the same boat: they adopt a particular interpretation of Golden Rule assuming that we all agree on some basic rules of how to treat one another. If a person doesn’t agree on these, there may be problems.
So there are two scenarios in which the Golden Rule fails: 1) when it is used as a particular rule but in conjunction with an unacceptable ethical stance such as blatant self-interestedness and 2) when it is used either as a particular rule or as a general principle, but inconsistently (without an overarching assumption of universality and uniformity). In either case, the Golden Rule cannot be used as an acceptable guide for one’s behavior in normal society.
Why Larry can’t use the Golden Rule
In many scenes that appear to show Larry acting compassionately, he actually has ulterior motives directed towards his self-interest. One classic example (among many) was in Season 9 Episode 8 in which he ardently defended Morsi’s right to cut to the front of the buffet line and get seconds:
Larry: One minute! One minute! Just a minute! … Are you getting seconds?
Morsi: Yes, sir.
Larry: [to the angry people in line] The man is getting seconds!
Man in Line: It doesn’t matter.
Woman in Line: That’s not a rule
Larry: The man has already waited in this line.
Marty : Larry, we’re hungry.
Larry: We’re all hungry. I’m hungry, too! But to make him wait another 10 minutes for a few measly potatoes? Shame on you! Shame on all of you!
Woman in Line: Okay.
Larry: That’s not how we do things here in America. We don’t wait for seconds! Never, never wait for seconds!
Woman in Line: It’s fine, it’s good.
Man in Line: It’s fine.
Larry: Sir, I would be proud to serve you. What do you want?
Morsi: Potatoes. Thank you. Thank you, sir.
. . .
Larry: [moments later, at his table] The good thing here is that if we want seconds, we go right to the front.
Bridget: Straight to the front.
— S09E08 (“Never Wait for Seconds”)
Here’s the problem with interpreting the Golden Rule as merely a particular rule. Unless you have a coherent ethical system to help you define what’s right, it’s going to come down to what’s right according to the desires of the person implementing the rule. Philosopher Marcus Singer put it nicely:
It is in this particular interpretation that the Rule authorizes the quarrel-some person who loves to be provoked, to go about provoking others, and the person who hates friendliness and sympathy to be cold and unsympathetic in his dealing with others, and so on, and it is evident that there is nothing to be said for it. [“The Golden Rule” in Philosophy, 3 (1963), p. 299]
Sound familiar? Larry uses the Golden Rule to justify his own “quarrelsome” and “unsympathetic” conception of what’s right. Again, this may not be a problem if everyone used the same standard of right and wrong – say, in a religious community or a community with a strong cultural identity. In this case, imagine that everyone actually endorsed all of Larry David’s rules of etiquette? If they were consistent with following these rules, it may result in a well-run – yet unsympathetic – society… But the world is not full of Larrys. Few people share his blatant disregard for the social norms of 21st century America (this is the driving force of the entire series!). Worse yet, I would imagine that a world full of Larrys would still result in quarrelsome behavior when considering the second problematic scenario mentioned above: inconsistency.
Larry David can’t use the Golden Rule because he does not have a coherent ethical system to refer to when defining what’s right; his behavior is inconsistent because the worldview he’s constructed is arbitrary and capricious. We find a good example in Season 9 Episode 6; when Larry upsets the girlfriend of his friend Marty (at the start of the episode, he criticizes her for serving unfiltered tap water), she eventually gives Marty an ultimatum:
Marty: Marilyn said to me I have to make a choice. It’s either Larry David or Marilyn.
Larry: She gave you an ultimatum?
Marty: An ultimatum.
Larry: Who’d you pick?
Marty: I took Marilyn.
Larry: I would’ve made the same decision. Let’s face it, at this point in our lives, it’s not so easy to find people to have sex with us.
So Larry approves of Marty’s behavior because Marty did to Larry what Larry would have done to him. But then – moments later – Larry gets upset at the accusation that he would sleep with Richard Lewis’s girlfriend:
Larry: … Something up with that girl. This woman likes me. Lewis’s date
Marty: How do you know?
Larry: Well, she was quite taken with my water stance the other night and she wouldn’t get out of the dressing room when I when I was changing.
Marty: She likes you.
Larry: Yeah, and I gotta go back there tomorrow to pick up my pants.
Leon: You gonna hit it?
Larry: No, I’m a loyal friend. When women give me an ultimatum, “Who are you gonna choose, me or your friend?” I say, “I’m gonna choose my friend.” That’s it.
— S9E06 (“Accidental Text on Purpose”)
Now, Larry (moments later) disapproves of Marty’s behavior because Marty did not do to Larry what Larry (moments later) would have done to him. I could cite many other scenes in which Larry is being inconsistent (this is also a driving force for the series), but I’ll let you keep an eye out for them when watching – it could be a game!
So the Golden Rule fails in two scenarios. First, when Larry is using the Golden Rule in conjunction with a standard of behavior (for himself) that others find unacceptable; second, when Larry is using the Golden Rule inconsistently, without any coherent ethical system to ensure that he’s acting consistently. If he addresses the second scenario (and ingratiates himself into some kind of ethically-minded community), I think the first scenario will also be addressed (at least this community of like-minded people would not find Larry’s behavior unacceptable)
I can see two potential solutions. First, Larry could bond himself to another person who has strong moral values. This happened from Season 1 until Season 7 or 8 with his then-wife Cheryl (with greater and lesser degrees of success). From Season 8 onward, Larry is on his own. The second solution would involve finding religion. This seems to happen in Season 5 when he mistakenly believes his biological parents are devout Christian gentiles from Bisbee, Arizona. Once he thought himself Christian, he not only Golden-Ruled it (he did unto others as he thought it right for them to do unto him) he Second-Greatest-Commandmented it (he defined right as loving others as he loves himself). His self-attested “illness” is cured! But, of course, it’s short-lived. His resolve to treat others with love quickly falls apart in spectacular fashion at the end of the episode.
It’s true that his behavior has not improved much since his brush with religion in Season 5 (2005) and his divorce from Cheryl at the start of Season 8 (2011). He actually seems to have gotten worse from what Season 9 (2017) showed us. But we were given hints that Larry could use the Golden Rule successfully as long as he finds a little more guidance in his life. Perhaps in Season 10 this year, Larry will find a community to accept him and help him act rightly… I seriously doubt it.
Justin Kitchen is a lecturer in the Philosophy Department at San Francisco State.