Monday, March 5, 2012

A Glass of Water

Trey Smith

Is the glass half full or half empty? Psychologists will tell us that how a person describes that glass of water can tell you a good deal about a person. The person who sees the glass as half full generally is more positive and optimistic. Conversely, the person who views the glass of water as half empty generally is more negative and pessimistic.

I was thinking about the positive/optimistic versus the negative/pessimistic viewpoints in terms of the principle of reciprocity (i.e., The Golden Rule).

Whether a person subscribes to the faith of Christianity or not, my bet is that most people are familiar with the line attributed to Jesus in Luke 6:31 that we generally phrase as Do unto others as you would want them to do unto you. From the standpoint of the glass analogy, this statement falls within the positive/optimistic spectrum.

Outside of Asian circles, few westerners are aware that Confucius stated much the same thing centuries earlier. However, in the Confucian formulation, the statement is more akin to the half empty glass. In the Analects 15:23, the Master says, "What you do not want done to yourself, do not do to others."

It can certainly be argued that, regardless of the direction of these two statements, the sentiment is much the same. In my mind's eye, however, I think the Confucian version is more forceful and would lead most of us to live more virtuous and ethical lives.

I base this supposition on my own observations of human nature. Most of us, whether we care to admit it or not, go through life formulating cost-benefit analyses of every situation. How can I give as little as possible to get the most back? When this formulation is paired with the version of The Golden Rule attributed to Jesus, we try to figure out the bare minimum of how to treat others to have the full measure reciprocated.

For example, if we desire for others to worship at our feet, we try to calculate the smallest amount of kindness or compassion to show others in order to convince them to grovel before us!! In other words, while we might follow the letter of the law, we don't tend to follow it in spirit.

But, when we turn this notion around to gaze at it from the Confucian angle, we are far more likely to err on the liberal side of the equation. If we don't want others to beat us about the head, we will go out of our way NOT to beat them on their head, shoulders or upper torso. In order NOT to receive that which we don't want, we set the stage by NOT doing to others on the scale of two or threefold what we don't want to receive back.

So, while it could be argued that the Confucian precept is more negative, in tone, I would argue that it is more positive in outcome. By seeing the glass half empty, it turns into the glass half full.


  1. Possibly... I'm not sure I see that it would matter one way or the other. I always liked the positive phrasing Jesus used, rather than the "thou shalt not's" of the OT, negetive and legalistic sounding to me.

  2. I agree with Trey on this one. The problem I have with the Golden rule is that it operates on the assumption that I want the same thing you want. Don't assume anything about me; please ask first. For example, just because you are into BDSM, doesn't mean that I want to be treated that way.

    I also never liked the glass example: to me, if you were in the process of filling the glass it is only half-full; if you were pouring it out and stopped, it would be half-empty. So it depends on the situation.

    Of course, here is the best answer over all:
    Dear Optimist and Pessimist;
    While you were arguing about the glass of water, I drank it.

  3. It's actually a pretty thoughtful analysis here, Trey. I'm not sure that everyone is that cynical and selfish in all cases, that they only do the sheer minimum, but over all, you may be on to something in thinking the negetive might inspire more giving/effort.

    Good point, Joy. I guess it's more complicated than it seems. It might be clearer to say "do unto others as they would want done unto them" to avoid the BDSM weird cases, but it's not clearer at all, because how can you know wht the other wants? Sometimes we hurt even when we're truly trying to help.

    I think the point is that we can only know ourselves. Deep down, we know what is hurtful to us, and what is good; and using that as a standard, the point is to act in ways that would do the same for others. We can't know for sure it will be for the good but now you're getting down to whether good intentions really do "pave the road to hell." If an action intended well causes pain, was it a good or bad thing?

    Funny how even the simplest, most basic and universal moral axioms are immensely complicated.

  4. In the spirit of my personal "and-ism", I think you can live by both principles. The ethical notion of mutual reciprocity turns up in many faiths and philosophical traditions. I think it boils down to "Avoid hypocrisy."

  5. ... & at that moment in time it is half a glass of water & without liquid h2O humans die: by understanding that one gives oneself the space to b non-judgemental (half full/empty) & this allows one to perceive the influence that 'half a glass of water' has on you in this moment of time. So even if 'half a glass of water' is a metaphor or a parable the ah-ha moment is the same - as Trey mentioned last week "you can't bath in 'half a glass of water' " OR CAN YOU? (tho' the unit of measurement there was a teaspoon)

  6. Ps just a thought there could be no full/empty whatsoever without the vessel ie the glass - perhaps the whole story is not about the water at all but about the vessel?


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