“Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” is the idea (also called the law of reciprocity) that may be the most universally applauded moral principle on Earth—the Golden Rule. Something like it appears in every major religion and ethical philosophy. The wording above is from the King James Bible, Matthew 7:12, however Hindu, Jewish, Buddhist, Confucian, and Zoroastrian versions of it appeared 3,000-500 years earlier.
The Christian version in Matthew says what you should do, rather than what you should not do. Most of the other versions say “don’t do to others what you wouldn’t want done to you.” This is now known as “the silver rule.” The positive version seems a little more demanding, and more problematic, than the silver rule:
- If you are a parent, should you really treat your young children as you would have them treat you? That would mean expecting your two-year-old to support you, teach you, protect you, and take care of your problems.
- What about if you are a judge dealing with a convicted murder; should you release them immediately, as they would probably prefer you to do?
- If you are a Christian, should you serve a Muslim pork, as you might wish done to you?
Most non-philosophers lump together “love they neighbor,” “turn the other cheek,” and other similar ideas together with the golden rule. All of them revolve around the same themes — empathy, selflessness, reciprocity, and egalitarianism, principles at the foundations of most ethical systems (although certainly not all). So perhaps that is how the golden rule should be taken, as a general ethical stance, not a rule (which is impossible to follow).
Meanwhile, academic philosophers have pretty much left the golden rule alone, commenting on it mainly to point out that although it sounds good, it cannot be applicable to a lot of situations – depending on how you interpret it. We will examine interpretations that eliminate some of these problems cases. The golden rule sounds like a perfect guide to morality but it’s interpretation is rife with difficulties.
II. Types of the Golden Rule
Here we list some relatives of the Golden Rule, which often incorporate it:
a. The Silver Rule
“Do not do unto others as you would not want done to you.”
b. The Platinum Rule
“Treat others the way they want to be treated.”
c. The Rule of Love
Love others as you do yourself (or better).
Put yourself in other’s shoes in order to know how to treat them ethically.
Feel and care about the suffering of others.
f. Kant’s Categorical Imperative
“Act only according to that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law.” In other words, “Only follow ethical rules that you think should be universal.” Philosophers consider Kant’s Imperative more philosophically air-tight than the golden rule. Some present it as supporting the golden rule while others would claim the opposite.
III. The History and Importance of the Golden Rule
The oldest golden rule is the Hindu “One should always treat others as they wish to be treated” (Hitopadehsa, from before 2000 BCE) which seems potentially more demanding than the golden rule. Most people would like to be treated better than they expect to be, or are willing to accept.
People tend to trace the Golden Rule back to Leviticus (19:18), “love thy neighbor as thyself,” which was probably first written down during the second millennium BCE. This is the only version of the rule from a major religion (Judaism) that explicitly mentions “love.” But some philosophers suggest that behind all versions of the golden rule is, or should be, the idea of universal, unconditional love. Along with the silver rule and other similar ideas, the ancient Greek philosophers expressed agape, which also has an underlying principle of love.
However, the Hebrew principle of “love thy neighbor” seems deceptive for its time. The rule was formulated in a tribal society, where it could only apply to other members of one’s tribe, and not necessarily to outsiders. It is quite likely that the “neighbor” in “love thy neighbor” was intended literally: love your neighbor as yourself, but not necessarily people from the next town over! In fact, of the three Abrahamic religions, only Islam has made the golden rule a religious obligation; if you are a guest in a very traditional Muslim home, your hosts will give you everything they can and lay down their lives for you, if necessary.
Similarly, around 500 BCE, Confucius wrote “What you do not want done to yourself, do not do to others.” In contrast to the statement in Leviticus, which is found in the middle of a long list of rules, the Confucian rule has always been emphasized, as a foundation of Confucian society.
But this raises a different kind of problem for the golden rule:
Confucian society was far from egalitarian, and not supposed to be. In the context of Confucian China, as is still true today, morality consisted of treating people as appropriate to their stations in life—treating a gentleman as a gentleman, a soldier as a soldier, and a slave as a slave; the hierarchy of superior and inferior relationships was (perhaps still is) is a central principle of Chinese relationships.
Confucius may have meant, “Treat people appropriately for their status, as you would wish them to do to you.” Or “Treat other people of a similar status, as you expect to be treated.” For people of different social status to treat each other similarly is traditionally considered both rude and immoral in China; it threatens to upset social harmony, which depends on each person fulfilling their proper role in the Confucian hierarchy.
IV. Famous Quotes about the Golden Rule
“I have something that I call my Golden Rule. It goes something like this: ‘Do unto others twenty-five percent better than you expect them to do unto you.’ … The twenty-five percent is for error.” ― Linus Pauling
Linus Pauling, an American chemist and the only scientist to win two non-shared Nobel prizes, gives us a rationally improved golden rule. Although it’s a bit tongue in cheek, alluding to the high standard of proof in science, Pauling’s modification is an astute rule-of-thumb repair for one of the golden rule’s most serious flaws – that it expects us to decide how well other people wish to be treated.
“Jonathan Swift made a soul for the gentlemen of this city by hating his neighbor as himself.”
― W.B. Yeats, Selected Poems and Four Plays
A humorous and cynical twist on the Torah’s “love thy neighbor as thyself,” Yeats, the great Irish poet, expressed much in this quote. Jonathan Swift, another Irishman and the author of Gulliver’s Travels, also wrote the satirical “A Modest Proposal,” in which he parodied the cruelty of upper-class attitudes towards the poor in his city of Dublin. So, he truly did give the “gentlemen” of his city a “soul” – that is, he tried to awaken their consciences by pointing out the opposite of love.
V. The Golden Rule in Popular Culture
Example 1: “Deep Thoughts” by Jack Handy on Saturday Night Live
This was a running joke on SNL for years in which the viewer was periodically presented with various “deep thoughts” – sort of an early predecessor of the fake-profound memes so many people post on Facebook. The following one is based on the Navajo version of the golden rule, “Before you insult someone, walk a mile in their moccasins”:
Deep Thoughts: “Before you insult a man, walk a mile in his shoes. That way you’ll be a mile away when he gets offended, and you’ll have his shoes.”—John Handy
Example 2: Hamlet by William Shakespeare
This may be stretching the definition of “pop culture” a bit, but we had to find a place for this quote, in which Prince Hamlet and the councilor Polonius discuss how Polonius will treat the traveling theatrical troupe which has come to their castle (“desert” in this quote means what someone deserves):
POLONIUS: My lord, I will use them according to their desert.
HAMLET: God’s bodykins, man, much better. Use every man after his desert, and who should ’scape whipping? Use them after your own honor and dignity. The less they deserve, the more merit is in your bounty. Take them in. (Hamlet, Act II, Scene 2)
Here, Shakespeare seems to argue for how one should treat people who might not “deserve” high-class treatment. His answer is, the better you treat them, and the less they deserve it, the more honorable you’ll look. At the same time that this seems like a highly ethical policy, it is meant somewhat cynically, since Hamlet is appealing to Polonius’ ego in order to motivate him to treat people well.
VI. The Golden Rule versus Utilitarianism
Utilitarianism, associated with philosophers Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill provides universal ethical guidance through its policy of “maximizing utility,” where “utility” usually means human well-being. In other words, “always do whatever will bring the greatest amount of well-being to the greatest number of people.” This can be seen as another attempt, like Kant’s, to come up with a more reliable version of the golden rule. Most critics of the golden rule agree that its greatest flaw is the phrase “as you would have them do to you” because it references our subjective desires and preferences. Utilitarianism remedies this flaw.
Philosophers disagree about whether the golden rule is problematic or inappropriate, and why.
Some point out that it cannot be followed literally in all kinds of relationships, such as between employer and employee, parent and child, or teacher and student. Others say that it can be, because it could be interpreted to mean “treat others as you would wish to be treated if you were them, in their social role, relative to you”; i.e. if you are a boss, treat your employees as you would wish to be treated if you were in their position.
Thus, perhaps the Hindu version, “treat others as they wish to be treated” is better worded. But, it doesn’t save the day. Some people wish to be treated badly. Others wish to be treated like gods. Few people know what is best for themselves. And the way a child wishes to be treated by a parent or a teacher is probably not the best thing for them!
Other philosophers say that the answer to these conundrums is that the golden rule is not a “rule” of action, but of psychology; in other words, it says, “be empathic” or “treat people as if you cared for their welfare as much as your own.”
But, even if this solves some of the earlier mentioned difficulties, it’s a recipe for disaster in relationships between people from different cultures. For example, if you go to China, people will usually serve you hot water at meals. Chinese people believe that cold water is bad for one’s health. Chinese also may feel offended if you tip them, because it implies that they need your charity. So, following the golden rule is much complicated by cultural relativity.