The Golden Rule appears in the Abrahamic Religions following Biblical verse: “You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against your kinsfolk. Love your neighbor as yourself: I am the LORD.” (Leviticus 19:18)
Possibly the earliest affirmation of the maxim of reciprocity, reflecting the ancient Egyptian goddess Ma’at, appears in the story of The Eloquent Peasant, which dates to the Middle Kingdom (c. 2040 – c. 1650 BC): “Now this is the command: Do to the doer to make him do.” This proverb embodies the do ut des principle. A Late Period (c. 664 BC – 323 BC) papyrus contains an early negative affirmation of the Golden Rule: “That which you hate to be done to you, do not do to another.”
The Golden Rule existed among all the major philosophical schools of ancient China: Mohism, Taoism, and Confucianism. Examples of the concept include:
- “Never impose on others what you would not choose for yourself.” — Confucius (c. 500 BC)
- “If people regarded other people’s families in the same way that they regard their own, who then would incite their own family to attack that of another? For one would do for others as one would do for oneself.” — Mozi (c. 400 BC)
- “Regard your neighbor’s gain as your own gain, and your neighbor’s loss as your own loss.” — Laozi (c. 500 BC)
In Mahābhārata, the ancient epic of India, comes a discourse where the wise minister Vidura advises the King Yuddhiśhṭhira thus, “Listening to wise scriptures, austerity, sacrifice, respectful faith, social welfare, forgiveness, purity of intent, compassion, truth and self-control — are the ten wealth of character (self). O king aim for these, may you be steadfast in these qualities. These are the basis of prosperity and rightful living. These are highest attainable things. All worlds are balanced on dharma, dharma encompasses ways to prosperity as well. O King, dharma is the best quality to have, wealth the medium and desire (kāma) the lowest. Hence, (keeping these in mind), by self-control and by making dharma (right conduct) your main focus, treat others as you treat yourself.”
tasmād_dharma-pradhānéna bhavitavyam yatātmanā | tathā cha sarva-bhūtéṣhu vartitavyam yathātmani || (तस्माद्धर्मप्रधानेन भवितव्यं यतात्मना। तथा च सर्वभूतेषु वर्तितव्यं यथात्मन।॥ || Mahābhārata Shānti-Parva 167:9)
In the Section on Virtue, and Chapter 32 of the Tirukkuṛaḷ (c. 200 BC – c. 500 AD), Tiruvalluvar says: Why does a man inflict upon other creatures those sufferings, which he has found by experience are sufferings to himself ? (K. 318) Let not a man consent to do those things to another which, he knows, will cause sorrow. (K. 316) He furthermore opined that it is the determination of the spotless (virtuous) not to do evil, even in return, to those who have cherished enmity and done them evil. (K. 312) The (proper) punishment to those who have done evil (to you), is to put them to shame by showing them kindness, in return and to forget both the evil and the good done on both sides. (K. 314)
The Golden Rule in its prohibitive (negative) form was a common principle in ancient Greek philosophy. Examples of the general concept include:
- “Avoid doing what you would blame others for doing.” – Thales (c. 624 BC – c. 546 BC)
- “What you do not want to happen to you, do not do it yourself either. ” – Sextus the Pythagorean. The oldest extant reference to Sextus is by Origen in the third century of the common era.
- “Do not do to others that which angers you when they do it to you.” – Isocrates (436–338 BC)
The Pahlavi Texts of Zoroastrianism (c. 300 BC–1000 AD) were an early source for the Golden Rule: “That nature alone is good which refrains from doing to another whatsoever is not good for itself.” Dadisten-I-dinik, 94,5, and “Whatever is disagreeable to yourself do not do unto others.” Shayast-na-Shayast 13:29
Seneca the Younger (c. 4 BC–65 AD), a practitioner of Stoicism (c. 300 BC–200 AD) expressed the Golden Rule in his essay regarding the treatment of slaves: “Treat your inferior as you would wish your superior to treat you.” The Stoic Philosophy of Seneca.
The “Declaration Toward a Global Ethic” from the Parliament of the World’s Religions (1993) proclaimed the Golden Rule (“We must treat others as we wish others to treat us”) as the common principle for many religions. The Initial Declaration was signed by 143 leaders from all of the world’s major faiths, including Baha’i Faith, Brahmanism, Brahma Kumaris, Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Indigenous, Interfaith, Islam, Jainism, Judaism, Native American, Neo-Pagan, Sikhism, Taoism, Theosophist, Unitarian Universalist and Zoroastrian.In the folklore of several cultures the Golden Rule is depicted by the allegory of the long spoons.
Many different sources claim the Golden Rule as a humanist principle:
Trying to live according to the Golden Rule means trying to empathise with other people, including those who may be very different from us. Empathy is at the root of kindness, compassion, understanding and respect – qualities that we all appreciate being shown, whoever we are, whatever we think and wherever we come from. And although it isn’t possible to know what it really feels like to be a different person or live in different circumstances and have different life experiences, it isn’t difficult for most of us to imagine what would cause us suffering and to try to avoid causing suffering to others. For this reason many people find the Golden Rule’s corollary – “do not treat people in a way you would not wish to be treated yourself” – more pragmatic.— Maria MacLachlan, Think Humanism
Do not do to others what you would not want them to do to you. [is] (…) the single greatest, simplest, and most important moral axiom humanity has ever invented, one which reappears in the writings of almost every culture and religion throughout history, the one we know as the Golden Rule. Moral directives do not need to be complex or obscure to be worthwhile, and in fact, it is precisely this rule’s simplicity which makes it great. It is easy to come up with, easy to understand, and easy to apply, and these three things are the hallmarks of a strong and healthy moral system. The idea behind it is readily graspable: before performing an action which might harm another person, try to imagine yourself in their position, and consider whether you would want to be the recipient of that action. If you would not want to be in such a position, the other person probably would not either, and so you should not do it. It is the basic and fundamental human trait of empathy, the ability to vicariously experience how another is feeling, that makes this possible, and it is the principle of empathy by which we should live our lives.— Adam Lee, Ebon Musings, “A decalogue for the modern world”
In the view of Greg M. Epstein, a Humanist chaplain at Harvard University, “ ’do unto others’ … is a concept that essentially no religion misses entirely. But not a single one of these versions of the Golden Rule requires a god“. At least the Biblical accounts, however, portray the obligation to love one’s neighbor as oneself as a corollary of a more basic obligation to love God with one’s entire being.
When we say that man chooses for himself, we do mean that every one of us must choose himself; but by that we also mean that in choosing for himself he chooses for all men. For in effect, of all the actions a man may take in order to create himself as he wills to be, there is not one which is not creative, at the same time, of an image of man such as he believes he ought to be. To choose between this or that is at the same time to affirm the value of that which is chosen; for we are unable ever to choose the worse. What we choose is always the better; and nothing can be better for us unless it is better for all.— Jean-Paul Sartre, Existentialism is a Humanism, pp. 291–292
According to Marc H. Bornstein, and William E. Paden, the Golden Rule is arguably the most essential basis for the modern concept of human rights, in which each individual has a right to just treatment, and a reciprocal responsibility to ensure justice for others.
However Leo Damrosch argued that the notion that the Golden Rule pertains to “rights” per se is a contemporary interpretation and has nothing to do with its origin. The development of human “rights” is a modern political ideal that began as a philosophical concept promulgated through the philosophy of Jean Jacques Rousseau in 18th century France, among others. His writings influenced Thomas Jefferson, who then incorporated Rousseau’s reference to “inalienable rights” into the United States Declaration of Independence in 1776. Damrosch argued that to confuse the Golden Rule with human rights is to apply contemporary thinking to ancient concepts.
Richard Swift, referring to ideas from David Graeber, suggests that “without some kind of reciprocity society would no longer be able to exist.” His article, Pathways & possibilities, has a subsection called “A reciprocal economy” which refers to Graeber’s concept of “baseline communism”: Swift writes: “If we treated each other …. strictly on the basis of profit and loss, life would be intolerable. So why shouldn’t we make the principle of generous reciprocity, so present in everyday interactions, the basis of economic life rather than the current model of competing egoism?”
If the negative/prohibitive form of the Golden Rule would stand alone, it would simply serve as a proactive motivation against wrong action. But the Golden Rule in general actually serves as a motivation toward proactive action. As Frank Crane put it, “The Golden Rule is of no use to you whatsoever unless you realize that it’s your move!”
Charles Kingsley’s The Water Babies (1863) includes a character named Mrs Do-As-You-Would-Be-Done-By (and another, Mrs Be-Done-By-As-You-Did).
Criticism of the Golden Rule
Philosophers, such as Immanuel Kant and Friedrich Nietzsche, have objected to the rule on a variety of grounds. The most serious among these is its application. How does one know how others want to be treated? The obvious way is to ask them, but this cannot be done if one assumes they have not reached a particular and relevant understanding.
Differences in values or interests
Shaw’s comment about differing tastes suggests that if your values are not shared with others, the way you want to be treated will not be the way they want to be treated. Hence, the Golden Rule of “due unto others” is “dangerous in the wrong hands,” according to philosopher Iain King, because “some fanatics have no aversion to death: the Golden Rule might inspire them to kill others in suicide missions.”
Differences in situations
Immanuel Kant famously criticized the golden rule for not being sensitive to differences of situation, noting that a prisoner duly convicted of a crime could appeal to the golden rule while asking the judge to release him, pointing out that the judge would not want anyone else to send him to prison, so he should not do so to others. Kant’s Categorical Imperative, introduced in Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals, is often confused with the Golden Rule.
Cannot be a sole guide to action
In his book How to Make Good Decisions and Be Right All the Time, philosopher Iain King has argued that “(although) the idea of mirroring your treatment of others with their treatment of you is very widespread indeed… most ancient wisdoms express this negatively – advice on what you should not do, rather than what you should.” He argues this creates a bias in favour of inertia which allows bad actions and states of affairs to persist. The positive formulation, meanwhile, can be “incendiary”, since it “can lead to cycles of tit-for-tat reciprocity,” unless it is accompanied by a corrective mechanism, such as a concept of forgiveness. Therefore, he concludes that there can be no viable formulation of the Golden Rule, unless it is heavily qualified by other maxims.
Responses to criticisms
Walter Terence Stace, in The Concept of Morals (1937), wrote:
Mr. Bernard Shaw’s remark “Do not do unto others as you would that they should do unto you. Their tastes may be different” is no doubt a smart saying. But it seems to overlook the fact that “doing as you would be done by” includes taking into account your neighbor’s tastes as you would that he should take yours into account. Thus the “golden rule” might still express the essence of a universal morality even if no two men in the world had any needs or tastes in common.
Marcus George Singer observed that there are two importantly different ways of looking at the golden rule: as requiring (1) that you perform specific actions that you want others to do to you or (2) that you guide your behavior in the same general ways that you want others to.Counter-examples to the golden rule typically are more forceful against the first than the second.
In his book on the golden rule, Jeffrey Wattles makes the similar observation that such objections typically arise while applying the golden rule in certain general ways (namely, ignoring differences in taste, in situation, and so forth). But if we apply the golden rule to our own method of using it, asking in effect if we would want other people to apply the golden rule in such ways, the answer would typically be no, since it is quite predictable that others’ ignoring of such factors will lead to behavior which we object to. It follows that we should not do so ourselves—according to the golden rule. In this way, the golden rule may be self-correcting. An article by Jouni Reinikainen develops this suggestion in greater detail.
It is possible, then, that the golden rule can itself guide us in identifying which differences of situation are morally relevant. We would often want other people to ignore any prejudice against our race or nationality when deciding how to act towards us, but would also want them to not ignore our differing preferences in food, desire for aggressiveness, and so on. The platinum rule, and perhaps other variants, might also be self-correcting in this same manner.
There has been research published arguing that some ‘sense’ of fair play and the Golden Rule may be stated and rooted in terms of neuroscientific and neuroethical principles.