Golden Rule

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The Golden Rule is an ethical rule that is often stated as, "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you," or more simply, "Treat others as you would like to be treated." Also known as the ethic of reciprocity, the same concept has been the basis of social morality in many cultures throughout history. Although the Golden Rule is often attributed to Jesus, many forms of the ethical principle long pre-date him. Jesus himself, in Matthew 7:12 Bible-icon.png, describes it as the "sum of the law and the Prophets."

Golden Rules in the Bible[edit]

Several passages in the Bible can be interpreted as being different forms of the "true" Golden Rule:

18 Thou shalt not avenge, nor bear any grudge against the children of thy people, but thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself: I am the LORD.

12 Therefore all things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them: for this is the law and the prophets.

31 And as ye would that men should do to you, do ye also to them likewise.

9 For this, Thou shalt not commit adultery, Thou shalt not kill, Thou shalt not steal, Thou shalt not bear false witness, Thou shalt not covet; and if there be any other commandment, it is briefly comprehended in this saying, namely, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.

Non-Golden Rules[edit]

Main Article: Eye for an eye

Sometimes the Golden Rule is misinterpreted as, "Do unto others as they would do unto you," or, in an even more problematic formulation, "Do unto others as they have done unto you." Both versions tend to encourage a kind of "tit-for-tat" ethics. This moral system at least limits the punishment imposed on an offender, rather than excessive or unlimited punishment (as sometimes exercised by God). The latter version in particular suggests retaliation and revenge, not unlike the "eye for an eye" style of "justice" promulgated in several places in the Old Testament:

23 And if any mischief follow, then thou shalt give life for life,

24 Eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot,

25 Burning for burning, wound for wound, stripe for stripe.

17 And he that killeth any man shall surely be put to death.

18 And he that killeth a beast shall make it good; beast for beast.

19 And if a man cause a blemish in his neighbour; as he hath done, so shall it be done to him;

20 Breach for breach, eye for eye, tooth for tooth: as he hath caused a blemish in a man, so shall it be done to him again.

21 And he that killeth a beast, he shall restore it: and he that killeth a man, he shall be put to death.

22 Ye shall have one manner of law, as well for the stranger, as for one of your own country: for I am the LORD your God.

19 Then shall ye do unto him, as he had thought to have done unto his brother: so shalt thou put the evil away from among you.

20 And those which remain shall hear, and fear, and shall henceforth commit no more any such evil among you.

21 And thine eye shall not pity; but life shall go for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot.


The Golden Rule has been criticised for assuming that people want to be treated in the same way.

"Do not do unto others as you would that they should do unto you. Their tastes may not be the same. [1]"
"we commonly apply the rule in a way that obstructs our path toward intercultural understanding [...] its underlying assumption frequently goes unstated: other people want to be treated as I do.[2]"

An improved ethical rule (sometimes known as the Platinum rule) can be stated:

"Do unto others as they themselves would have done unto them [2]"

or as Karl Popper wrote:

"doing unto others, wherever reasonable, as they want to be done by [3]"

Treat people how they actually want to be treated, rather than how you assume they would want to be treated. The needs of others are considered more important than the individual's assumption on how the other should be treated. With this alternative, one cannot instil his own values on another without the other's consent.

Some apologists make the argument:

  • "If I didn't know Jesus, I would want someone to teach me about him so I could be saved. Therefore, I should witness to non-Christians wherever I discover them."

With this argument, minor but significant flaws of the Golden Rule become apparent. Where people's needs differ significantly, a strict interpretation of the Golden Rule can tend to strain relationships rather than smooth them.

Many philosophers and thinkers have objected to any simple rule being the foundation of ethics, including Friedrich Nietzsche and George Bernard Shaw:

"The golden rule is that there are no golden rules. [1]"

"Thus demandeth my great love to the remotest ones: be not considerate of thy neighbour! Man is something that must be surpassed. [...] 'For one's neighbour,' is the virtue only of the petty people: there it is said 'like and like,' and 'hand washeth hand':- they have neither the right nor the power for your self-seeking!"

Friedrich Nietzsche

Moral concern higher among the religious[edit]

One issue is whether religious people follow the Golden Rule more than non-religious people. An interesting study found a correlation between self reported moral concern and self reported religiosity.

"We find that religious belief is robustly positively associated with moral concern (4 measures), and that at least part of the negative association between belief and analytic thinking (2 measures) can be explained by a negative correlation between moral concern and analytic thinking. [...] It is important to note that individuals with high levels of moral concern will not necessarily behave more ethically in all situations.[...] Moral concern was indexed with the 7-item Empathic Concern subscale of the IRI ([26]). A sample item from the IRI-EC is “I often have tender, concerned feelings for people less fortunate than me” [...] the measures of moral concern were all subjective (either self or peer-report). More objective measures of moral concern are wanted to further establish their relationship to religious and spiritual belief.[4]"

Another possibility is that religiosity causes an aggrandised view of a person's own morality. We don't see religious societies being significantly more moral than less religious societies.

"The Golden Rule is a Christian invention!"[edit]

Historically, the Golden Rule can be found in ancient Babylon, China, and even within Native American tribes. The Golden Rule did not come into existence exclusively with the development of Judaism or Christianity.

"What you do not want done to yourself, do not do to others."

— Analects of Confucius, XV.24, written 475 BC–221 BC [5]

"a state that is not pleasing or delightful to me, how could I inflict that upon another"

— Samyutta Nikaya v.353 [6] from Theravāda Buddhism

"a man should wander about treating all creatures in the world so as he himself would be treated."

Sutrakritanga 1.11.33, written circa 4th-3rd BC, from Jainism

"Love your neighbor as yourself: I am the LORD."

Leviticus 19:18 Bible-icon.png from Judaism

"None of you [truly] believes until he wishes for his brother what he wishes for himself."

— An-Nawawi's Forty Hadith 13 from Islam (probably influenced by Christianity and Judaism)

The Golden Rule does not require religion to come into existence. Empathy alone can develop the Golden Rule.


  1. 1.0 1.1 George Bernard Shaw, Maxims for Revolutionists, 1903
  2. 2.0 2.1 Milton J. Bennett, Overcoming the Golden Rule: Sympathy and Empathy, 1979
  3. Karl Popper, The Open Society and Its Enemies, Vol. 2
  4. [1]
  5. [2]
  6. The Book of the Kindred Sayings (Saṃyutta-nikāya) tr. Frank Lee Woodward, 1917

See also[edit]

External link[edit]

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