The Golden Rule

Humanists try to embrace the moral principle known as the ‘Golden Rule’, otherwise known as the ethic of reciprocity, which means we believe that people should aim to treat each other as they would like to be treated themselves – with tolerance, consideration and compassion.

Humanists like the Golden Rule because of its universality, because it is derived from human feelings and experience and because it requires people to think about others and try to imagine how they might think and feel. It is a simple and clear default position for moral decision-making.

Sometimes people argue that the Golden Rule is imperfect because it makes the assumption that everyone has the same tastes and opinions and wants to be treated the same in every situation. But the Golden Rule is a general moral principle, not a hard and fast rule to be applied to every detail of life. Treating other people as we would wish to be treated ourselves does not mean making the assumption that others feel exactly as we do about everything. The treatment we all want is recognition that we are individuals, each with our own opinions and feelings and for these opinions and feelings to be afforded respect and consideration. The Golden Rule is not an injunction to impose one’s will on someone else!

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.

The Golden Rule cannot be claimed for any one philosophy or religion; indeed, the successful evolution of communities has depended on its use as a standard through which conflict can be resolved. Throughout the ages, many individual thinkers and spiritual traditions have promoted one or other version of it. Here are some examples of the different ways it has been expressed:

  • Do not to your neighbour what you would take ill from him. (Pittacus, 650 BCE)
  • Do not unto another that you would not have him do unto you. Thou needest this law alone. It is the foundation of all the rest. (Confucius, 500 BCE)
  • Avoid doing what you would blame others for doing. (Thales, 464 BCE)
  • What you wish your neighbours to be to you, such be also to them. (Sextus the Pythagorean, 406 BCE)
  • We should conduct ourselves toward others as we would have them act toward us. (Aristotle, 384 BCE)
  • Cherish reciprocal benevolence, which will make you as anxious for another’s welfare as your own. (Aristippus of Cyrene, 365 BCE)
  • Act toward others as you desire them to act toward you. (Isocrates, 338 BCE)
  • This is the sum of duty: Do naught unto others which would cause you pain if done to you. (From the Mahabharata (5:1517), 300 BCE)
  • What is hateful to you, do not to your fellow men. That is the entire Law; all the rest is commentary. (Rabbi Hillel 50 BCE)
  • Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. (From the Bible, Leviticus 19:18 1440 BCE)
  • Therefore all things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them. (Jesus of Nazareth, circa 30 CE)

Maria MacLachlan
October 2007