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: