The Golden Rule, also known as the Ethic of Reciprocity, is a moral principle found in virtually all the major world religions, usually explicitly. Stated simply, it asks that we treat other people as we would have ourselves be treated. So fundamental to religious practice is this principle, that the Parliament of the World’s Religions (a recurrent conference of religious representatives) endorsed it as the common principle of the majority of world religions.
Philosophers get themselves into tangles
over the Golden Rule, usually because they are bending over backwards to
disprove it. But one does not prove or disprove ethics – ethics are not
mathematical theorems – one simply adopts or ignores them. I contend that the
ethic of reciprocity should be chosen as central to most systems of religious,
a priori ethics, and I ask that even those who prefer to derive their ethics
consider this ethical principle seriously as a useful maxim. However, I also
acknowledge that the Golden Rule is insufficient by itself to produce a
complete system of ethics.
Statements of the Golden Rule
Let us begin by looking at the many ways the Golden Rule has been stated in various religious sources.
The oldest cited source for this principle
is probably in Leviticus, approximately 3,000 years ago: “Do not seek revenge
or bear a grudge against one of your people, but love your neighbour as
yourself.” (Leviticus 19:18).
The Zoroastrians claim a similar principle from a similar timeframe: “Whatever is disagreeable to yourself do not do unto others.” (Shayast-na-Shayast 13:29).
Buddhism offers: “Hurt not others in ways
that you yourself would find hurtful.” (Udana-Varga 5:18).
Taoism offers: “The Sage...makes the self of the people his self.” (Tao Te Ching Ch 49, as translated by Ch'u Ta-Kao).
Confucianism suggests: “What you do not
want done to yourself, do not do to others.” (Analects of Confucius 15:24).
Other similar wordings are also given among the many aphorisms attributed to
From the Hindi epic, Mahabharata: “One should not behave towards others in a way which is disagreeable to oneself. This is the essence of morality. All other activities are due to selfish desire.” (Anusasana Parva 113.8).
Jesus offers the idea both as the old law
and the new law: “So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to
you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.” (Mathew 7:12) and “A new
command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one
another.” (John 13:34).
Muslims encounter the Golden Rule via their
strong oral tradition: “Hurt no one so that no one may hurt you,” Muhammad
states in the Farewell Sermon, and in a particular Hadith: “None of you is
truly a believer until he loves for his brother what he loves for himself.”
Sikh’s believe: “As you see yourself, see
others as well; only then will you become a partner in heaven.” (Bhagat Kabir
Guru Granth Sahib, 480).
And the Baha’i say: “Wish not for others what you wish not for yourselves.” (Baha’u’llah Aqdas 148.73).
The Parliament of World Religions, when
meeting in 1993, suggested this was a basis for a Global Ethic, and more than
200 leaders from more than 40 different faith traditions signed an initial
declaration of this position, although the principles thus stated moved beyond
the Golden Rule, per se.
This common theme throughout religions is
striking. People of faith must surely see a divine pattern at work here, while
empiricists must at least accept the widespread cultural importance of this
In almost all cases, the problems that
philosophers have with the Golden Rule result from trying to apply it as a
logical principle – but the Ethic of Reciprocity is not provided as a logical
principle, and cannot be applied as such.
A first consideration is that the Golden Rule appears in two essential forms. The negative form asks what you do not wish done to yourself, do not do to others, while the positive form what you wish done to yourself, do to others. Many philosophical objections proceed from these formulations when they are applied as logical principles, which presupposes that ethics must be based on logic. This is not a tenet we need adhere to.
Immanuel Kant, whose moral philosophy we
shall look at in detail in the future, objected to the vagueness of the Golden
Rule, but in producing his Categorical Imperative seems to have used it as
inspiration – Kant’s deontological approach (although his method can certainly
be applied in other ways) can be seen as an attempt to codify the Golden Rule
more strictly. We should look into this separately, however, as Kant’s work has
a wide scope of application, and warrants careful consideration on its own
Friedrich Nietzsche, the arch anti-Christian, humanist prophet and masterful critic, savages the idea of the Golden Rule, characterising it in Ecce Homo as "depersonalisation" and expressing his horror at the idea of "neighbour love" as a higher (or even absolute value) calling it "addiction to the neighbour." While there is considerable philosophical value buried in Nietzche's work, it is notoriously open to interpretation, and frequently misunderstood. Warmongers and killers of many kinds have taken Nietzsche's writings as their inspiration and twist it to their own ends; most infamously, Hitler twisted Nietzche's writings to justify the Nazi ideology. On the whole, I am disinclined to take Nietzsche's objection seriously, although this is not to belittle his contribution to philosophy. Nietzsche foresaw the nihilism that would follow widespread atheism, and the epistemological problems with science, and desperately hoped to discover something worthwhile beyond this apparent collapse of values. It is ironic that in trying to push past a crisis then only in its infancy, he inadvertently hastened its onset.
Friedrich Nietzsche, the arch anti-Christian, humanist prophet and masterful critic, savages the idea of the Golden Rule, characterising it in Ecce Homo as "depersonalisation" and expressing his horror at the idea of "neighbour love" as a higher (or even absolute value) calling it "addiction to the neighbour." While there is considerable philosophical value buried in Nietzche's work, it is notoriously open to interpretation, and frequently misunderstood. Warmongers and killers of many kinds have taken Nietzsche's writings as their inspiration and twist it to their own ends; most infamously, Hitler twisted Nietzche's writings to justify the Nazi ideology.
On the whole, I am disinclined to take Nietzsche's objection seriously, although this is not to belittle his contribution to philosophy. Nietzsche foresaw the nihilism that would follow widespread atheism, and the epistemological problems with science, and desperately hoped to discover something worthwhile beyond this apparent collapse of values. It is ironic that in trying to push past a crisis then only in its infancy, he inadvertently hastened its onset.
Kwame Anthony Appiah, in assessing the validity of the Golden Rule as a cosmopolitan ethic, provides the example of a Jehovah’s Witness who will die if she does not receive a blood transfusion. You want to save her life, and therefore you want to give her the blood transfusion – that’s what you would want if you were in her situation. But it is not what she would want, as Jehovah’s Witness interpret Leviticus 3:17 (“This is a lasting ordinance for the generations to come, wherever you live: You must not eat any fat or any blood”) as a prohibition against blood transfusions. Appiah notes: “If I thought I was going to go to hell if you gave me a blood transfusion, I wouldn’t want it either.”
The issue, as Appiah correctly identifies,
is whether what matters is what I would like done with my own values, or
whether you would want it done with the relevant person’s values. He concludes
that the answer is neither, and proceeds to give examples where one would
interpret sometimes one way, and sometimes the other. Eventually, he concludes
that: “the idea behind the Golden Rule is that we should take other people’s
interests seriously, take them into account. It suggests that we learn about other
people’s situations, and then use our imaginations to walk a while in their
moccasins. These are aims we cosmopolitans endorse. It’s just that we can’t
claim that the way is easy.”
Although Appiah’s analysis is not
substantially in error, I believe the problems he encounters result from
attempting to treat the Golden Rule as a rule – that is, by evaluating it in a
rights-based context. These approaches, which are called deontological
approaches in moral philosophy, are based around rules of behaviour from which
duties and rights are derived. But even though we call it “a rule”, the Golden
Rule is not always worded in such a way as to be understood as a rule in the manner we
normally use the word. Rules (and laws) require precision and logical
formulations – but the Golden Rule is not based on such precision at all. It’s
founding principle is love, and as such a rights-based interpretation is not
the strongest way to interpret it.
I suggest instead that the Golden Rule should be interpreted through the lens of agent-based approaches to ethics – that is, reciprocity (and more specifically, behaving towards others in an attitude of love) should be understood as a virtue to be embodied, not a rule to be enforced. Perhaps we should not think of this as the Golden Rule at all, but as the Golden Virtue of compassion.
How does interpreting in this light improve
our situation? Solely because when it is seen as an ideal to emulate, not a
rule to enforce, its content becomes clearer. When Jesus suggests “love one
another as I have loved you”, he is holding himself out as a virtuous
role model to be emulated. The command that he issues is the command to
emulate his compassion, it is not a law that can be written down logically and then enforced.
“Love they neighbour,” possibly the oldest
form of the Golden Rule, offers more traction against the problems Appiah notes
than he originally assumes. If we take into account the issues presented by
relative ethics, that our ethics are only absolutely valid from our particular
frame of reference (and any other frame of reference which also holds the same
values), the application of the Golden Rule becomes simpler. We would not want
other people to ignore our values and beliefs, and thus by extension when we
behave towards other people we must take into account their values and belief, and then behave in whichever manner we can uphold as loving or compassionate.
We can see the same concept expressed by Karl Popper – one of the few philosophers content to provide support to the Golden Rule, albeit with a caveat. In The Open Society and Its Enemies he suggests: “The golden rule is a good standard which is further improved by doing unto others, wherever possible, as they want to be done by.” This is perhaps the canonical way of improving the sentiment expressed by this particular tenet.
Abuses Proceeding from the Golden Rule
It is possible to use the Golden Rule, when
enforced naively, to justify all manner of abusive actions. The Inquisition,
although horrific to our modern sensibilities, was based upon the
understandable desire to bring redemption to all. Unfortunately, this attitude
presupposed a single absolute frame of reference – it forced a particular
metaphysical perspective on others who did not share this perspective nor
had any reason or duty to share it. The Inquisition thought it was loving
to care for the immortal souls of others, and thus took the “loving” role of a
parent, acting “cruel to be kind”. But this analogy offends us – parents may
indeed have to punish children, but children are not free moral agents; they
are still learning how to live. If one adult takes this role with respect to
others, this can never be a loving action unless the other person thus affected
is incapable of caring for themselves – and we should be cautious in reaching
Similarly, one may attempt to justify a war as proceeding from the Golden Rule, but in all cases it can be shown that hubris will be the ultimate foundation of any such validation. It is never a loving action towards any given person to wage war against them. Without reaching a conclusion as to the possible justifications for war, we can at least accept that declaring war is not a loving act, even if the motivations for war can be couched (however spuriously) in loving terms. Again, such attempts rest on the acting party behaving as a parent to a child. But the idea that one nation can act as a parent to another nation is rife with foolishness; it is a tawdry analogy that fails to respect (and therefore to love) the citizens of the nation who are being denied their autonomy.
What if the war seeks to grant the citizens
of that nation their autonomy? We still cannot resolve this as a loving action.
Consider this example. In 1588, Toyotomi Hideyoshi ordered all slave trading to
be abolished in
These examples of abuses are political in
nature. Ethics, however, must be personal. Any individual who upholds the
Golden Rule – because of religious duty or because of choice – cannot endorse
their country in initiating an act of war. To do so is to violate their
own ethics and behave hypocritically. To begin a war is to fail to act in a
loving fashion towards the enemy thus engaged, and it is to fail to act in a
loving manner towards friends, family and neighbours being asked to fight that
war. We ask people to serve in the armed forces to defend us – many consider it
a supreme personal sacrifice to serve in this way (the moral philosopher John Rawls certainly did), and we gravely disrespect
such brave souls if the wars they are asked to fight are unjust. As regards
acting defensively in war, this far exceeds the scope of our discussion.
The Ethic of Reciprocity can be a valuable
guide to actions, provided it is taken intuitively as a guide to how one should
behave (as the virtue of compassion, say) and not as a logical postulate. But
it is insufficient in itself to derive a complete system of ethics. It is
merely an element in defining an ethical frame of reference for an individual.
Nonetheless, if our ethical systems are infused with the intention to act in a compassionate manner towards others, we shall make fewer mistakes in our attempts to live together than if our ethical systems are instead motivated by a desire to be right or correct or, worse, by the desire to promote the greater good at any cost.
Must we accept the Golden Rule? Of course
not. We are free to choose. But those of us of a religious persuasion cannot
ignore it, and those of us who are not can at least appreciate its honourable
intentions. Within its simple and ambiguous bounds lies at least the hope of
peaceful resolution to any dispute, and the possibility (however fanciful) of a
better future for us all.
The opening image is The Golden Rule, by Norman Rockwell, while the second image is The Inquisition Tribunal, by Francisco Goya.
The opening image is The Golden Rule, by Norman Rockwell, while the second image is The Inquisition Tribunal, by Francisco Goya.