My Phone's Nervous Breakdown

The Golden Rule

Rockwel1 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 Master Kong. 

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 tenet. 


Philosophical Problems

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 merits. 

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.

We do not eliminate the subjective element from this principle. Indeed, the principle would be of no value to us if we did.  As a result, there will remain serious problems of the kind Appiah identifies, and we shall look at these in due course when we look at the largely intractable issue of respecting other people's taboos.


Abuses Proceeding from the Golden Rule

718goya_2 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 this conclusion. 

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 Japan. Many other nations did not come to the abolition of the slave trade until the mid-19th century. Would the Golden Rule grant Japan a justification for invading other countries to enforce the autonomy of slaves? No. Once again, it is never loving to wage war, so even when a high ideal (such as freedom) is at stake, it does not mean that a war of aggression is justified. The only ethical systems that can justify such acts are outcome-based systems, such as consequentialist ethics in which “the ends justify the means,” and the horrors that can emerge from this line of reasoning are, I hope, readily apparent. 

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.


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As a moderately humorous aside, there is of course also the twisted version of "Do unto others as they would do unto you... but do it first."

A quick question on assumptions...

"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."

Does this statement implicitly assume that The Good is "to live together" or (possibly) "to live together amicably"?

Peter: Well, I wouldn't ever say "*The* Good" (there will always be many 'goods'), but in regards of it being "good" in general terms, I don't believe it is necessarily entailed, but it is clearly a plausible implication.

Stripped down:

if (compassionate outlook)
then (fewer mistakes living together)

I don't necessarily state that trying to live together peacefully is good, although one can reasonably infer that I suppose.

Clearly if one does not believe that living together peacefully is good, one has limited reasons to accept the Golden Rule on a derived basis. ;)

I'm not an educated person on the field of ethics and philosophy, but while reading your entry I've had an interesting revelation.
I think that there are two really different groups of philosophers: Introverted and extroverted. Introverted philosophers write about their own philosophy, like Kant or Nietzsche. Extroverted philosopher talk about it - like Socrates or Jesus. And I think that all of what they say or write is somewhat distorted by their own personality. Where is the Truth then? Is there one, which we can learn through reading and understanding its different aspects? Or will our own truth be also distorted by our own personality?
As of now I can only ask, and can not answer.

VagabondX: The noted historian and political theorist Hannah Arendt refused the title 'philosopher' because she saw that as a private (introverted) activity, and her work was definitely intended to be dealt with in public.

Like you, I think a philosopher can act in public. It's certainly what I'm attempting to do with my investigations - although it must be said, the internet is a tremendously introverted form of extroversion. ;)

Best wishes!

Note to self: Kierkegaard probably explores the Golden Rule from a Christian existentialist perspective in 'Works of Love' (1847).


I like your word "Golden Virtue" instead of "Golden Rule"!

For me "Reciprocity" is the most important but at the same time most difficult idea not only in ethics but "intellectual thought" in general, e.g. think of "the language game" where some level of *mutual* undestanding is desired if communication between individuals is to take place.

And in the way you emphasize the "passionate" interest in the other's value system / system of reference as a prerequisite for ethical action I again find the theme of "reciprocal interest".

And assume you followed to some degree the speculations on "mirror neurons" as a more materialistic approach (some would say "explanation") to the "Golden Virtue"?

translucy: again, I apologise for brevity but I'm short on time.

One of the interesting things about my ethical investigations has been noting how most disputes come down to whether one focuses on agents, rights or outcomes. The Kantians (rights) and Consequentialists (outcomes) seem to disagree vociferously, but their positions are transformable in some areas and utterly disjoint in others.

These issues of reciprocity and communication are crucial, I believe, to making global ethical progress. I felt rather foolish turning to the Golden Rule so soon, but it could not be avoided. My key point here, though, is we will make fewer mistakes if we see this issue in agent terms (virtue of compassion) than in rights terms (rule of loving action).

I'm very interested in the mirror neuron issue, and will comment directly on it at some point - but I'm wary of jumping to conclusions too rapidly on scientific issues. Surely it's too soon... If you have a good point of reference (a book, perhaps) on the issue, please let me know!

Best wishes!

Unfortunately, I don't have any more on that than the obvious sources.

The interesting bit about the agents-based approach to ethics (which I tend to support) to me is what it in turn does to the rest of one's world view.


From all of what follows I conclude that we cannot afford the golden rule. So I propose that we adopt the second-best thing, The Silver Principle: `Try to dwell on Win-Win as much as possible. Give, when you're sure you can afford it. Resort to zero-sum taking as seldom as possible.' I know it's not as high and mighty as the golden one, but at least it has real-world applicability and value.


Unfortunately, these golden rules and similar are, at the end of the day very much less than satisfactory. The reason for this is our unfortunate position in the bigger scheme of things. While we're inclined to act in a reasonable manner towards our fellow humans, this is - in many cases - against our own interest.

I always feel great when I can find win-win situations where I can give something to others. I even like to just give, w/no foreseeable payback whenever possible as long as it's not too costly to me. However, there are major areas in life when we're short of such luxury.

In many cases, for example, in workplaces the chances for advancement are zero-sum games. It's not a win-win situation, or a situation where it costs to you just a little to let others win. It's a situation where one can only win by taking away from others.

There are many other such areas in life, where the needs of one are opposed w/the needs of the other. To get what you want, you cannot help but take form others. And this is what I see as the reason for great misery.

Also, following the golden rule or similar in tight situations where we end up struggling for resources we will just end of w/the dirty end of the stick. So, as I see it, ethics is something of a privilege. When we can give unto others we need to be in some kind of a position of privilege to not to be hurt too much by our giving. Otherwise, the dogs of the dog eat dog world will end up eating us.

My position could be seen to be cynical, but I cannot help seeing the things being as they are. I know that I'm happiest when I have the privilege to go more or less along the lines of the so-called golden rule, but there are too many situations where it's too costly a principle to have.

And yes, things being what they are breaks my heart, too. Ignorance can certainly be bliss, but equally certainly it will end up costing you.

That all said, I can see another cause of misery that I'd like to bring up here. That is the realization that you won't be on top of your game for all of your life. From this follows that one should exploit her skills and position to maximum to ascertain well-being in the future. This gives more reason to treat situations as zero-sum games. Even if you afford being ethical right now, you might regret it later when you've fallen off the wave you're riding. So, foresight might make things even worse, and drive one to be even more ruthless in the short run to maximize long term wellbeing.

One could argue that you could play the game differently, by betting on people. By this I mean that one should act in a manner to be able to collect favors later. To a point, I agree w/this position. It is true that having a good network is a great asset. However, when you're playing the game w/people out to maximize their own profits you can be sure that they'll turn your back on you when you've outlived your usefulness. Because of this, betting on people can simply be too risky.

All in all, I see most ethical systems as wishful thinking. The golden rule won't take care of you, so I don't think it's a proper rule to live by. Ethics can be costly and we need to weigh the pros and cons individually in every situation.

The underlying principle, worth acknowledging is that in every co-operation there's inherent competition. While in many situations we have a lot of common ground, there's always the part of territory where the interests of the parties are in conflict. This is true on the level of cells, and this is true on the level of individuals and societies. So even in situations where the golden rules are the most beneficial to follow there are corner cases where it's against one's self-interest.

The Silver Principle: thanks for sharing your views here. You don't provide your metaphysical background here, but I think I can safely assume you don't come from a religious tradition.

The Golden Rule is easiest to apply from within a religious tradition, because each tradition specifies a form of life, and in so doing makes it easier to apply a principle such as this that occasionally requires one to accept temporary loss of self interest. So I reject your overall complaint as being applicable solely outside of religious traditions.

Accepting this caveat, your Silver Rule is a reasonable consequentialist alternative, but it isn't something I would necessarily advocate.

"My position could be seen to be cynical, but I cannot help seeing the things being as they are."

LOL! It always amuses me when people try to excuse instrumental reasoning/cynicism by saying any variation of the statement "I'm not a pessimist, I'm a realist". This kind of view rests on the assumption (a) that there is one "real" way of seeing things (which is a flawed epistemic argument) and (b) that the person speaking has that one "real" way (which is a flawed existential argument).

Here's my take on the old optimist versus pessimist argument: neither optimism nor pessimism is realistic. Any position which takes in only one side of this axis has no claim to realism. That all the many expressions of the pessimist side of the axis *feel* more realistic to people who express the Rational temperament is far from proof that this position is realistic. In fact, we all skew our observations to match our prior convictions.

The whole optimist-versus-pessimist frame (noting that pessimists always claim "realism") is deeply flawed, and any attempt to advance an argument from within it will achieve very little. We need to get away from the appeal to realism entirely - it's an old Platonic fallacy that still haunts our society to this day.

"All in all, I see most ethical systems as wishful thinking. The golden rule won't take care of you, so I don't think it's a proper rule to live by."

Viewed from an individual perspective, and ignoring the lesson of the Prisoner's Dilemma, I can see why a claim of this kind might seem to go through. But in fact, if you belong to a community which honours the golden rule, then the golden rule *will* take care of you perfectly well.

Ethics can be seen as "wishful thinking" when one doesn't appreciate that a major root of human behaviour lies in our cultural habits. After one makes this step, ethics still seems like "wishful thinking", it just makes more sense that one should want to influence our behaviour on such a basis! :)

"While in many situations we have a lot of common ground, there's always the part of territory where the interests of the parties are in conflict. This is true on the level of cells, and this is true on the level of individuals and societies."

I'm fascinated to what extent you would have to contrive your argument to support your implication here that my liver and my heart are in conflict! :D

I believe I completely understand the position you are advocating here, and I can understand why for you a game theoretical contraction of the Golden Rule (your "silver rule") is a better choice. But like all ethical arguments which rely solely on consequentialism, it falls slightly hollow as it depends upon the force of your prior convictions for its justification.

Whatever you argue here, tit for tat remains the dominant strategy in the Prisoner's Dilemma. Co-operate first, defect only when necessary. It seems you wish to advance a position which says defect first, co-operate only when beneficial. Well, an individual can get by with such a strategy - in Western society, an individual may even occasionally do "better" with it, if you count only material goals (but even this claim is unproven). But for a community, this kind of ethic is utterly counter-productive.

Thanks for sharing your views! It makes for interesting reading.

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