The golden rule is a moral principle which denotes that you should treat others the way you want to be treated yourself. For example, the golden rule suggests that if you would like people to treat you with respect, then you should make sure to treat them with respect too.
The golden rule is an important philosophical principle, which has been formulated in various ways by many different groups throughout history, and which can be used to guide your actions in a variety of situations. As such, in the following article you will learn more about the golden rule, see how it can be refined, and understand how you can implement it in practice.
Main forms of the golden rule
The golden rule can be formulated in three main ways:
- Positive/directive form. The positive formulation of the golden rule states that you should treat others the same way you would want to be treated yourself. This suggests, for example, that if you want people to treat you with respect, then you should treat them with respect.
- Negative/prohibitive form. The negative formulation of the golden rule states that you should not treat others in ways you would not want to be treated yourself. This suggests, for example, that if you don’t want people to say mean things to you, then you shouldn’t say mean things to them.
- Empathic/responsive form. The empathic formulation of the golden rule states that when you wish something upon others, you also wish it upon yourself. This suggests, for example, that if wish ill toward someone else, then you are also wishing ill toward yourself.
Different people tend to be exposed to different forms of the golden rule to a different degree, based on factors such as the predominant religion in their society.
However, all these forms of the golden rule revolve around the same underlying concept and around the same underlying intention. Namely, all forms of the golden rule aim to help you treat others better, by using the way you yourself would want to be treated as a guide of how to behave.
Note: in some cases, the negative form of the golden rule is referred to as the silver rule, though this distinction isn’t always made. In addition, the general concept of the golden rule is sometimes also referred to as the ethic of reciprocity. Finally, in some contexts, the term ‘golden rule’ is used to refer to an important rule or principle in a certain field (for example “the golden rule of engineering”), rather than to the golden rule in the context of morality.
Examples of the golden rule
There are many examples of ways in which the golden rule can be implemented, in its various forms. For example:
- If you want people to be polite to you, then you should be polite to them. (positive form)
- If you don’t want people to be rude to you, then you shouldn’t be rude to them. (negative form)
- If you want people to help you in a selfless manner, then you should also help them in a selfless manner. (positive form)
- If you don’t want people to selfishly deny you help that they can give, then you shouldn’t selfishly deny them help that you can give. (negative form)
- If you wish positive things to someone else, then you also wish positive things to yourself. (empathic form)
Variants of the golden rule
The underlying principle behind the golden rule has been proposed in many different formulations throughout history, by various individuals and groups.
“That character is best that doesn’t do to another what isn’t good for itself.” — Zoroaster, Persia (circa 500 BC)
“What you do not want done to yourself, do not do to others.” — Confucius, China (circa 500 BC)
“We should conduct ourselves toward others as we would have them act toward us.” — Aristotle, Greece (circa 350 BC)
“What you shun enduring yourself, attempt not to impose on others.” — Epicetus, Greece (circa 150 AD)
“To do as one would be done by, and to love one’s neighbour as oneself, constitute the ideal perfection of utilitarian morality.” — John Stuart Mill, England (1861)
“Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” (Christianity)
“That which is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow. That is the entire Law; all the rest is commentary.” (Judaism)
“No one of you is a believer until he desires for his brother that which he desires for himself.” (Islam)
“Hurt not others in ways that you yourself would find hurtful.” (Buddhism)
“This is the sum of duty: do naught unto others which would cause you pain if done to you.” (Hinduism)
Keep in mind that many of these variants of the golden rule are translations from versions of it in other languages, such as the Latin “quod tibi non vis fieri, alteri ne feceris”, which can be translated as “do not do to another what you do not want to be done to you”.
In addition, keep in mind that the exact origins and phrasing of some of these quotes remain unclear. Nevertheless, the main takeaway from these varied examples is the fact that the underlying concept behind the golden rule was prevalent among a diverse range of groups throughout history.
When it comes to morality and ethics, there are various concepts that are closely associated with the golden rule.
The most notable of these concepts is Kant’s categorical imperative, which states that you should “act only according to that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law”, meaning that you should only take action if you would be willing to have everyone else act in the same way.
Another such concept is referred to as Clarke’s Rule of Equity, and states that “Whatever I judge reasonable or unreasonable that another should do for me, that by the same judgment I declare reasonable or unreasonable that I should in the like case do for him”.
Criticism of the golden rule and potential solutions
Accounting for the wishes of others
The main criticism that people mention when it comes to the golden rule, and particularly when it comes to its implementation in practice, is the fact that the golden rule suggests that others would like to be treated the same way you would like to be treated, which is not necessarily true.
This can lead to problematic situations, where one person might mistreat someone else under the guidance of the golden rule. For example, this problem could lead someone to make an overt romantic gesture toward someone that isn’t interested in it, simply because the person making the gesture wishes that someone would do the same for them.
This issue has been described by writer George Bernard Shaw, who famously said:
“Do not do unto others as you would that they should do unto you. Their tastes may be not be the same.”
However, while this issue is important to take into consideration, it doesn’t invalidate the potential benefits of the golden rule, and it’s something that can be accounted for by refining this rule.
Essentially, based on this criticism, there are two main issues with the golden rule:
- Other people might not want you to treat them the same way you would like to be treated yourself.
- Other people might want you to treat them in a way that you would not like to be treated yourself.
To avoid these issues, the golden rule can be refined into a variant of it which is called the platinum rule, and which states that you should treat others the way they themself would like to be treated. Simply put, the platinum rule means that instead of assuming that other people want to be treated the same way you do, you should make sure to discover how people actually want to be treated, and then treat them that way.
Note: the platinum rule is sometimes referred to by other names, such as the copper rule.
Conflict with other principles
Another notable criticism of the golden rule is the fact that, in certain situations, its application can lead to undesirable outcomes, when it conflicts with other guiding principles.
For example, if someone is convicted of a crime and sentenced to prison, the golden rule would suggest that we should let them go, because we would not want to be imprisoned ourselves. This remains the case even if we use the platinum rule, since the prisoner would likely also prefer to avoid going to prison.
However, this issue with the golden rule can be dealt with in a general manner, by viewing this principle as one of several principles that we use to guide our behavior as individuals and as a society.
Specifically, in the example described above, the golden rule would not be enough to prevent that person from going to prison, because most individuals and societies choose to place other laws and ethical principles above the golden rule, while still taking the golden rule into account. This means that they strive to implement the golden rule whenever possible, as long as it doesn’t clash with the implementation of a more important concept.
This notion is described, for example, in the writing of philosopher Henry More, who said that:
“The Evil you would not have done to your self, you must abstain from doing the same to another, as far as may be done without prejudice to a Third.”
— In Enchiridion Ethicum (1667), Chap. 4, Noema XV
How to implement the golden rule
The basic way to implement the golden rule is relatively straightforward: simply treat other people the way that you yourself would want to be treated.
However, as we saw above, there are potential issues with this approach, and accounting for them will allow you to implement the golden rule in a more effective manner.
First, when implementing the golden rule, it’s generally preferable to use the more refined version of it (i.e. the platinum rule). Essentially, this means that you should strive to treat others not necessarily the way that you yourself would want to be treated, but rather in the way that they want to be treated.
The easiest way to accomplish this is to wait before taking action which involves someone else and ask yourself “is this how this person would like to be treated?”. If the answer to that question is “yes”, then proceed. Otherwise, modify your plan of action accordingly, before moving forward.
Keep in mind that from a psychological perspective, we can sometimes struggle to see things from a perspective that is different than our own, due to a cognitive bias known as the egocentric bias, which could make it difficult to implement this version of the golden rule.
If you believe that this is an issue for you, then there are various debiasing techniques that you can use; this includes both general debiasing techniques, such as slowing down your reasoning process, as well as debiasing techniques that are specific to the egocentric bias, such as using self-distancing language.
In addition, when implementing the golden rule, it’s important to remember that this rule is meant to be used as a beneficial rule of thumb, rather than as an absolute law. This means that you should strive to use the golden rule only as long as it doesn’t conflict with other guiding moral principles that are more important than it.
For example, if someone wants you to treat them in a way that you know would cause them serious harm, you can refuse to do so, if you believe that avoiding harm in this case is more important than treating them the way they want to be treated.
Note that deciding which principles to prioritize over others can be difficult to do in some situations. Nevertheless, using the golden rule as an initial rule of thumb can be helpful in a variety of situations, both to the people who implement it as well as to those who they implement it toward.
Summary and conclusions
- The golden rule is a moral principle which denotes that you should treat others the way you want to be treated yourself.
- For example, the golden rule suggests that if you would like people to treat you with respect, then you should make sure to treat them with respect too.
- The underlying concept behind the golden rule has been formulated by various individuals and groups throughout history, and it’s often seen as one of the key principles which are used to guide how people should behave toward each other.
- A notable limitation of the golden rule is the fact that others might not want to be treated the same way you want to be treated; this issue can be addressed by refining the golden rule into a variant called the platinum rule, which suggests that we should treat others the way they themself wish to be treated.
- When implementing the golden rule, it’s important to keep in mind that it’s meant to serve as a general rule of thumb rather than an absolute law, and there are situations where other guiding principles overrule it.