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: the negative form of the golden rule is sometimes referred to as the silver rule. 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 the 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 act a certain way only if you’re willing to have everyone else act the same way too.
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.”
To address this issue, a variant of the golden rule has been developed, which is called the platinum rule, and which denotes that you should treat others the way they want to be treated.
However, this principle has also been criticized, for example because it can lead to issues in cases where it prompts you to act toward someone in a way that contradicts your own values. Furthermore, there are cases where it’s not possible to use the platinum rule, for example when you have no way of knowing what the other person wants, or where the golden rule leads to better outcomes, for example when it prompts someone to display more empathy in practice. As such, the platinum rule is not inherently better than the golden rule, and there are cases where it’s preferable to use the two rules together, or to use the golden rule by itself.
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, including both moral principles as well as other types of principles, such as social or legal ones.
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 to treat other people the way that you would want to be treated yourself. To help yourself do this, when considering a certain action toward someone, ask yourself “how would I like to be treated in this situation?”, or “how would I feel if someone treated me the way I’m planning to treat this person right now?”.
Furthermore, when doing this, you can use additional techniques, which will help you implement this rule effectively:
- Use cognitive techniques to help yourself assess the situation. For example, you can use self-distancing language by asking yourself “how would you feel if someone treated you that way?”, to help yourself assess the situation more rationally. Similarly, you can ask yourself how you would feel if someone else treated someone that you care about the same way you’re thinking of treating a person right now.
- Consider the different variants of the golden rule. Specifically, this includes the positive formulation of the rule (treat others the same way you would want to be treated yourself), the negative formulation (don’t treat others in ways you wouldn’t want to be treated yourself), and the empathic formulation (when you wish something upon others, you also wish it upon yourself). This can be helpful since different people in different situations may connect better with different formulations of the golden rule.
- Consider using the platinum rule, either instead of or in addition to the golden rule. This involves considering not only how you want to be treated, but also how the other person wants to be treated. To do this effectively, you can do things such as talk to the other person directly, to figure out how they would like to be treated. Alternatively, you can do things such as to talk to someone who knows them, or look at other relevant information, such as how they’d indicated they’d like to be treated in the past. Finally, it can also be helpful to use various debiasing techniques to help yourself assess the situation properly, for example by slowing down your reasoning process to reduce any egocentric biases that you might have, which could help you see things from their perspective.
- Take additional considerations into account. For example, if following the golden rule would lead you to cause someone harm, you can avoid following the rule if you believe that avoiding harm is more important in that situation.
- Keep the limitations of the golden rule in mind. These include the potential discrepancy between how you want to be treated and how others want to be treated, as well as the potential conflicts that may arise between the golden rule and other considerations. Essentially, this rule can be a useful rule of thumb to consider and apply in various situations, but that doesn’t mean that it should be the only guiding factor that you use in every situation.
Finally, note that these techniques can also be useful when it comes to getting people other than yourself to consider and use the golden rule.
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.