Living the Golden Rule/Applied Ethics

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Applied Ethics

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Applied ethics studies moral issues (like lying and stealing), or moral questions in specific areas (like business or medicine).

The golden rule requies we not steal nor tell lies.

People who study applied ethics, while searching for ideas to help live better lives, are often relativistic—arguing that values vary depending on the point of view of the observer. The golden rule answers both concerns. The golden rule is a useful tool for moral living that also counters the relativism (since it’s a globally accepted norm that can be defended rationally).

Recall the KITA procedure (Know-Imagine-Test-Act). In applying the golden rule, we must, as far as we practically can, try to know the facts (especially about how our action affects others) and imagine ourselves in the other’s place on the receiving end of the action. The golden-rule question then tests a proposed action for consistency: “Am I now willing that if I were in the same situation then this be done to me?” Recall the earlier examples where harmful actions resulted from incorrect information..

Problems may arise as we apply KITA:

  1. Knowing the facts may be difficult; there often are controversies about how people will be affected by a proposed action.
  2. Imagining ourselves in the place of the various parties (especially those different from us) may also be difficult.
  3. Creativity may be needed to find policies that we can approve of regardless of where we imagine ourselves in the situation.
  4. Testing for consistency may not bring agreement. Maybe you’re willing that such and such be done to you, but someone else isn’t.

The golden rule narrows the range of acceptable views but doesn’t always bring agreement. Applied ethics aims not to bring complete agreement but rather to improve our moral thinking. The golden rule and KITA can help.

First we will consider Business ethics. Many business people are interested in the golden rule.[1] Two company presidents wrote books [2] about how to run a successful business using the golden rule: Arthur Nash, who ran a clothing company, and James Penney, who started the J. C. Penney stores (originally called “Golden Rule Stores”). Both say the golden rule works well in business, leading to happy employees who work hard and happy customers who return.

The golden rule applies to business in two ways: the big picture and the details. For the big picture, John Maxwell’s book, There’s No Such Thing as “Business” Ethics[3] provides a good example to follow.

The title means that the same golden rule covers both personal life and business. Maxwell argues that ethics is based on the golden rule, that the golden rule can be used to create common ground with any reasonable person and thus bring mutually beneficial win-win outcomes, and that the golden rule tends to enhance business success in the long run.

If you treat customers in accord with the golden rule, they will become satisfied and repeat customers, and will spread the word to others. If you treat employees in accord with the golden rule, they will work harder, cooperate better, and be more committed to the company. Everyone wins.

For an approach that emphasizes the details, we can follow Tom Carson’s treatment of honesty in sales (from his 2010 book, Lying and Deception)[4] .

Living the golden rule requires sales people behave ethically.

Appealing to golden-rule consistency, Carson argues that salespeople have a duty, other things equal, to:

  1. Warn customers of potential hazards (unless these are well-known, like the hazards of smoking);
  2. Refrain from lying and deception (deception can involve saying something true in order to get someone to believe a falsehood – so when asked whether you set back the car’s odometer, which you did, you answer in a shocked voice, “That’s illegal!”);
  3. Fully (if possible) and honestly answer questions about what you sell (but don’t answer whether another store has the same item at a lower price); and
  4. Not steer customers to purchases you have reason to think will harm them (by being overly expensive, for example, or being something they’d likely regret buying if they understood the facts).

Carson has us look at proposed practices from the standpoint of the salesperson (who must earn a living), the customer (who wants to buy a good product for a reasonable price), and the employer (who needs to sell products). Any action we propose as permissible must be something we’d consent to in the place of any of the three parties. This approach gives a good model of how to apply the golden rule to the details of business.

Medical ethics is another important area of applied ethics. Medical ethics started about 400 BC in ancient Greece, when Hippocrates wrote the Hippocratic Oath for doctors. The Hippocratic Oath speaks of prescribing for the patients’ good, not intentionally harming, not giving lethal drugs, not causing abortions, keeping matters confidential, and so on.

Dr. Louis Lasagna wrote a modern version that’s widely used today; here’s an excerpt:

“I will apply, for the benefit of the sick, all measures which are required, avoiding those twin traps of overtreatment and therapeutic nihilism. I will remember that there is art to medicine as well as science, and that warmth, sympathy, and understanding may outweigh the surgeon’s knife or the chemist’s drug. I will not be ashamed to say ‘I know not,’ nor will I fail to call in my colleagues when the skills of another are needed for a patient’s recovery. I will respect the privacy of my patients, for their problems are not disclosed to me that the world may know. I will remember that I do not treat a fever chart, a cancerous growth, but a sick human being.”

The golden rule is important in the day-to-day activities of medical personnel.

When Harry Gensler started researching his golden-rule book, he searched databases for articles on “the golden rule” and “do unto others,” and then downloaded a thousand publications to his hard drive. He found that many professions have an interest in the golden rule. But the group with the most interest was nurses. Again and again, publications by or about nurses appeared.

Nurses are particulalry known for living the golden rule as they provide care.

It makes a big difference to a patient’s wellbeing whether they are cared for by considerate golden-rule nurses. When you’re sick and need help, nurses can be angels or demons. Here are three quotes about the golden rule from nurses (much of this is good advice for others too):

Would you be in sympathy with your patient? Then regard this poor sufferer in the light of someone dear to you. Someone has said, “In Ethics, you cannot better the golden rule.” Suppose you render it, “Do unto others as you would they should do unto yours.” This is your mother; this your sister; this your child.

Some people say every nurse should herself have had a serious illness in order that she may get the patient’s point of view. There are few people, however, who do not know the meaning of pain and who do not have sufficient imagination, if they care to exert it, to realize what it means to lie in bed helpless. They should stop to consider these facts, they should give thought to their patients’ feelings as well as to their symptoms.

What sort of nurse or physician do we desire where our own interests are in question? The answer will be a description of that sort of nurse or physician which we ourselves should strive to become. This is the golden rule – to do unto others as we would that others should do unto us – and it is wonderfully clear, practical, and illuminating.

The ethics of discussion[5] can be guided by the golden rule: “Treat the views of others as you want your own views to be treated.” The golden rule leads to norms like these:

  1. Understand a view before you criticize it. Never distort another’s view to make your view look better.
  2. Be open to give or accept constructive criticisms. Evaluate your views by standards as strict as those you use to evaluate another’s views. Challenge flawed ideas and actions, but hesitate to criticize people.
  3. Be clear and understandable. Aim to communicate more than impress, and to cooperate more than alienate.

The golden rule can be applied to any discussion, whether in classrooms, academic journals, families, labor-management negotiations, or politics. Too many discussions are un-golden. In politics, for example, it’s common for partisan speeches or ads to use misleading or false statements to influence voters. Governments would work much better without this. Journalists need to expose such violations of the ethics of discussion.

Other areas can also benefit from the golden rule. Here are just a few examples:

  1. Groupism. People often mistreat those who differ from them in religion, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, or whatever. This was covered in the section on Embracing Other Races and Outgroups.
  2. Treatment of Animals. The factory farming of animals can be very cruel; yes, many ethicists think we can apply the golden rule to our treatment of animals.[6]
The golden rule requies we protect the earth for the enjoyment of future generations.
  1. Environmental protection. We need to stop global warming and the destruction of the environment; yes, we can apply the golden rule (or more directly the carbon rule) to our treatment of future generations.
  2. Family life. Family structures are changing, often with great harm to so many of the children who will form the next generation. The golden rule needs to permeate the family.
  3. Discrimination of all sorts can be countered effectively by the golden rule; but we first need to get the facts straight and defeat inaccurate stereotypes about people of other races, religions, ethnic groups, genders, sexual preferences, and so on.

Henry Ford reportedly once said, “If there is any one secret of success, it lies in the ability to get the other person’s point of view and see things from that person’s angle as well as your own.” That’s important in businesses, hospitals, governments, classrooms, families, sports teams, or whatever. It’s also a central part of treating others as we want to be treated.


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  1. Identify a moral issue you are facing, perhaps at home, school, work, citizenship, religion, or some other encounter important to you.
  2. Apply golden rule reasoning to that problem. Identify the various other parties involved. Apply the steps of KITA to the problem Identify several alternative solutions. Use the golden rule to select that solution.
  3. You may need to research relevant facts, or talk to various people involved to understand their points of view.
  4. Proceed based on this analysis.

Please continue the course with the topic on Long term Project.


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  1. The book Ethics and the Golden Rule refers to over a dozen articles in business-ethics journals discussing the golden rule.
  2. See: The Golden Rule in Business, Arthur Nash and Fifty Years With The Golden Rule, J. C. Penny
  3. Maxwell, John C. (August 12, 2003). There's No Such Thing as "Business" Ethics: There's Only One Rule for Making Decisions. Center Street. pp. 160. ISBN 978-0446532297. 
  4. Carson, Thomas L. (May 23, 2012). Lying and Deception: Theory and Practice. Oxford University Press. pp. 298. ISBN 978-0199654802. 
  5. For more on the practice of dialogue, see:
  6. See for example Singer, Peter (February 24, 2009). Animal Liberation: The Definitive Classic of the Animal Movement. Harper Perennial Modern Classics. pp. 368. ISBN 978-0061711305.