Understanding the Golden Rule
—Treat others only as you consent to being treated in the same situation.
The golden rule—often stated as “treat others as you want to be treated”—is endorsed by all the great world religions; Jesus, Hillel, and Confucius used it to summarize their ethical teachings. For many centuries the idea has been influential among people of very diverse cultures. These facts suggest that the golden rule may be an important moral truth.
Consider an example of how the rule is used. In 1963 US President John Kennedy appealed to the golden rule in an anti-segregation speech at the time of the first black enrollment at the University of Alabama. He asked whites to consider what it would be like to be treated as second-class citizens because of skin color. Whites were asked to imagine themselves being black — and being told that they couldn't vote, or go to the best public schools, or eat at most public restaurants, or sit in the front of the bus. Would whites be content to be treated that way? He was sure that they wouldn't — and yet this is how they treated others. He said the “heart of the question is ... whether we are going to treat our fellow Americans as we want to be treated.” This illustrates how switching places is central to understanding the golden rule.
The golden rule is best interpreted as saying: “Treat others only as you consent to being treated in the same situation.” To apply it, you’d imagine yourself on the receiving end of the action in the exact place of the other person (which includes having the other person’s likes and dislikes). If you act in a given way toward another, and yet are unwilling to be treated that way in the same circumstances, then you violate the rule.
To apply the golden rule adequately, we need knowledge and imagination. We need to know what effect our actions have on the lives of others. And we need to be able to imagine ourselves, vividly and accurately, in the other person's place on the receiving end of the action. With knowledge, imagination, and the golden rule, we can progress far in our moral thinking. The golden rule is best seen as a consistency principle. It doesn't replace regular moral norms. It isn't an infallible guide on which actions are right or wrong; it doesn't give all the answers. It only prescribes consistency — that we not have our actions (toward another) be inconsistent with our desires (toward action in a reversed situation). It tests our moral coherence and congruence. If we violate the golden rule, then we're violating the spirit of fairness and concern that lie at the heart of morality. The golden rule is necessary, but not a sufficient basis for a universal moral code.
The golden rule, with roots in a wide range of world cultures, is well suited to be a standard that different cultures can appeal to in resolving conflicts. As the world becomes more interconnected and evolves toward a single interacting global community, the need for such a common standard is becoming more urgent. This is an essential step in our journey toward attaining a global perspective.
The objectives of this course are to:
- Gain a deep understanding of the golden rule,
- Understand the cultural, religious, philosophical, and scientific context of the golden rule,
- Understand, analyze, and dismiss misunderstandings and philosophical objections to the golden rule.
- Learn the origins and history of the golden rule, and
- Understand philosophical bases of the golden rule.
The course contains many hyperlinks to further information. Use your judgment and these link following guidelines to decide when to follow a link, and when to skip over it. Each of the top level headings below are linked to course materials; it is important to follow these links.
This course is part of the Applied Wisdom curriculum.
This course was developed in cooperation with Professor Harry J. Gensler, a noted expert on the golden rule. Content from the book Gensler, Harry J. (March 21, 2013). Ethics and the Golden Rule. Routledge. pp. 256. ISBN 978-0415806879. has been adapted for use in this course by permission of Routledge and the author.
Students may wish to view this video overview covering many topics in this course, presented by Professor Harry J. Gensler
If the text of the Socratic dialogue in chapter 4 is available, then make it into a module that can be used by both this course and my Socratic Methods course.
Chronology of the Golden Rule
[Adapt material from chapter 7 (now part of the first course as “Human nature and the Golden Rule”) and chapter 12] Consider using video at: https://youtu.be/vRpUD7NFveg
[Adapt material from chapter 10].
Digging Deeper – Exploring more GR questions.
[Adapted from material in chapter 11]
[Adapt material from chapter 14.]
Because the golden rule is timeless and important, many resources for learning more about it are available. Some of the most relevant are listed here.
- The Golden Rule page, provided by Harry Gensler, provides links to many golden-rule related resources.
- His collection of golden rule stories is particularly helpful.
- The Scarboro missions embraces the golden rule an an essential part of their interfaith mission. They provide many resources for learning, teaching, and advocating the golden rule.
- Jeffrey Wattles, author of The Golden Rule, describes the recent resurgence in interest in the golden rule.
- Karen Armstrong gave several TED talks, including: Let's revive the Golden Rule where she motivates the Charter for Compassion.
Students interested in learning more about the golden rule may be interested in the following materials:
- Gensler, Harry J. (March 21, 2013). Ethics and the Golden Rule. Routledge. pp. 256. ISBN 978-0415806879.
- Wattles, Jeffrey (December 5, 1996). The Golden Rule. Oxford University Press. pp. 272. ISBN 978-0195110364.
- (Evaluate the book: The Golden Rule and the Games People Play: The Ultimate Strategy for a Meaning-Filled Life, by Rabbi Rami Shapiro )
- (Evaluate the book: Doing Unto Others: The Golden Rule Revolution, by Mike Bushman )
- Let's Revive the Golden Rule, July 2009 TED Talk by Karen Armstrong
- President John F. Kennedy, Civil Rights Message, June 11, 1963
- Gensler, Harry J. (March 21, 2013). Ethics and the Golden Rule. Routledge. pp. 256. ISBN 978-0415806879. Chapter 1
- Harry J. Gensler, S.J., is an American philosopher who has published twelve books on ethics and logic. He has had a lifetime of passion for the golden rule, and recently published Ethics and the Golden Rule upon which much of this course is based.