Universal Ethics > Wise Choices > Index > Golden Rule

Golden Rule

Here is a principle that has "stood the test of time". It has been a simple screening rule for ethical behavior that has been used for thousands of years: "Do unto others as you would have others do unto you."

A Typical Wish

"I wish that other people would treat me the way I like to be treated."

This supports the kindness and disaster relief ideals.

Making the Wish come true

Each person may vote for a world in which their wish comes true by considering how others feel and acting in an empathetic manner.

The rule, to treat others as you wish to be treated, assumes that you and the others are pretty much the same on the inside. All have the same desires. Or to say it another way, they have the same motives, the same aspirations, the same fears, etc. When you make a decision that affects someone, if you follow the golden rule you would imagine yourself in their position and ask yourself how you would feel about it. If you would be pleased, you assume that would be their reaction too, so it's OK to proceed. But if "in their shoes" you would feel badly about it, then you should cancel that decision.

The intent is that if everyone followed this rule, conflicts would be avoided, people would regularly please each other, and the whole world would be a happier place.

But what if the other person is not the same on the inside, so that their mind is substantially different in some way, and their motivators are not the same? Let's explore that a bit, to see if that results in some exceptions to the golden rule. If so, we might need to make a more complex rule, that is the "golden rule elaborated" to cover how to behave in those situations.

What exceptions may there be?

Let's consider the following situations, where you and the other person(s) have differences in your desires:

A) Differing preferences

Suppose your friend has a love of music, but unlike him you prefer beautiful artwork. Would you give a gift to him of some nice recorded music, or a painting? At first you might suppose that according to the Golden Rule, you should give him what you want to receive: the painting. However, that's not really treating him the way you want to be treated. You want people to consider your preferences when they give you gifts. Likewise you will consider his preferences and give him the music.

Note that in this case your can understand his desire and imagine yourself in his situation quite easily. That's because you like music too, but just not as much as him. It's a choice that is acceptable to both of you.

B) Opposite Goals

Suppose there is a criminal on the loose, likely to repeat his cruel acts of the past, and you want to put him in jail?

At first glance this seems like situation "A" above, where you might adjust your decision to please him even though his wish differs from your own. But that would be a mistake!

Let's revisit the rule: Is jailing him treating him the way you would wish to be treated? Yes, it is! That's because you don't have the same desire as him to do harm. If something happened to your mind to make you go beserk and start hurting people, you would want someone to stop you! Jail would do that. Hopefully if you were in that situation, sanity would return after that, but regardless your decision right now would be to stop him.

So even though he won't like it, you are treating him the way you would want to be treated.

Unlike case "A", you don't accept his kind of motives, because they are incompatible with your own. So you don't make the adjustment of case "A" to accommodate his wishes.

C) Lack of information

The general assumption of the golden rule is that you would understand how you will feel when put on the receiving end of your behavior. However, that is not always true, and it can be a big mistake to jump to conclusions. To illustrate, let's consider the example of someone who wishes to end their life. What would you do if you encounter that person?

You don't wish to end your own life, and so it's easy to assume that you wouldn't want to die if you were in his situation. So, according to the golden rule, you must prevent him from committing suicide. Moreover, you would help him to find a solution to whatever situation is motivating him to end his life.

It's likely that would be a satisfactory choice in most cases where a person is suicidal. This is especially true for typical cases of people in their teens or early adulthood who are suicidal, who are in that state because of some ongoing trauma or desperation. You assume that could be solved, and that the person could have a long life of joy ahead of them. But that won't happen if he kills himself now, so the first step is to stop him.

You may need to take action quickly, because if you let him kill himself that decision is not reversable! The next step is to get help for him so that he can have that future life of joy that you yourself would want.

However, the above scenario is not the only one in which a person may wish to die. Let's consider a case where the person has a very painful and incurable disease. His doctor can keep him alive for some months via the use of life support. His decision is to end his life now by turning it off. What would you want for yourself, if you were in his situation? That might depend on exactly how much pain in involved, but in a severe case you would likely make the same choice, to switch it off.

So, you might make one decision in an emergency, when you lack information, and another in a situation where you can get the relevant information. When unsure, people take the decision that is reversible (live now, because you can still choose to die later).

The golden rule as a single sentence isn't sufficient to decide every case, and also it isn't sufficient without full knowledge of the situation. Really it needs some further development of the rule to make it really clear how to apply it in various situations. Nevertheless, even as a simple rule, it is applicable to most common situations that a person is likely to encounter frequently in everyday life. If a person uses it that way, as a "rule of thumb," to serve as a first cut at making a choice, it can be a very quick and handy check to do.

Links to other sites

Return to Universal Ethics home page