The Significance of the Golden Rule

Norman Rockwell Mosaic called Golden Rule at the United Nations

The Golden Rule describes a guide to a fundamental behavior and is taught in most major religious and moral traditions.

The Golden Rule has been articulated either positively as “do unto others as you would have them do unto you” (Matthew 7:12); or negatively, counseling that you not do to others what you would not wish them to do to you, as in the teachings of Confucius (“Do not do to others what you do not want done to yourself.”) or Hillel (“What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbour”).

The Golden Rule’s all-inclusive simplicity has invited innumerable belittling counter-examples. For example, should masochists impose their favorite annoyances on unsuspicious acquaintances? Nonetheless, such counter-examples and critiques the point of the Golden Rule. The Golden Rule was never proposed as a guide to practical choice unaided of all other principles of moral conduct and behavior. In fact, the Golden Rule alludes to nothing about particular moral and ethical considerations, nor does it validate specific moral principles, qualities, and ideals.

To be more precise, the Golden Rule has to do with a perspective philosophy that is indispensable to the exercise of even the most rudimentary morality: one of seeking to situate oneself in the position of those affected by one’s actions, in an attempt to counteract the natural tendency to ignore moral considerations and ethical short-sightedness.

The Golden Rule directs one to treat others with the compassionate considerations that one wishes to contend with (in the positive form,) and, in particular, not to perpetrate misfortunes on others that one would abhor to have inflicted on oneself.

The Golden Rule has long been thought fundamental. Therefore many moral philosophers have compared it to their own principles concerning moral choice and conduct.

  • Immanuel Kant, German philosopher In “Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals”, German philosopher Immanuel Kant dismissed the Golden Rule as inconsequential and too limited to be a universal law: “Let it not be thought that the trivial quod tibi non vis fieri, etc. [what you do not will to be done to you, etc.] can here serve as a standard or principle. For it is merely derived from our principle, although with several limitations. It cannot be a universal law, for it contains the ground neither of duties to oneself nor of duties of love toward others (for many a man would gladly consent that others should not benefit him, if only he might be excused from benefiting them). Nor, finally, does it contain the ground of strict duties toward others, for the criminal would on this ground be able to dispute with the judges who punish him; and so on.”
  • John Stuart Mill, English philosopher In “Utilitarianism”, English philosopher John Stuart Mill claimed that, “In the golden rule of Jesus of Nazareth we read the complete spirit of the ethics of utility. To do as you would be done by, and to love your neighbour as yourself, constitute the ideal perfection of utilitarian morality.”
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