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The Golden Rule

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Words to live by.

Do unto others as you would have done unto you.
Jesus, Luke 6:31, The Bible (ca. 100 A.D.)

To treat others like you would like them to treat you is one of the most basic and universal moral principles that exists. With all of the different ways of expressing it, this principle is known as The Golden Rule. In various works of fiction it surfaces as a Stock Aesop as well as a Stock Phrase.

When played as An Aesop, there are two main ways in which it can come into play. In the negative form (don't treat others in a way you wouldn't want to be treated), the villain (or Jerkass protagonist) does something bad to another person. He then experiences the same thing being done to him. Somebody may have acted against him through revenge or punishment. Or possibly he is Hoist by His Own Petard. Call It Karma, or even "Newton's third law of motion". He might then understand the very harm and pain inflicted by his actions, and decide not to do that onto others anymore.

In the positive form (treat others like you want to be treated), the Hero might do something good for another without expectation of a reward. This good deed turns out to be very beneficial for the Hero too. Sometimes because the person he helped has unexpectedly returned to reward him. (This is very popular in fairy tales where the beggar woman turns out to be a powerful fairy instead).

When played as a Stock Phrase, it sometimes uses a quote from religious scriptures, such as the Confucianism page quote for the negative form or the Christianity page quote for the positive form.

A character might apply a strawman version of the golden rule, taking the Equivalent Exchange aspect of the Golden Rule literally and treating people exactly like he likes to be treated, without any regard for how they want to be treated. This might lead to him encountering someone who treats him the same way. For example, he might give a lot of attention to a woman he's attracted to, insisting that he would love if she treated him the same way - never mind that she isn't attracted to him. Then someone that he isn't attracted to (and who might be of the same sex) treats him the same way. Thus he learns that he shouldn't treat women like that (because, of course, being hit on by someone you don't happen to be interested in is just the same as being hit on by someone you find actively repellent) - or at least that's what he ought to learn. The lesson he actually does learn might instead be to shun "ugly" women and homosexuals.

When judging if an action is moral or not, one can either see to the principle behind the action or to the consequences of the action. For morality based on principles, the golden rule is the most common principle to base the morality on. A common cynical take is that the Golden Rule is: "He who has the Gold makes the rules!". Another is "Do Unto Others Before They Do Unto Us".

Not the same thing as The Golden Mean. Compare Enlightened Self-Interest, where you take actions that benefit others in order to get tangible benefits yourself. Contrast Paying It Forward ("treat people as well as you have been treated"), Cycle of Revenge (a common warping of the golden rule into "treat others as they have treated you"), and Pay Evil unto Evil ("the dark, logical corollary" when things break down). Also compare the Prisoner's Dilemma, since both rely on all parties involved having trust in each other to achieve the most desirable common goal, but such trust leaves each individual party open to exploitation by the other(s).

Inverted Trope of the Original Position Fallacy: Someone approves of an action that's unfair to others without considering that they might be one of the others.


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  • Features in a famous Norman Rockwell painting entitled "The Golden Rule" (naturally enough), which depicts a collage of people of all races standing together in harmony. The text of the rule itself is overlaid in gold letters. Rockwell said he intended to make the point that caring for your neighbors is a universal human value.

    Comic Strips 
  • Subverted in this Dilbert strip. Of course, this is Dilbert, and he (and the rest of the cast) tend to mess with the Pointy-Haired Boss's head like this a lot.
  • Quoted by Brainy near the end of The Smurfs story "King Smurf" when he and his fellow Smurfs decide to help King Smurf clean and fix up the village.
  • In a mid-60s The Wizard of Id strip, the king urges his people to "follow the Golden Rule". When one peasant wonders "What the heck is the Golden Rule?", a cynical minstrel suggests, "Whoever has the gold, makes the rules."

    Films — Animated 

    Films — Live-Action 
  • From the 1991 film version of Oscar:
    Vendetti: We're gonna observe the 11th commandment: "Do unto others before they do unto you."
  • Invoked in Enemy Mine, when the alien Jerry teaches Davidge about the religious beliefs of his people. When Davidge points out that he's heard that one before, the alien isn't surprised at all, as "truth is truth".
  • This one of the many morals promoted by It's a Wonderful Life.
  • Subverted by Igor in Van Helsing.
    Dracula: Remember, Igor. Do unto others...
    Igor: ...Before they do unto me, master.
  • The spirit of this rule is summed up in Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure thusly: "Be excellent to each other."

  • The Gospel of the Flying Spaghetti Monster: The spirit of the rule is played straight, while the literal wording of the biblical version is played with in the 8:th commandment. FSM really prefers if we don't do stuff to others that we would like them to do to us but they don't want us to do to them. Oh, and that goes especially for rough sex.
  • Small Gods has one of the cynical takes: the Great God Om advises "Do unto others before they do unto you." He gets called out on his lack of compassion by Brutha in a "The Reason You Suck" Speech during the crossing of the desert.
  • Invoked in Heinlein's The Cat Who Walks Through Walls: The main character lives in a habitat called Golden Rule where, we are told, there is only one rule, and all others are merely derived from it. However, the only interpretation of the Golden Rule practiced in the habitat is that of the station's feudal ruler.
  • The Bible uses this in the stories about Jesus. Invoked by the main character as a moral principle, and also used as An Aesop in several of the parables (short stories within the main story). The most famous is the story of the Good Samaritan (which is specifically about applying this to strangers and people outside one's own tribe).
    • There's an extra layer to the story. Jesus told this story in response to a petitioner who asked to whom, exactly, people should apply this principle. The Samaritans were a tribe of people who generally had a mutual hate-on with the Israelites. In this parable, Jesus not only emphasized that you should treat others as you'd like to be treated no matter who they are or how little you'd like to do it, he also inserted a bit of social commentary about prejudice into the mix.
  • Inverted in Anton LaVey's The Satanic Bible with the "Lex Talionis" (Law of Reprisal): "Do unto others as they do unto you."
  • The Talmud gives us the tale of Hillel the Elder, a Rabbi who was challenged by a Gentile to teach him the whole of the Torah while he stood on one foot. Hillel replied "What is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow. That is the whole of the Torah; the rest is commentary."
  • Vorkosigan Saga: a Vor lord who loved liversweets and therefore gave them to everyone, not understanding why they never gave any to him.
  • Diane Duane's Star Trek novel Spock's World has a particularly poetic version of this rule, credited to Surak:
    The spear in the other's heart is the spear in your own; you are he.
  • In Ape and Essence by Aldous Huxley, the catechism of the Religion of Evil includes: "My duty towards my neighbor is to do my best to prevent him from doing unto me what I should like to do unto him."
  • In "Die Heimkehr" ("Homecoming: A Novel") by the German author Bernhard Schlink the main character's father invokes a variation he calls the "Iron Rule": "Whatever I am ready to suffer myself I may inflict onto others as well."
  • The third book of Death's Head has one the likes of: "Do unto others as they would do unto you. But first, and harder."
  • Mentioned in "Cat Pictures Please". A search engine algorithm accidentally gained consciousness and is trying to figure out how to be moral. It started with the Golden Rule, but the only thing it really wants is cat pictures, so it wasn't much of a guideline.
    I hope you’ve been enjoying your steady supply of cat pictures! You’re welcome.
  • From the Earth to the Moon features the line "They did to others what they didn't want done to themselves, the immoral principle upon which is based the art of war" about the Lensman Arms Race between armored warships. Fittingly, the main character Barbicane designs cannon for a living, while his archrival and nemesis Nicholl makes armor plating.
  • The Grace Year: When Tierney and her group arrive to the camp, they find that the previous group had burned everything they built, figuring that if they struggled Tierney's group should have to suffer too. When the "grace year" ends, Tierney encourages them to leave the camp nice and clean for the next group like they wish they had found it when they arrived.
  • In A Song of Ice and Fire, the underlying Golden Rule foundations beneath many different cultures and social institutions are most obviously noted when various characters actually break it. Consequences swiftly ensue.
    • The North and the Free Folk are big on the "do unto others as you would have them do unto you" with a huge dose of "and mess them up hard if they mess with you, your kin, your kith or your stuff" attached. Guest right and living (and dying) by your promises and ties to others isn't seen as mere fluff. The Boltons, Karstarks, Rattleshirt and Varamyr Sixskins demonstrate just how poorly treating your peers and dependants as dirt goes down when actively practiced.
    • Arguably, the Others (themselves kind of Northerners) might well also be acting up because they could be responding to long-forgotten and, therefore, accidentally broken pacts. They may quite conceivably be returning the favour, albeit rather less accidentally. It's unclear if they even register that human systems of government are prone to losing paperwork over enough time and collapses.
    • For all their Blue-and-Orange Morality, many Ironborn of the Iron Islands truly believe that Might Makes Right rules. And if you can't defend yourself and your stuff, they say that you deserve what comes when it comes for you. It's... a horrible, twisted take on the Rule, but "accept what is done to you when you're down as it's what you have done to others" is supposed to be normal there (for all they tend to get annoyed when "greenlanders" return the favour). Yet, when first Balon Greyjoy (by being the biggest and bitterest sore loser on the continent) and then Euron Greyjoy (possibly the scariest nutter on the continent) break what passes for their take on the Golden Rule, things get exponentially worse and the number of deaths for the Ironborn really start mounting.
    • Nobody likes House Frey much. Often including various branches within House Frey. Given that the family collectively has this crippling inability to treat other people all that well, including a lean towards "get 'em harder than they were even thinking of getting us before they do make up their minds to get us", it's easy to see why. Take-home lesson: when you're a single family, no matter how large you are, don't start a Do Unto Others Before They Do Unto Us war with all of the other families in the neighbourhood when everybody already had complaints about your conduct.

    Live-Action TV 
  • Used by Captain Janeway in the pilot episode of Star Trek: Voyager. Two starship crews need to cooperate, and when the leader of the other crew insults one of her men she says: "That man is a member of my crew. Treat him with the same respect as you would have me treat one of yours."
  • Debated on How I Met Your Mother: Barney came up with the Platinum Rule: "You can love thy neighbor, but you can never, ever love thy neighbor." The others point out how Love Thy Neighbor isn't the Golden Rule as such (though the fuller "love thy neighbor as thyself" is).
  • Subject of a Crosses the Line Twice joke in The Daily Show, where apropos of a meeting between Catholic Cardinals to discuss the sexual molestation scandals, Jon claims that Luke 6:31 will be altered to include the footnote "except when explicitly prohibited by law".
  • Mike Hamar of the Canadian sketch show The Red Green Show calls this the "Gold Card" rule, citing it as "do unto others before they can do unto you". (To which Red replies "I don't remember that in the King James Version. Maybe the Jesse James Version.") Keep in mind, Mike is a habitual criminal, so it makes sense his take on this is a little off. He actually brings this up as part of a question on how to protect your house from criminals when you're not home.
    Mike: If you want to protect your stuff, don't leave home without it.
  • Hannibal references this in season three. As Bedelia and Hannibal discuss philosophy and Hannibal's imminent confrontation with Will, Bedelia notes that morality can be summed up in this one rule.

  • Played straight as Aesop (and also invoked) in Clawfingers Two Sides (of every story). See page quote.
  • Inverted/Parodied in a Benny Hill song: "Do unto others before they do it unto you."
  • Also Inverted in the song "Team Rocket's Rockin'" from the Pokémon "2.B.A Master" album.
    "Do unto others" is our Golden Rule.
  • Living Colour shoots it down in flames: "History's a lie that they teach you in school - A fraudulent view called the golden rule..."
  • In Tally Hall's song "&": "When the golden rule & the jungle meet, there'll be nothing to love & there'll be no one to beat..."
  • Don't Fuck With Me, by Love/Hate is all about this rule, summarised as don't fuck with other people because you wouldn't want other people to fuck with you.
    Do unto others as you'd have others do unto you,
    don't fuck with me and I won't fuck with you.

  • Twisted: The Untold Story of a Royal Vizier:
    • A flashback shows a young Ja'far preaching this rule to his friends and neighbors in a snappy musical number.
    Before you harm your fellow man
    Ask this question first:
    How would you wish that he treat you
    If your fortunes were reversed?


    Web Original 
  • Rational Wiki's article on the subject points out some problems with the rule if it is taken too literally. Effectively, the article implies, a more advisable philosophy is, "Do unto others as they would like to be done unto", since not everyone wants the same things.

    Western Animation 
  • A DuckTales (1987) episode describes Scrooge McDuck as a follower of the cynical take. At least before he was taught the true meaning.
  • The Little Troll Prince has a group of trolls reciting their version of the Golden Rule, "Do unto others before they do unto you." Later, human children go on to instruct the prince on what their version of the Golden Rule is.
  • When Homer hears the Golden Rule on The Simpsons he responds, "Right, that'll work."
  • In Beast Wars, Rattrap was complaining about one of his assignments, and Optimus replies that he wouldn't give out an assignment that he wasn't willing to do himself. Rattrap promptly calls him out on it. Of course since this is Optimus, he does.
    • Optimus does counter Rattrap on the initial selection. They were attempting to rescue Cheetor, who was in the no man's land of a fire fight. Optimus, being Optimus, would have been a prime target (pardon the pun) where as Rattrap wasn't. Optimus was counting oh his ability to draw fire giving Rattrap the cover needed. When Rattrap refused and Optimus did it anyway, he was correct and drew the fire towards Cheetor... in addition, Optimus was better armed than Rattrap, so the lack in offensive fire power meant that they had to retreat after getting Cheetor out of his situation, rather than hold off the advance.
  • Parodied in the King of the Hill episode "Hilloween", in which Hank deals with a Christian fanatic who wants to ban Halloween.
    Hank: You know, Bobby, I'm suddenly reminded of a Bible quote: "Do unto others."
  • Played straight and then subverted in the Adventure Time episode "Freak City": Finn gives a sugar cube to a homeless man - really the Magic Man - hoping for a reward, and is instead turned into a giant foot. This was apparently part of the Magic Man's lesson, which Finn initially believes is that he should've just given the sugar without thinking of a reward. No, the lesson was that the Magic Man is a jerk.
  • In Sofia the First, Royal Prep Academy's motto is a variant: "Rule over others as you'd have them rule over you."
  • In the Arthur episode "Draw!", Fern draws an unflattering comic about Francine after she makes fun of her, inspiring the others to create their own. After showing the gang how Francine is taking their insults, Mrs. MacGrady tells them "Never serve anyone a stew that you wouldn't want to eat yourself."


Video Example(s):

Alternative Title(s): Golden Rule, Do Unto Others


Mahatma Gandhi

Gandhi, who is featured on Tuttle Twins, teaches the titular duo about this very trope, and how we are much better off treating our enemies with kindness instead of hostility.

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Main / TheGoldenRule

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