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Useful Notes / The Golden Rule

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Treat people as you would want to be treated. (Or some variation thereof.)

Also known as "the universal rule", the Golden Rule seems to exist in all cultures. Likely to predate written language, the earliest texts known to contain it are over 4,000 years old. Most religions and philosophers use one of the many different versions somewhere in their moral codes — see the quotes page.

When judging the morality of the Golden Rule, one can look to many perspectives. Maybe it's because of the principle behind acting according to the Golden Rule. Maybe it's because of the consequences of following it, as in treating kindness with kindness leads to greater net prosperity and less suffering. Maybe it's a way to apply one of the most important and undeniable laws of science to justice and ethics. Or maybe because it's just social and psychological custom to reward your benefactors appropriately. For morality based on principles, the golden rule is the most common principle to base the morality on.

The rule exists in both positive forms ("treat others as you would want to be treated") and negative forms ("don't treat others in ways you don't want to be treated"). There is almost a consensus (although there are those who disagree) that these forms are just different expressions of the same rule. After all, no formulation of a rule could be entirely foolproof for possible misinterpretations.

The spirit of the rule vs literal wording

The simple formulations used in religious scriptures and ancient secular philosophy works just fine, but only as long as you stick to the spirit of the rule. If you go with a literal interpretation and apply enough Insane Troll Logic while refusing to think any further, you can twist the formulations any way you want to.
  1. Technically, the formulations don't account for differences in taste and preference. A common strawman version of the rule is to treat others literally according to your own preferences, since that's how you would like to be treated. (Flaw: You want others to treat you according to your preferences rather than their own, which also means that you should treat them according to their preferences rather than your own.)
  2. Technically, the formulations don't account for context. Thus, a criminal could always argue that he doesn't want to be punished, and neither does the judge. (Flaw: You are disregarding larger conditions; in this case, that the judge has not committed a crime, while the criminal has.)
  3. Technically, the positive and negative formulations could be interpreted as separate rules, not covering each other. Thus, a positive formulation would permit you to do bad things to people as long as you also do good things, while a negative formulation would allow you to remain indifferent to the needs of others as long as you don't actively mistreat them. (Flaw: The difference between action and inaction is a semantic one, rather than a morally relevant one.)
  4. Technically, neither the positive nor the negative formulations forbid you to stipulate that you are right about everything and that everyone who might disagree with you about anything is automatically wrong. By this reasoning, since you are in service of righteousness, you can do what you have to to force your ways on everyone else, and they (being unrighteous) don't have any right to try to force their ways on you. (Flaw: By the application of the very same Rule, you are obliged to allow them their (different) convictions just as they are allowing you yours.)
  5. Technically, you can treat others any way as long as you don't recognize that they are "others" in the sense of having anything in common with you. Psychopaths, who tend to believe other people are not real, can commit a murder or murders without going against the golden rule as they understand it. (Flaw: The Golden Rule stipulates that others exist, by its nature. For philosophies that admit the possibility that others do not exist, see Solipsism and certain forms of Existentialism.)

The Golden Rule in philosophy

For the spirit of the Golden Rule to work in the more theoretical thinking of modern philosophy, it needed to be upgraded to a more advanced formulation. Immanuel Kant was the philosopher who took on this project, developing formulations designed to be more foolproof.
  • "Act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, never merely as a means to an end, but always at the same time as an end."
    • Immanuel Kant, second formulation of the categorical imperative.
    • This formulation does away with a lot of possible semantic loopholes, including the first four strawman versions mentioned above. The categorical imperative can be strawmanned as well, of course, but it's not as easy.
  • "Act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law."
    • Immanuel Kant, first formulation of the categorical imperative.
    • According to Kant, this quote has the same meaning as the quotes above.

Do no harm - The Silver Rule

The Golden Rule is related to the principle that one should do no harm so that others don't harm you. This principle is sometimes referred to as The Silver Rule. There is some overlap: The Golden Rule also covers The Silver Rule to some extent, but isn't limited to it. Also, there are those who would argue that the negative formulations cover only the silver rule. (Thus twisting the spirit of the rule, see above.) Or simply claim that the title of "golden rule" should be reserved for formulations used by their own philosophy or religion, while any formulation used by any other philosophy or religion should by definition be demoted to "silver" status.

The Silver Rule is the core of The Hippocratic Oath. It is also closely related to negative utilitarianism, the philosophy that we should only consider lessening the amount suffering, not happiness. Note that the Silver Rule is only partially covered by the Golden Rule, regardless of formulation: A negative formulation of The Golden Rule doesn't say that you should never hurt or sacrifice people, it says that you should only do so when they would agree that it's justified.

The Golden Rule in Christianity and Judaism

While most people associate Christianity's take on The Golden Rule with Jesus' Sermon on the Mount, the principle is deeply rooted in the Old Testament as well. The law of Moses include "Love your neighbor as yourself", and in the new testament Jesus highlights this as the second most important commandment in the law (dwarfed only by the law to love God with all your heart.) note  Apocrypha such as Tobit includes outright formulations of The Golden Rule.

Also, the rule "An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth" can be interpreted as a rule of mercy, and thus related to the Golden Rule:
Eschew Disproportionate Retribution, don't hurt your enemies more then they have already hurt you." The Talmud states that the Golden Rule is "the greatest rule in the Torah".

The Golden Rule in Islam and Ba'hai

There are many references to the Golden Rule in scriptures unique to Islam, and it should be noted that the old testament of the Bible as well as Jesus' Sermon on the Mount in the new testament counts as holy in Islam. (Muslims believe in Jesus, it's just that they consider him a mortal prophet of God — and thus feel that Christians insult Jesus when they claim that he is God.)

In Islam, Muhammed is considered the most important prophet because he was the last prophet. Ba'hai takes the same train of thought one step further, claiming that Muhammed was actually only the last prophet until the next prophet, and that there will always be new prophets. Perhaps more focused on The Golden Rule then any other Abrahamaic religion, Ba'hai highlights the rule as a common ground for all prophets. They thus consider the struggle against racism, sexism etc. to be one of the most important ways of doing God's will. Many individual Jewish, Christian and Muslim congregations takes the same stand: what makes Ba'hai unique is that the entire religion highlights the Golden Rule in this way.

The Golden Rule in Buddhism and Hinduism

These religions believe in the Golden Rule not only as a law or moral principle, but also as an unstoppable force of nature. Karma works in mysterious ways, and all the good and bad things we do to others will come back to us — if not in this life, then in the next one. Likewise, whatever happens to us now is a reflection of how we treated others in the past. If we are fortunate enough to be born to kind and affluent parents that give us a good childhood, then that's because we treated others well in the previous lifetime. But if we squander this reward on a selfish lifestyle, then we won't do so well the next time.