« Whose Values, Whose Virtues? | Main | Is It Ever Permissible to Lie? »

Is the Golden Rule Sufficient?

Many witticisms are made at the expense of the Golden Rule. For example, it is sometimes paraphrased as "Do unto others before they do unto you" or reinterpreted as "The Golden Rule means that those who have the gold make the rules."

Is it enough to say, "Just live by the Golden Rule and you'll be all right?" The term "Golden Rule" refers to the words of Jesus in Matthew 7:12, "So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets." A parallel passage is Luke 6:31, "As you wish that others would do to you, do so to them.”

In his book Morals and Values, Marcus Singer explains two possible interpretations of this Golden Rule. The first may be called the particular interpretation, "Do to others WHAT you would have them do to you." According to this interpretation, we should apply the rule by asking ourselves what in particular we want others to do or what we would want if we were in their place.

If you were a landlord trying to follow the particular interpretation, you might allow your tenants to live in your apartment rent free. Why? Because if you were in their place, you would definitely want a rent-free apartment. By the same token, if you were a jailer, you would let your prisoners go free, because that is exactly how you would like to be treated if you were a prisoner. Obviously, there are problems with this literal interpretation of the Golden Rule.

Another view is known as the general interpretation: "Do to others AS you would have them do to you." This interpretation does not consider what in particular we want others to do or what we would do were we in their place. Rather, the general approach asks us to consider the general ways in which we would expect others to behave. That is, what we want is for others to take into account, in a reasonable way, our interests, feelings, and needs when they act. Similarly, we are to treat others by the same standard that we want them to apply in their treatment of us. We want them to be fair, just, and reasonable. That is how we should treat them, too. The landlord should treat tenants fairly and not exploit them. The jailer should treat prisoners humanely.

The Golden Rule requires that the same standard of fairness or justice be applied to behavior, no matter who performs it and no matter who benefits by it. It demands that we take into account the wishes and desires of others, even if we do not always accede to them. It is a method for dealing with moral questions without being controlled by self-interest.

The Golden Rule cannot stand alone because it is predicated on principles of justice and fairness that exist outside the rule itself. Without a standard of justice or fairness, it would be impossible for us to apply the Golden Rule reasonably because there would be no common understanding of justice. As Joshua Halberstam has noted in his book Everyday Ethics, another underlying assumption behind the Golden Rule is that you love yourself. People who hate themselves tend to misapply the rule. For Christians, furthermore, any concept of justice must connect to other values like love and compassion. If our sense of fairness is somehow biased or flawed because of selfish blindness or lack of compassion, we will probably fail to apply the rule correctly. In commenting on the Old Testament principle, "Love your neighbor as yourself" (Leviticus 19:18), Paul writes, "Love does no harm to a neighbor, therefore love is the fulfilling of the law" (Romans 13:10). In short, it is love for others that makes the Golden Rule shine.


1.You are responsible for hiring a new accountant. One of your old friends has applied for the job. Although other applicants have better credentials, you believe your friend could do the job satisfactorily. On the basis of the Golden Rule, would you hire your friend? Shouldn't we show loyalty to our friends just as we want them to show loyalty to us?

2.Janet and Jennifer are college roommates. Janet works at a donut shop and Jennifer at a fast-food restaurant. When Jennifer goes to the donut shop, Janet always gives her a free donut. Should Jennifer give Janet a free hamburger when she comes to the restaurant? Explain why this situation relates or does not relate to the Golden Rule.

3.Does the Golden Rule presuppose that what I wish others to do to me is the same as what they would wish me to do to them? Can you give an example of how different people might have different expectations of how they should be treated?

4.Confucius (c. 551-479 BC) once said, "Do not do to others what you would not have them do to you." Some say this negative formulation is more humble and modest because it prevents moral harm without presuming to impose one person’s standards on another. What do you think?

5.In what way does the Golden Rule require you to put yourself in another's place or to imagine yourself to be the other person? If Christian soldiers followed the Golden Rule, could they ever deliberately try to kill someone?

6.Another biblical rule is "Do unto others as God has done unto you" (Deuteronomy 5:12-15; 24:17-18). In what way, if any, does this rule offer a different perspective from the Golden Rule?


This page contains a single entry from the blog posted on April 23, 2007 11:24 AM.

The previous post in this blog was Whose Values, Whose Virtues?.

The next post in this blog is Is It Ever Permissible to Lie?.

Many more can be found on the main index page or by looking through the archives.

Powered by
Movable Type 3.35