The Golden Rule is a cross-cultural ethical precept found in virtually all the religions of the world. Also known as the "Ethic of Reciprocity," the Golden Rule can be rendered in either positive or negative formulations: most expressions take a passive form, as expressed by the Jewish sage Hillel: "What is hateful to you, do not to your fellow neighbor. This is the whole Law, all the rest is commentary" (Talmud, Shabbat 31a). In Christianity, however, the principle is expressed affirmatively by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount: "Do unto others as you would have others do unto you" (Gospel of Matthew 7:12). This principle has for centuries been known in English as the Golden Rule in recognition of its high value and importance in both ethical living and reflection.
Arising as it does in nearly all cultures, the ethic of reciprocity is a principle that can readily be used in handling conflicts and promoting greater harmony and unity. Given the modern global trend of political, social, and economic integration and globalization, the Golden Rule of ethics may become even more relevant in the years ahead to foster inter-cultural and interreligious understanding.
Philosophers disagree about the nature of the Golden Rule: some have classified it as a form of deontological ethics (from the Greek deon, meaning "obligation") whereby decisions are made primarily by considering one's duties and the rights of others. Deontology posits the existence of a priori moral obligations suggesting that people ought to live by a set of permanently defined principles that do not change merely as a result of a change in circumstances. However, other philosophers have argued that most religious understandings of the Golden Rule imply its use as a virtue toward greater mutual respect for one's neighbor rather than as a deontological formulation. They argue that the Golden Rule depends on everyone's ability to accept and respect differences because even religious teachings vary. Thus, many philosophers, such as Karl Popper, have suggested that the Golden Rule can be best understood in term of what it is not (through the via negativa):
First, they note that the Golden Rule should not be confused with revenge, an eye for an eye, tit for tat, retributive justice or the law of retaliation. A key element of the ethic of reciprocity is that a person attempting to live by this rule treats all people, not just members of his or her in-group, with due consideration.
The Golden Rule should also not be confused with another major ethical principle, often known as Wiccan Rede, or liberty principle, which is an ethical prohibition against aggression. This rule is also an ethical rule of "license" or "right," that is people can do anything they like as long as it does not harm others. This rule does not compel one to help the other in need. On the other hand, "the golden rule is a good standard which is further improved by doing unto others, wherever possible, as they want to be done by."
Lastly, the Golden Rule of ethics should not be confused with a "rule" in the semantic or logical sense. A logical loophole in the positive form of Golden "Rule" is that it would require a someone who enjoys experiencing pain to harm others, even without their consent, if that is what they would wish for themselves. This loophole can be addressed by invoking a supplementary rule, which is sometimes called the “Silver Rule.” This states, "treat others in the way that they wish to be treated." However, the Silver Rule may create another logical loophole. In a situation where an individual's background or belief may offend the sentiment of the majority (such as homosexuality or blasphemy), the Silver Rule may imply ethical majority rule if the Golden Rule is enforced as if it were a law.
Under ethic of reciprocity, a person of atheist persuasion may have a (legal) right to insult religion under the right of freedom of expression but, as a personal choice, may refrain to do so in public out of respect to the sensitivity of the other. Conversely, a person of religious persuasion may refrain from taking action against such public display out of respect to the sensitivity of other about the right of freedom of speech. Conversely, the lack of mutual respect might mean that each side might deliberately violate the golden rule as a provocation (to assert one's right) or as intimidation (to prevent other from making offense).
This understanding is crucial because it shows how to apply the golden rule. In 1963, John F. Kennedy ordered Alabama National Guardsmen to help admit two clearly qualified "Negro" students to the University of Alabama. In his speech that evening Kennedy appealed to every American:
Stop and examine his conscience about this and other related incidents throughout America...If an American, because his skin is dark, cannot eat lunch in a restaurant open to the public, if he cannot send his children to the best public school available, if he cannot vote for the public officials who will represent him, .... then who among us would be content to have the color of his skin changed and stand in his place? .... The heart of the question is .... whether we are going to treat our fellow Americans as we want to be treated.
It could be argued that the ethics of reciprocity may replace all other moral principles, or at least that it is superior to them. Though this guiding rule may not explicitly tell one which actions or treatments are right or wrong, it can provide one with moral coherence—it is a consistency principle. One's actions are to be consistent with mutual love and respect to other fellow humans.
A survey of the religious scriptures of the world reveals striking congruence among their respective articulations of the Golden Rule of ethics. Not only do the scriptures reveal that the Golden Rule is an ancient precept, but they also show that there is almost unanimous agreement among the religions that this principle ought to govern human affairs. Virtually all of the world's religions offer formulations of the Golden Rule somewhere in their scriptures, and they speak in unison on this principle. Consequently, the Golden Rule has been one of the key operating ideas that has governed human ethics and interaction over thousands of years. Specific examples and formulations of the Golden Rule from the religious scriptures of the world are found below:
In Buddhism, the first of the Five Precepts (Panca-sila) of Buddhism is to abstain from destruction of life. The justification of the precept is given in chapter ten of the Dhammapada, which states:
Everyone fears punishment; everyone fears death, just as you do. Therefore do not kill or cause to kill. Everyone fears punishment; everyone loves life, as you do. Therefore do not kill or cause to kill.
According to the second of Four Noble Truths of Buddhism, egoism (desire, craving or attachment) is rooted in ignorance and is considered as the cause of all suffering. Consequently, kindness, compassion and equanimity are regarded as the untainted aspect of human nature.
Even though the Golden Rule is a widely accepted religious ethic, Martin Forward writes that the Golden Rule is itself not beyond criticism. His critique of the Golden Rule is worth repeating in full. He writes:
Two serious criticisms can be leveled against [the Golden Rule]. First of all, although the Golden Rule makes sense as an aspiration, it is much more problematic when it is used as a foundation for practical living or philosophical reflection. For example: should we unfailingly pardon murderers on the grounds that, if we stood in their shoes, we should ourselves wish to be pardoned? Many goodly and godly people would have problems with such a proposal, even though it is a logical application of the Golden Rule. At the very least, then, it would be helpful to specify what sort of a rule the Golden Rule actually is, rather than assuming that it is an unqualified asset to ethical living in a pluralistic world. Furthermore, it is not usually seen as the heart of religion by faithful people, but simply as the obvious starting point for a religious and humane vision of life. Take the famous story in Judaism recorded in the Talmud: Shabbat 31:
It is easy to sympathize with Shammai’s response to a person who trivializes a great religion, assuming that it can be reduced to some simple slogan, though perhaps Hillel was more sensible (and compassionate) to try and draw that trivial interlocutor into abandoning sound bytes for the joys and wisdom of paddling in the shallows of the ocean of truth. The heathen (or gentile) converted under Hillel’s wise response to his asinine question and, one hopes, responded positively to Hillel’s suggestion to him that he should learn the commentary which would give him the means of figuring out why the Golden Rule is important (From the “Inter-religious Dialogue” article in The Encyclopedia of General Knowledge).
- A certain heathen came to Shammai [a first century B.C.E. rabbi] and said to him, “Make me a proselyte, on condition that you teach me the whole Torah while I stand on one foot.” Thereupon he repulsed him with the rod which was in his hand. When he went to [Rabbi] Hillel, he said to him, “What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor: that is the whole Torah; all the rest of it is commentary; go and learn.”
Forward's argument continues:
Even assuming that the Golden Rule could be developed into a more nuanced pattern of behaving well in today’s world, there would still be issues for religious people to deal with. For whilst moral behavior is an important dimension of religion, it does not exhaust its meaning. There is a tendency for religious people in the West to play down or even despise doctrine, but this is surely a passing fancy. It is important for religious people in every culture to inquire after the nature of transcendence: its attitude towards humans and the created order; and the demands that it makes. People cannot sensibly describe what is demanded of them as important, without describing the source that wills it and enables it to be lived out. Besides, the world would be a safer place if people challenged paranoid and wicked visions of God (or however ultimate reality is defined) with truer and more generous ones, rather than if they abandoned the naming and defining of God to fearful and sociopath persons (From the “Inter-religious Dialogue” article in The Encyclopedia of General Knowledge).
In other words, Forward warns religious adherents not to be satisfied with merely the Golden Rule of ethics that can be interpreted and used as a form of religious and ethical relativism, but to ponder the deeper religious impulses that lead to the conviction of the Golden Rule in the first place, such as the idea of love in Christianity.
Due to its widespread acceptance in the world's cultures, it has been suggested that the Golden Rule may be related to innate aspects of human nature. In fact, the principle of reciprocity has been mathematically proved to be the most mutually beneficial means of resolving conflict (as in the Prisoner's Dilemma). As it has touchstones in virtually all cultures, the ethic of reciprocity provides a universally comprehensible tool for handling conflictual situations. However, the logical and ethical objections presented above make the viability of this principle as a Kantian categorical imperative doubtful. In a world where sociopathy and religious zealotry exist, it is not always feasible to base one's actions upon the perceived desires of others. Further, the Golden Rule, in modernity, has lost some of its persuasive power, after being diluted into a bland, secular precept through cloying e-mail forwards and newspaper cartoons. As Forward argues, perhaps the Golden Rule must be approached in its original religious context, as this context provides an ethical and metaphysical grounding for a belief in the ultimate power of human goodness.
Regardless of the above objections, modern trends of political, social, and economic globalization necessitate the development of understandable, codifiable and universally-accepted ethical guidelines. For this purpose, we (as a species) could certainly do worse than to rely upon the age-old, heuristic principle spelled out in the Golden Rule.
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