I thought some readers might be interested in the following introduction to the Golden Rule that I provide my students in their study guide of terms for Christianity. In class we discuss a few of the well-worn criticisms contrary to a hermeneutics of charity made by professional ethicists (e.g., ‘What if a sadomasochist goes forth to treat others as he wants to be treated?’), one of which is captured in George Bernard Shaw’s famous quip, “Don’t do to others as you want them to do unto you. Their tastes may be different.”
Golden Rule: “Therefore, whatever you want people to do to you, do also for them, for this is the Law of the Prophets” (Matthew 7:12), also, “And just as you want people to do to you, you also do to them likewise” (Luke 6:31). As Anna Wierzbicka writes in What Did Jesus Mean? (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001), “The so-called golden rule, known by this name since the eighteenth century, is the subject of extensive literature and heated controversy about its origins, meaning, and significance.” The closest historical parallel within Jesus’ own (i.e., the Jewish) tradition goes back to Rabbi Hillel’s injunction, “What you hate, don’t do to someone else,” an ethical rule said to capture “the whole” of Torah. The negative form of Hillel’s prescription is sometimes called the “silver rule” (and thus is quite similar to the formulation of Confucius in ancient China), the implication being that it in some sense it falls short—ethically if not spiritually—of the golden rule. It is more than plausible that Jesus was here invoking Hillel’s negative formulation (hence the reference to ‘this is the Law and the Prophets’) with the aim of deliberately reformulating it, in the sense of incorporating and then supplementing or transcending the earlier rule by way of his positive formulation (its ‘golden’ form). We can make such an inference if only because in both Matthew and Luke, as Wierzbicka points out, “the positive golden rule appears in the broad context of the teaching on the love of one’s neighbor,” a command second to and derived from the prior and principal command to “love God.” With this in mind, Wierzbicka’s reconstruction of the underlying ethical instruction reads as follows:
you know: you want other people to do good things for you
it will be good if you do good things for other people
like you want other people to do good things for you
God wants you to do this
Wierzbicka elaborates: “Admittedly, the word ‘good’ is not used in the surface form of Jesus’ saying…but in the context of his teaching, it seems obvious that this is what is meant. In Matthew it comes at the end of a passage about parents doing good things for their children and God doing good things for people. In Luke, the implicit reference to doing good things for other people is almost equally obvious; some would say even more so since it follows on the heels of the injunction ‘Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you’ (6:27) and ‘give to everyone who asks of you’ (6:30). Despite what Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) appears to have thought, the golden rule cannot be reduced to a principle of reciprocity, for “if the idea is that we should do good things for other people, just as we want other people to do good things for us (whether or not those others actually do good things for us), reciprocity doesn’t come into it at all….” If we appreciate the textual proximity of the golden rule to the commandment to love one’s neighbor (as in 1. ‘You shall love the Lord God with all your heart,’ and 2. ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself’), we’re left with the following:
(a) it will be good if you want to do good things for other people
like God does good things for all people
(b) it will be good if you do good things for other people
like you want other people to do good things for you
In sum, “Formula (a) points to God as a model for human goodness; formula (b), on the other hand, encourages people to identify with other people’s need for human help and benevolence, taking one’s own needs as a measure of and a guide to theirs.” And while the golden rule is not “the whole” of Jesus’ teaching given the centrality of the “double commandment” of love (of God and others), the former does appear to provide a provocative (and complementary) supplement to the silver rule of Hillel, especially in light of the commandment of love. Indeed, perhaps it is the case that following the golden rule increases the likelihood or simply makes it possible that one will or can acquire the moral psychological capacity and motivation to act so as “to love one’s neighbor as oneself.”
That said, and in all fairness, perhaps Jesus was merely reaffirming or resuscitating a linkage that existed within his own tradition, for Hillel’s formulation itself was soon “associated,” as Wattles explains, “with the promulgation of the two great rules commanding the love of God and neighbor,” for these were now regarded as “the sum of the law” and at the same time viewed as virtuous expressions of piety (eusebeia) and righteousness (dikaiosune). The positive (or ‘golden’) formulation of the injunction, in other words, endeavors to make explicit what was implicit in Torah. And we should not forget, as evidenced for instance in the Greek, Islamic and Jewish ethical traditions, that personal virtues are not simply or exclusively personal, even if they are cultivated in familial and intimate settings and we associate their attainment with individual growth in self-understanding, including psychological and moral maturity and self-awareness. For by implication and extension such virtues have a social dimension, and in the case of the golden rule, “a sensitive application of the rule takes into account those indirectly affected by one’s actions,” in Wattle’s words, “If the golden rule is to be a truly universal principle, then there must be threads of consistency linking moral judgments about personal problems with ethical judgments about social, economic, and political affairs.” For example, consider the fact that we are said to have “special” obligations to those near and dear to us (family, friends, and so forth). A thorough examination of the source of at least some of these obligations finds them arising from or owing to the vulnerability of others close to us. Thus an analysis of such vulnerability discovers (and thus by implication and extension) that many others are—individually and collectively—vulnerable to us as well:
“The implication is that our responsibilities for protecting all these others is strictly analogous to our responsibilities for protecting persons with whom we have any of the standard ‘special’ relationships. These additional responsibilities have the same source and, depending on circumstances, may even have the same strength as those we have always acknowledged to be compelling.” (Robert E. Goodin, Protecting the Vulnerable: A Reanalysis of Our Social Responsibilities. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1985)
With Onora O’Neill we should bear in mind at least two things with regard to universal principles like the golden rule: first, abstract, “universal principles need not mandate uniform treatment; indeed, they mandate differentiated treatment. [....] Even principles that do not specifically mandate differentiated treatment will be indeterminate, so leave room for differentiated application; ” second, and relatedly, “the application of principles to cases involves judgement and deliberation.” Thus principles serve as “side-constraints (not algorithms) and can only guide (not make) decisions.” (See O’Neill’s Towards Justice and Virtue: A Constructive Account of Practical Reasoning. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1996).
In addition to Wierzbicka, see Jeffrey Wattles, The Golden Rule (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996). For a discussion of how important Hobbes’ understanding of the golden rule was to his moral and political philosophy (providing, as it were, its axiomatic foundation), see S.A. (Sharon) Lloyd’s Morality in the Philosophy of Thomas Hobbes: Cases in the Law of Nature (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2009). For the standard introduction to the “golden rule” in classical Chinese philosophy, see David S. Nivison, The Ways of Confucianism: Investigations in Chinese Philosophy (Chicago, IL: Open Court, 1996): 59-76. Lastly, there’s a wonderful treatment of the golden rule “as a basis for moral action and as a criterion for assessing the moral quality and implications of laws,” in Neil Duxbury’s “Golden Rule Reasoning, Moral Judgement and Law,” Notre Dame Law Review, 84 (2009): 1529-1605.
—Socrates (Crito, 49c)
What thou avoidest suffering thyself seek not to impose on others.