The Golden Rule as a standard for moral/ethical conduct

In a very real sense, the Golden Rule provides us with the most universal standard of behavior that we have. One can find variations of the Golden Rule in ancient writings from around the world. There are good reasons for the prevalence of the Rule across history.

Consider the social nature of human living. We survive by living in groups and helping each other. Since people in a group are mutually interdependent, individuals are likely to treat others as they would want to be treated themselves. Otherwise, sooner or later the group will self-destruct or break up. That is to say, some sort of reciprocity within a group is an aspect of human behavior that is necessary for long-term survival.

The earliest surviving written record of a Golden Rule statement goes back about 4,000 years–to the ancient Egyptian civilization. However, this kind of behavioral ideal would have been a human understanding long before that time, and it remains so today.

Generations of children have been morally uplifted by the easily-remembered saying, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” In North America, they learned the Golden Rule from old school texts such as McGuffey’s Eclectic Readers. In addition, the saying has been printed on millions of school rulers and pencils. As in the past, parents today provide their children with moral instruction by repeating the Golden Rule and by using variations such as these:

“You should treat others the way you want to be treated.”
“If you do that, your brother may try to do the same thing to you.”
“Help your sister because sometime you’ll need help too.”
“If you don’t want her to behave that way, why are you behaving that way?”


There is a self-interest and self-preservation element in the Golden Rule, as there is in most things that people do; but that’s not the only reason that the Rule is commonly followed. Altruism is also a human trait. Altruism means that people care about others’ well-being even when there’s no possibility of a return favor. They simply feel good when helping others. Think of relatives who take in a child if its parents have been killed. Think of people around the world who have aided the Asian tsunami victims and those who have suffered from hurricanes and other natural disasters.

The altruistic frame of mind that is fostered is significant–it shifts thinking from oneself to the welfare of others. Instead of thinking “what’s in it for me,” Golden Rule-minded people consider other peoples’ needs and desires–how other people will benefit (or at least not be hurt) by what one does. Such acts can be their own reward; they make people feel good about themselves–finding joy in doing things that make the lives of others a bit more pleasant.

Moreover, Golden Rule thinking expands as our group identifications expand. Compared to previous ages, we have larger numbers of “others” with whom we now identify. At one time group loyalty–a sense of belonging–did not go much beyond the family, the clan, the band or one’s tribe. “Outsiders” were not to be trusted.

Today we use “we/our” terms for huge groups, most of whose members are not personally known to us. For example, the vast majority of Americans are patriotic and regard the millions of other Americans as a part of “we/us”. And for many Americans, their loyalties extend far beyond the country’s borders. There are no outward limits to “we/our” feelings!


The Golden Rule–treating others as you would want to be treated if you were in their situation–implies a general human equality, an ideal that has slowly grown to be verbally honored around the world. The United Nations’ 1948Universal Declaration of Human Rights provides an example. Its provisions emphasize the “dignity and worth of the human person and in the equal rights of men and women…without any limitation due to race, nationality or religion.”

The Declaration further states that no one is to “be subject to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.” Governments are to be based upon “the will of the people…expressed in…elections” in which there is equal suffrage and secret votes. All children are to have “the right to education [that’s] directed to the full development of the human personality.”

We are far from realizing these goals, but there are reasons to be hopeful. That such a “Declaration” exists is an achievement, and actual progress is being made. Slavery still exists, but it is being challenged. Despite problems, the number of democratic governments in the world has increased. In many societies, women now have a larger measure of economic and political power than in past times. Young people are raised more humanely than in previous centuries; girls’ prospects for fully developed lives have greatly improved.

The morality of the Golden Rule and altruism–considering the well being of others as well as our own–is a part of human nature. It is found worldwide and in all enduring cultures. One’s aspiration to live the Golden Rule needs nourishment, but it’s not dependent upon one being a member of this or that particular group, religion, or cultural tradition.

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