A history of Golden Rule ethics

The term “Golden Rule” and the various wordings of the Golden Rule familiar to most Americans are a relatively recent historical phenomenon, emerging in the 1800s. But the basic idea of the Rule is ancient–variations of the Golden Rule are found across history and in societies around the world.


The oldest written record of a recognizable Golden Rule comes from Egypt around 4,000 years ago (2000 BCE). One translation reads:
“Do for one who may do for you, that you may cause him thus to do.” (R. B. Parkinson, The Tale of the Eloquent Peasant, Griffith Institute, Oxford, pp. 109-110)


Golden Rule-like statements are found in ancient Greek literature. In the 700s BCE, Homer wrote:
“I will be as careful for you as I should be for myself in the same need.” (The Odyssey, bk. 5, vv. 184-91)

Herodotus, writing in the 400s BCE, proclaimed:
“…what I condemn in another I will, if I may, avoid myself.” (The Histories, bk. III, ch. 142)

Plato came close to the Golden Rule in The Laws–when discussing property ownership, he wrote:
“…may I be of a sound mind, and do to others as I would that they should do to me.” (The Laws, Book 11, No. 913 in The Dialogues of Plato, 1952, Chicago, Encyclopedia Britannica’s Great Books Series, p. 771)

Philosophy professor, Jeffrey Wattles, has written an excellent book on the Golden Rule. In his book entitled The Golden Rule, Wattles maintains that Isocrates, a contemporary of Plato, was responsible for the “burst of golden rule thinking that entered…Greek culture” in the fourth century BCE. (Jeffrey Wattles, The Golden Rule, 1996, Oxford University Press, p. 27) Isocrates was a philosopher who was very interested in education and like Socrates before him, he established an academy in Athens. In his To Nicocles letter, he advised a person:
“Conduct yourself toward your parents as you would have your children conduct themselves toward you.”

In Aegineticus, Isocrates used these words in advising the jurors in a court case:
“give a just verdict, and prove yourselves to be for me such judges as you would want to have for yourselves.” (Wattles, p. 31)


Golden Rule expressions can be found in the religious and non-religious literature of East and South Asia.

Confucius is a European way of saying K’ung Fu-tze, or “Master K’ung.”

Confucius lived in the 500s BCE and his secular philosophy was put into writing by his disciples after he died. These writings include:
“Do not do to others what you would not want others to do to you.” (Analects 15:23)
“Do not impose on others what you yourself do not desire.” (Doctrine of the Mean 13:3)
“Try your best to treat others as you would wish to be treated yourself.” (Mencius VII A 4)

Taoism developed alongside Confucianism in China and includes this instruction: “Regard your neighbor’s gain as your own gain, and your neighbor’s loss as your own loss.” (T’ai Shang Kan Ying P’ien, 213-21)

Hinduism is the oldest religion in South Asia, going back more than 3,000 years. Jainism is also an ancient Indian religion. Buddhism developed out of Hinduism about 500 BCE. Sikhism came into existence in the sixteenth century CE as a result of both Hindu and Muslim influences. All these traditions have variations of the Golden Rule.

The following Hindu quotations are from the Mahabharata, written in classical Sanskrit about 300 CE:
“Do naught unto others (that) which would cause you pain if done to you.” (Mahabharata, Bk. 5, Ch. 49, v. 57)

“One should not behave towards others in a way which is disagreeable to oneself.” (Mahabharata, Anusasana Parka 133.8)

From Jainism:
“We should regard all creatures as we regard our own self.” (Lord Mahavira, 24th Tirthankara)
“A man should wander about treating all creatures as he himself would be treated.” (Sutrakritanga 1.11.33)

From Buddhism:
“Hurt not others in ways that you yourself would find hurtful” (Udana Varga 5:18)
“…a state that is not pleasing or delightful to me, how could I inflict that upon another?” (Samyutta Nikkei v.353)

From Sikhism:
“As you deem yourself, deem others as well; only then will you become a partner in heaven” (Guru Granth Sahib, p.480)


In West Asia, the Golden Rule can be traced to Zoroaster’s followers. Zoroaster was a philosopher who lived in Persia (present-day Iran) in the 600s BCE. The religion that developed from his teachings is called Zoroastrianism and this faith tradition continues to this day. Two renditions of the Golden Rule from Zoroastrianism are:
“… that nature alone is good which refrains from doing unto another whatsoever is not good for itself.”(Dadistan-i-dinik 94:5)
“Whatever is disagreeable to yourself, do not do unto others.” (Shayast-na-Shayast 13:29)


The Hebrew Scriptures includes similar moral guidelines:
“You shall not take vengeance, or bear any grudge against the sons of your own people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” (Leviticus 19:18, RSV)

Tobit (or Tobias)–written about 200 BCE–was not included in the canon of Hebrew Scriptures, but it is included in the Roman Catholic and Orthodox Christian versions of the Old Testament. The author of Tobit 4:16 says:
“Do to no one what you would not want done to you.” (The Jerusalem Bible, p. 528)

In the first Century CE (the time of Jesus) Rabbi Hillel said:
“That which is despicable to you, do not do to your fellow man.” (Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 31a)


In the Christian New Testament, Jesus is quoted as saying:
“So whatever you wish that men would do to you, do so to them.” (Matthew 7:12, RSV)
“And as you wish that men would do to you, do so to them.” (Luke 6:31, RSV)
The unknown authors of Matthew and Luke both wrote their gospels about 80 CE.


Later, one finds Golden Rule statements in Islam and the Baha’i religion. From the sacred writings of Islam which came into existence in the 600s CE:
“None of you believes until he wishes for his brother what he wishes for himself.” (No. 13 of Imam al-Nawawi’s Forty Hadiths)
“That which you want for yourself, seek for mankind.” (Sukhanan-i-Muhammad, 63)

Baha’u’llah, founder of the Baha’i faith in the 1800s CE, said:
“Lay not on any soul a load that you would not wish to be laid upon you, and desire not for anyone the things you would not desire for yourself.” (Baha’u’llah, Gleanings)


One can find a number of sayings related to the Golden Rule in the Native American tradition. Here is one from the Northern Plains:
“Great Spirit, grant that I may not criticize my neighbor until I have walked a mile in his moccasins.”(Sioux/Lakota/Plains Indians; Wattles, pp. 9, 194)


One African variation of the Golden Rule is this Ba-Congo saying:
“O man, what you do not like, do not do to your fellows.” (Wattles, p. 9)

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