The Golden Rule–A Basis for Morality and Ethics

Compiled by Brant Abrahamson and Fred Smith

Table of Contents

1.    Introduction
2.    The Golden Rule as a standard for moral/ethical conduct
3.    A history of Golden Rule ethics
4.    When the Rule became the “Golden” Rule
5.    Using the Golden Rule in difficult situations
6.    Questions and projects
7.    Multiple-choice questions
8.    Addenda–more discussion questions
9.    Permission to reproduce this electronic document
10.  Print versions of this document
11.  About the authors


It is likely that the most basic everyday guideline for human behavior is to treat people as you would want to be treated if you were in the other’s position. In the United States, this guideline has been known as the “Golden Rule” since the 1800s.

Many human troubles, conflicts and tragedies involve situations in which people could have acted according to the Golden Rule but, to their sorrow, they did not. Cultural examples of this in American history include the treatment of African-Americans, Native Americans, other minority groups, laborers and women. Most people can think of personal situations that would have been less stressful if the Golden Rule had been used.

The material in this document conveys the universality of the Golden Rule. The presentation here was developed primarily for high school juniors and seniors (ages 16 to 18) to demonstrate that the Golden Rule is more than a behavioral guide for small children. However, many young people will be able to use it effectively prior to their last years of high school depending on their reading ability. Any young person who understands the words being used in this document can profit from this lesson plan.

Moreover, this curriculum has relevance beyond the realm of public, religious and private schools. Sunday school teachers, home schooling parents, scout leaders, and other youth educators will find it useful (in whole or in part). The content of this lesson plan can also be utilized as a basis for constructing age-appropriate lessons.

The authors of this document hope that the instructors themselves will be inspired as they teach young people the joys of making the Golden Rule a lifelong moral standard.

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.

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)

When the Rule became the “Golden” Rule

“The Golden Rule” title itself seems to have come into general use in the early to middle 1800s in both England and the United States.

Since ancient times, the word “golden” has been used to signify what is highly valued. To investigate this idea further, see the article: Discovering the “gold” in the Golden Rule at

Aristotle used the idea of the “golden mean” to indicate that moral virtue is found between two extremes. As examples, he said courage was a virtue that lay between cowardice and rashness; appropriate pride in one’s accomplishment was the virtue between undue humility and vanity. (Nicomachean Ethics, Book Two)

However, apart from Aristotle’s “golden mean,” there seems to be no record of “golden” being used to refer to desired ways of behaving until the late 1600s. Then, in England in 1674, Robert Godfrey, an English physicist, wrote that, “Whilst forgetting that Golden Law, do as you would be done by, they make self the center of their actions.” (From Various injuries and abuses in chymical and galenical physick…detected as found in the Oxford English Dictionary, Oxford, England: Clartendon Press, Second Edition, 1989, Vol. 6, p. 656 and VOA. 20, p. 50)

A couple of generations later, Isaac Watts spoke of “that golden principle of morality which the blessed Lord has given us.” (The Improvement of the mind [written in 1771], Chapter 14, Sec. 8 as found in Oxford English Dictionary, vol. 6, p. 856)


In the early 1800s, the morality of “treating others as you would want to be treated if you were in their situation” was clearly reflected in the values of those working for the abolition of slavery and for the civil rights of African-Americans in the United States. The great American abolitionist and civil rights leader Frederick Douglass gave a speech in 1842 saying, “…Remember George Latimer in bonds as bound with him; keep in view the golden rule- ‘All things whatsoever ye would that men should do unto you, do ye even so unto them.'” (Mieder, Wolfgang, “No Struggle, No Progress”: Frederick Douglass and His Proverbial Rhetoric for Civil Rights, 2001, Peter Lang Publishers, p. 185)

Another early example of the title being used is “A Lesson From the Golden Rule” that appeared in the October 1853 issue of Godey’s Lady’s Book magazine. Godey’s Lady’s Book was rather typical of a number of women’s publications of the time. Personal ethics and teaching children to be moral were two of the concerns of the magazine.

In 1859, Charles Dickens used the term in a story called “The Battle of Life,” that follows “A Christmas Carol” in hisChristmas Books: Tales and Sketches. (Nelson Doubleday, p. 228) Dickens uses the term in a satirical way. After a cleaning woman tells an upper class man that she tries to “Do as you-would-be-done-by,” he almost ridicules her by saying that she will find the opposite idea “to be the golden rule of half her clients.”

A straightforward, non-fictional reference to the Golden Rule in England comes from John Stuart Mill’s book,Utilitarianism, published in 1863. Mill says, “In the golden rule of Jesus of Nazareth, we read the complete spirit of the ethics of utility. To do as you would be done by, and to love your neighbor as yourself.” (The English Philosophers, 1939, Random House, p. 908) Utilitarianism was a widely discussed philosophy of the 1800s.

From this period onward, “golden rule” (uncapitalized) appears with increasing frequency. Charles Darwin used it inThe Descent of Man published in 1871 (Chapter IV).


By the end of the 1870s, the Golden Rule had become a children’s textbook lesson in the United States. The 1879Revised Edition of McGuffey’s Fourth Eclectic Reader had a story titled “The Golden Rule” (Lesson 51) that had been written years earlier by Emma Embury. These school texts were used by millions of children through to the end of the century and beyond. Harlow Unger, writing in the Encyclopedia of American Education, claims that these school texts helped establish America’s central ethical ideals. And these texts are still in print. Some home-schooled students and others in private schools continue to study from them (1996, Facts On File, Inc., Vol. 11, p. 588).

As the McGuffey Reader’s Golden Rule lesson was being distributed, notable American authors were also referring to the Golden Rule. William Dean Howells’ 1885 novel, The Rise of Silas Lapham, is an example. Howells was a leading American writer and editor in the late 1800s and early 1900s. In his story, a man named Rogers tries to influence Silas, a business associate, in this manner:

“Well, then, I want you to give me this chance to get on my feet again. You’ve no right to deprive me of it; it’s unchristian. In our dealings with each other we should be guided by the Golden Rule, as I was saying to Mrs. Lapham before you came in. I told her that if I knew myself, I should in your place consider the circumstances of a man in mine…” (Harpers’ Modern Classics Series, 1958. New York: Harper and Brothers, p. 342)

A final note: During this general time period–the early and middle 1800s–the exact wording, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you”, also became popular, apparently evolving out of folk tradition. Although many people assume that this way of stating the Golden Rule is ancient, even biblical, the phrase is not found in any classical reference or standard translation of the Bible.


As noted above, the “Golden Rule” title seems to have come into use during the two decades before the Civil War. One early reference we found was from a ladies’ magazine, Godey’s Lady’s Book, October 1853, pp. 323-326.Godey’s was a widely circulated monthly magazine of the time, which, like others of that period, focused on literature, fashion, songs, recipes and household hints. Its “Lesson From the Golden Rule” was written by Louis Godey and Sarah Hale (using Alice B. Neal as a pen name).

Godey had purchased Hale’s ladies’ magazine in 1837 and persuaded her to become editor of his magazine. The title of Godey and Hale’s story seems to indicate that there had been previous Golden Rule stories. One of these apparently was “The Golden Rule,” a story written by Emma Embury. Students may be interested to know that Sarah Hale wrote the ever-popular children’s poem, “Mary Had a Little Lamb,” and she also convinced Abraham Lincoln to make Thanksgiving a national holiday.

Before the Civil War, the Golden Rule was clearly relevant to the issue of slavery and the treatment of African-Americans in the United States. For example, in 1791, Jonathan Edwards preached a sermon on slavery and Matthew 7:12 from the New Testament (in which Jesus expresses a variation of the Golden Rule). However, Edwards did not refer to that verse as the “Golden Rule.” Rather, he spoke of “the general rule given us in the [Bible] text” and this “divine maxim.” (African American Odyssey online). The authors of this lesson found Frederick Douglass’s use of the term “Golden Rule” because his 1842 speech was published. Most abolitionist speeches were not recorded.

After the Civil War, the Golden Rule phrase had become so well known that the short story entitled “The Golden Rule” was added to the 1879 edition of McGuffey’s Fourth Eclectic Reader, as pointed out above. At that time William McGuffey had nothing to do with its insertion since he was no longer living but the publisher owned the right to use his name. The story itself had been written years previously by Emma Embury, a well-known writer and on the editorial staff of major women’s periodicals of her time, including Godey’s, Graham’s and The Ladies’ Companion.

Embury’s Golden Rule story dates from before 1850 since by that time “a serious illness [had] ended her writing career.” (American Women Writers: A Critical Guide from Colonial Times to the Present, 1979, Lina Mainiero, Ed., Frederick Ungard Publishing Co., NY, Vol. 1, pp. 594-96) The publication in which her story originally appeared is not known to us.

Using the Golden Rule in difficult situations

The Golden Rule–to treat people as you would want to be treated if you were in the other’s position–is easiest to use:

  • If people are equal in significant ways.
  • If there is general agreement on what “good treatment” should be.
  • If there is reason to believe the person wants to be treated as one would if one were in his/her place.
  • If one personally wants to be treated in relatively normal, humane ways.
  • If there is a reasonable hope that one will be treated well in return.
  • If one is not in a “kill or be killed” situation, as a police officer or soldier might be.
  • If one is not dealing with a psychopath.

However, ideal situations are often lacking. How then does one apply the Golden Rule? One answer is this: Use the Golden Rule together with critical thinking, analogy and interpretation. These are some of the methods that U.S. Supreme Court Justices use when determining constitutionality in situations not anticipated when the provisions were written.


First, the critical thinking category: Think of a very grouchy, sullen, angry, vindictive or otherwise “difficult” person. It’s hard to follow the Golden Rule when one can be quite sure that the other person will respond negatively regardless of how nicely or well he is treated.

Here, some critical thinking may help. One can think about reasons why the person is so anti-Golden Rule in his dealings. For example, the person may have been treated very badly when growing up, and he is treating people as he has been treated in the past. If so, he may gradually display a more positive attitude if he is treated nicely regardless of his own actions. Or he may not display a more positive attitude. In this latter case, one still treats him well so as not to be dragged down to his level. One continues to act in ways that will be personally uplifting regardless of his response.

Or, consider a street beggar. When walking by such a person, how is one to apply the Golden Rule effectively? Here are some questions and issues to think about when you meet someone begging on the street:

  • If you look the other way or give money to no one, is that a way of following the Golden Rule? Explain.
  • If you give some change to everyone who asks, is there not a good chance that the money will be used to perpetuate a drug problem or keep the person from being motivated to seek a more permanent solution to his or her problems? Explain.
  • Should one give money to some individuals but not to others? Does the Golden Rule help us to make the give-or-not-give decision? If so, how?
  • Are there other ways of responding to such a situation that would be in keeping with Golden Rule standards and allow one to break out of this either/or frame of mind? Explain.
  • Are there other moral standards that should be combined with the Golden Rule in this decision-making experience? Explain.

Using the Golden Rule effectively (in a critical thinking way) may mean saying “No” in a rather direct way in order to maintain moral standards or to insure that people do not receive false impressions of interest. In class, students can be encouraged to discuss how they would interpret the Golden Rule when friends suggest dangerous or immoral activities. How would they suggest responding to telemarketers when one is uninterested in buying the suggested product or donating to the particular charity? Is quickly hanging up the phone a Golden Rule procedure in such a situation? If so, explain. If not, what response would be more in keeping with the Golden Rule?


Encourage students to share difficult situations that they themselves have faced and have them reflect on how using the Golden Rule might have been helpful at least in the long run.

Or, have them consider soldiers in combat. Very often, soldiers practice the Golden Rule with respect to their comrades. But what about the enemy they are fighting? “The enemy” are also human beings. Very few people are so devoted to using the Golden Rule that they will allow themselves to be killed rather than fight or defend themselves. If soldiers practiced the Golden Rule with respect to the enemy, would they not endanger their own comrades? Would they not dishonor their country and risk being court-martialed? To abide by the Golden Rule with regard to one group in this extreme situation seems to mean it cannot be used in regard to another. How would a soldier who believes in the Golden Rule best deal with this situation?

A word of caution: Like all seemingly friendly acts, apparent Golden Rule behavior can be used as an exploitative device. The “very helpful person” may be manipulative, trying to make people feel indebted or guilty if they don’t buy his product, support his cause or vote for his candidate. Young children in particular are warned about “helpful” strangers. Nonetheless, the Golden Rule is the most inclusive and altruistic moral guideline that people have in terms of governing their own daily behavior. The Rule is time-tested and when interpreted sensibly, it has relevance for the many kinds of situations that people face.

Questions and projects

This section contains a number of suggested activities for students as well as some multiple-choice questions. The latter is best used as a review activity, one in which students are asked to justify their selections.

Lessons designed to heighten moral sensibilities imply changes in behavior:

  • Does the classroom atmosphere improve?
  • Are “good deeds” performed?
  • Are students more willing to tutor classmates? …to help with class chores?

If evaluations are needed, we suggest having students write essays. Essays are–or should be–the students’ considered reflection. The following question may be helpful in stimulating student reflection: “Without naming the names of people, describe a ‘bad situation’ that, in your judgment, could have been avoided if the people involved had followed the Golden Rule?”

Advanced students can profitably study Chapter 8, “The Golden Rule” (pp. 104-121) of Harry Gensler’s college text, Ethics: A Contemporary Introduction (1998, Routledge). Probing questions are included, and additional resources are listed. Gensler’s book is sometimes available in local municipal libraries, and there is also good information on his web site:

Questions and activities:

  1. In his Golden Rule statement, who did Confucius likely mean by “others” (see chapter #3 of this curriculum)? Who would “others” have meant to an ancient Hindu? To an Israelite?
  2. Felix Adler (1851-1933) was the founder of the non-religious Society for Ethical Culture. He proposed this guideline: “Act so as to elicit the best in others and thereby the best in yourself.” (An Ethical Philosophy of Life, 1918, pp. 208-222) In your judgment, is this guideline a useful addition to the Golden Rule? Does it illuminate the message of the Golden Rule? What reasoning supports your answer?
  3. What happens in a society if people generally fail to follow The Golden Rule? If the members of a society fail to follow the Golden Rule and social disorder results, can order then be imposed through more and stricter laws? Through harsher punishments? Explain?
  4. How do you explain the following kinds of anti-Golden Rule statements? “Do others or they will do you.” Or, “Do to others as they would do to you if they had the chance.”
  5. Are these examples of the Golden Rule?
    1. A mentally ill man who hurts others so others will hurt him.
    2. Doing to others the bad things that they have already done to you.
    3. Doing to others what you think they would do to you if given the chance.
    4. Using “An eye for an eye; a tooth for a tooth” as a guide when mistreated.
    5. Giving someone a gift hoping that he will give you a more costly one.
  6. In your judgment, should Rogers have used the Golden Rule as he did in The Rise of Silas Lapham (see chapter #4 of this curriculum)? Or, do you consider his use of it to be too self-serving?
  7. Secure Christmas Books, Tales and Sketches (see chapter #4 of this curriculum) by Charles Dickens. Describe in detail the situation in which Dickens uses the Golden Rule term in The Battle of Life story. What is his moral message?
  8. What would you say to a child who hits his brother and justifies his act by saying, “He did it to me first! I just got even.”
  9. Would you advise a timid boy or girl to use the Golden Rule if picked on by a classroom bully? Why, or why not?
  10. Look again at Golden Rule sayings in this lesson (see chapters #3 and 4). Which one would you select for display in a classroom? Would you choose a positive approach: “do unto others…”? Or a negative approach: “don’t do to others…” Or, would it be necessary to include both types? (Note: the terms “positive” and “negative” are not used here as moral terms [that is, “good” and “bad”]. Rather, they are two different grammatical approaches to communicating a somewhat similar message.)
  11. Why would the Golden Rule make a more appropriate public school display than the Ten Commandments? Explain.
  12. Use the Internet to:
    1. find additional ancient and modern variations of the Golden Rule (there are many).
    2. find additional references to the specific “Golden Rule” title that were used in the United States before the Civil War.
    3. provide class members with a short biography of one person–mentioned in this lesson–who championed the use of the Golden Rule.
    4. provide class members with a short biography of one historical or modern person–not mentioned in this lesson–whose life embodied the Golden Rule.
  13. What evidence, if any, can be found to demonstrate that worldwide progress has been made in using the Golden Rule as a moral guide? Explain.
  14. Is “following the Golden Rule” all that’s needed to live a moral life?
    1. Yes, because ___________________________, or
    2. No, because ____________________________.
  15. What new perspectives, if any, has this lesson provided for you? Has it caused you to think about your own ways of responding to people and situations. If so, how? If not, why not? Do you already follow the Rule?

Multiple-choice questions

This section can be used as a review activity in which students are asked to justify their selections.

  1. “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” is a wording of the Golden Rule that originally came from:
    1. The Ancient Greeks
    2. American folk wisdom
    3. The Bible
    4. Confucius
  2. Forms of the Golden Rule are found in:
    1. African cultures
    2. Asian cultures
    3. European cultures
    4. All of the above
  3. It is unlikely that a form of the Golden Rule would be found in:
    1. Hinduism
    2. Buddhism
    3. A fascist philosophy
    4. Christianity
  4. Forms of the Golden Rule are found in:
    1. Jainism
    2. Islam
    3. Judaism
    4. All of the above
  5. Forms of the Golden Rule are found in:
    1. Ancient Egyptian writings
    2. American literature of the 1800s
    3. American folklore
    4. All of the above
  6. The Golden Rule’s ethical guideline is closest to the idea of:
    1. Egotism
    2. One-upmanship
    3. Reciprocity
    4. Revenge
  7. Of the four traditions listed below, whose version of the Golden rule most clearly extends beyond humans to include other creatures that can feel pain?
    1. Taoism
    2. Confucianism
    3. Jainism
    4. Christianity
  8. Of those listed, which one was first to clearly state an altruistic form of the Golden Rule along the lines of “do unto others”?
    1. Jesus in the New Testament
    2. Homer in The Odyssey (Greek epic)
    3. Sukhanan-i-Muhammad (Islamic scholar)
    4. Baha’u’llah (founder of the Baha’i faith)
  9. The earliest known written version of the Golden rule (from Egypt) is similar to that found in The Rise of Silas Lapham (see chapter#4) in that both:
    1. Seem focused on receiving help
    2. Are based upon family ties
    3. Are associated with religious beliefs
    4. All of the above are correct
  10. Using the Golden Rule as an ethical guideline has some limitations because it:
    1. Doesn’t provide specific standards
    2. Is found in only a few societies
    3. Is a new, almost untried idea
    4. Is very old and, therefore, out of date
  11. Golden Rule thinking is least likely to work if the people involved:
    1. Have never heard of the saying
    2. See the world through other people’s eyes
    3. Consider themselves to be enemies of others
    4. Belong to different age groups–such as parents and their children
  12. Your Golden Rule actions can most easily be misunderstood by:
    1. “In-group” people
    2. People who think you want something in return
    3. One’s friends and family
    4. New people moving into one’s community
  13. Which of the following statements is most clearly shaped by the Golden Rule? A parent who says to a child:
    1. “How would you feel if a person did that to you?”
    2. “Stop that. It could become a bad habit.”
    3. “Shame on you!”
    4. “You’ll be punished if you do that again.”
  14. In the modern era, how far can the concepts of “my in-group” or “we/our” extend? To:
    1. Friends and family who are personally known.
    2. Friends, family and members of one’s religious group.
    3. All of the above plus the citizens of the country in which a person lives.
    4. None of the above are correct. One can feel identified with people anywhere in the world.
  15. The Declaration of Human Rights adopted by the United Nations in 1948:
    1. Reduces the effectiveness of the Golden Rule by taking power from nations whose people are trying to live by it.
    2. Goes beyond the Golden Rule and thus makes it obsolete.
    3. Broadens the focus of the Golden rule by emphasizing human rights, gender equality, racial equality, etc.
    4. Is unrelated to the Golden Rule since it does not concern actual people.


Answers: 1-b, 2-d, 3-c, 4-d, 5-d, 6-c, 7-c, 8-b, 9-a, 10-a, 11-c, 12-b, 13-a, 14-d, 15-c.

Addenda–more discussion questions

  1. To what extent are mottos such as “Do a good deed every day,” or “Engage in random acts of kindness” similar to the Golden Rule? How are they different?
  2. Think about soldiers who lose their lives trying to save their fellow soldiers in combat–or any person who dies trying to rescue others. Are these examples of the Golden Rule? Explain.
  3. Is Golden Rule behavior restricted to humans? Or, is it a part of our “animal nature” that we share with our evolutionary cousins? Frans de Waal is a primatologist who has spent his professional life studying chimpanzees, bonobos (pigmy chimps) and other primate species. In Our Inner Ape (2005, New York: Penguin Group), de Waal says:Our golden rule –”Do unto others as you would have them do unto you”–asks us to put on someone else’s shoes. We think of this as a uniquely human ability…but we are not alone. How many animals can do so? I have already described how Kuni, a bonobo, treated an injured bird she found in her enclosure. By trying to make the bird fly, Kuni recognized the needs of an animal totally unlike herself. There is no shortage of further examples of bonobos figuring out the needs of others.One involves Kidogo, who suffered from a heart condition. He was feeble, lacking the normal stamina and self-confidence of a grown male bonobo. When first introduced to the colony at the Milwaukee County Zoo, Kidogo was completely confused by the keepers’ shifting commands inside the unfamiliar building…After a while, other bonobos stepped in. They approached Kidogo, took him by the hand, and led him to where the keepers wanted him, thus showing they understood both the keepers’ intentions and Kidogo’s problem. Soon Kidogo began to rely on their help. (p. 170)
  4. Do you agree with de Waal’s judgment that these non-humans are able to think and act in simple Golden Rule ways? If you do not agree, how do you see this kind of animal behavior as being different from what we call “following the Golden Rule” in human society? If you agree with de Waal, can you provide other examples from your personal experience or from news items that you have seen or read?

Note: As a starter, the instructor may want to survey the class to see how many students know about the widely publicized–and televised–case of an ape acting in what de Waal thinks is a Golden Rule manner. In 1996, a female gorilla at the Brookfield Zoo in Illinois picked up a three-year-old child who had fallen more than 15 feet into a gorilla exhibit. The gorilla picked up the boy, briefly cradled him in her lap, gave him a few gentle pats and then took him to the exhibit door where the zoo staff retrieved him. (de Waal, p. 3)

Permission to reproduce this electronic document

The authors, Brant Abrahamson and Fred Smith, encourage the reproduction of this Golden Rule lesson. Educators, instructors, teachers and youth leaders are free to forward, download and reprint it provided the following credit is given:

        Brant Abrahamson and Fred Smith
        The Teachers’ Press (Brookfield, Illinois)

Copyright © Brant Abrahamson 2005

The authors can be contacted at

Print versions of this document

Print versions of this Golden Rule lesson plan are available. The print version is entitled “The Golden Rule Basis for Ethics and Morality” and contains a lesson that was published in the 1879 edition of McGuffey’s Fourth Eclectic Reader as well as a section on how the Golden Rule relates to the Ten Commandments.

It is available to educators in the United States and Canada for $1.00 (US funds) per copy. Please add $1.00 per order for postage and handling. Include a check or institutional purchase order.

This unit may be reproduced for classes in one building of a school district when a copy is received. For classes in additional buildings, please purchase one additional copy for each building. As a courtesy, please send an e-mail, letter or fax stating how many copies will be duplicated. Send to:

        Brant Abrahamson,
        The Teachers’ Press,
        3731 Madison Ave.,
        Brookfield, Illinois, U.S.A. 60513
        FAX (708) 387-7057


About the authors

Brant Abrahamson and Fred Smith are career history and social studies teachers who reside in the Chicago area. As they taught, they became increasingly disturbed by the deficiencies of standard textbooks, and they began developing alternative materials for their students. Some of their lessons and units have been published by GSP, Tucson, AZ, and The Teachers’ Press, Brookfield, Illinois, U.S.A., 60513. Abrahamson writes a column for the quarterly newsletter.

Abrahamson’s degrees are from Augustana College (BA) and the University of Iowa (MA). Abrahamson was selected as an Illinois Master Teacher.

Smith graduated from the University of Chicago (BA) and Northern Illinois University (MA).

Current publications by these authors include:

History of the Hebrew Bible: Current Academic Understanding

Teaching About Religion in History Classes: Sacred and Secular History

The Decalogue: Bible Scholarship for Use Today

Calendars and Thinking Logically

Thinking Logically: A Study of Common Fallacies

Thinking About the “Mysterious”

Thinking About Religion From a Global Perspective

Prejudice in Group Relations

Ways to Influence People

Family Group Living


All the above books are published by:
USA 60513
TEL (708) 485-5983
FAX (708) 387-7057


Scarboro Missions is grateful for the skilful efforts of Brant Abrahamson and Fred Smith and their willingness to post this useful lesson plan on the Scarboro Missions website.