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.

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