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The Golden Rule Revisited

Paul Walker and Ally Walker wonder if the Golden Rule could be a stand-alone ethic.

Each of us, when faced with a moral decision, is aware at some level that there is a better choice and a worse choice that we could make. Can the Golden Rule be a stand-alone ethical code to guide our behaviour, and by so doing, enhance our flourishing as human beings?

The Golden Rule as Jesus formulated it is: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” (Matthew 7:12, Luke 6:31). There is a similar idea in most moral traditions. For example, in Confucianism: “what you do not wish for yourself, do not do to others” (Analects/Lunyu 12.2 and 6.30); in Buddhism: “hurt not others in ways that you yourself would find hurtful” (Udana-Varga 5,1); in Hinduism: “this is the sum of duty; do naught onto others what you would not have them do unto you” (Mahabharata 5,1517); in Islam: “no one of you is a believer until he desires for his brother that which he desires for himself” (40 Hadith of an-Nawawi 13); in Judaism: “what is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow man. This is the entire Law; all the rest is commentary” (Talmud, Shabbat 3id), amongst others.

Many people are likely to agree with the sentiment in this rule, and feel a certain resonance with the implied mutual respect of each others’ personhood and rights as human beings. As a stand-alone code it need not be the correct solution for all ethical dilemmas; but as George Hunsinger has said of a common morality, “it need not do everything in order to do something worthwhile” (‘Torture, Common Morality, and the Golden Rule’, Theology Today, 63, 2006, p.376). One may have a relatively unsophisticated understanding of autonomy, benevolence, non-maleficence, justice, and other ethical principles, but still intuitively apply them to oneself, forming the basis for an ethical code which one then applies impartially to others. It follows that it is not always necessary to philosophise very deeply upon what ethical principles actually mean in order to behave ethically. This frees us to just go out and act on our ethical code rather than deliberate too much about the details. We are speaking of an ethical code that requires empathically walking in the shoes of another. Arguably, the Golden Rule is a candidate for such a code, being an irreducible ethical truth, or ‘ethical epistemic primitive’ – by which we mean an ethical idea that is so fundamental it cannot be subject to further testing or doubt.

Golden Rule
“Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”
Image © Bofy 2018 worldofbofy.com

Universalizability: Kant & The Golden Rule

Can the Golden Rule be applied to everyone? Immanuel Kant’s categorical imperative says that we should act only upon maxims which we could rationally generalise so that they apply equally to everyone; or in other words, only do what we could rationally want any other person to do in the same circumstances. Kant argued that the Golden Rule is inferior to this imperative: that since the Golden Rule does not contain principles of duties to one’s own moral will, nor principles of “strict obligation to one another”, it could not be a universal law.(Groundwork For The Metaphysic Of Morals, 1785, p.51). As an illustration, he suggests that many might willingly forego help from others if that means they will not need to help others themselves. That is compatible with the Golden Rule; but the rule ‘there is no need to help others’ could not rationally be generalised as a universal law.

By contrast, Harvard ethics professor Michael Sandel offers an example where the Golden Rule may give an ethically more appealing argument than Kant’s categorical imperative (Justice, 2009, p.127). Consider a situation where your brother has died in an accident and your elderly mother asks for news of him. The dilemma is whether to tell her the truth (with the shock of it), or to spare her from it. For Kant the categorical imperative means that your mother’s human dignity requires that she be told the truth, since you can’t rationally wish that dignity be ignored. (And apart from not being free to lie to her, arguably, you are using her merely as a means to an end – a basic moral wrong for Kant – the end being her own contentment.) The Golden Rule instead exhorts us to ask how we ourselves would want to be treated. The answer is highly contingent – some would want to be told the truth, while others would not.

However, while the Golden Rule most obviously implies a choice to do good things, it could be interpreted as condoning doing hurtful or harmful things too. A person who likes to be aloof could be justified in being unfriendly to others; one who likes to be provoked into an argument could go about provoking others into arguments. The Golden Rule also potentially loses objectivity and impartiality: arguably under the Golden Rule, an individual would have “only to consult his own tastes and needs to discover how he ought to behave toward other people” (L. J. Russell, ‘Ideals and Practice’, Philosophy, XVII, 1942), rather than making ethical decisions by appealling to, for instance, John Rawls’ ‘impartial spectator’, or R. M. Hare’s ‘all-knowing archangel’.


Kant also suggests that a criminal might use the Golden Rule to argue that the judge should not send him to prison, because the judge herself would not wish to be incarcerated. The judge however could answer that, indeed, she would not want herself to be incarcerated – unless she had committed a crime. Similarily, Derek Parfit describes a situation where a white racist hotel owner bans non-whites from his hotel, justifying himself by saying that he would accept the reciprocity of non-white hotel owners similarly excluding whites from their own hotels (On What Matters, 2011, p.323). However, the white hotel owner misunderstands the Golden Rule. It means that he ought to treat black people only as he himself would be willing to be treated in their position. And to be in their position, either he himself is to be black and excluded by most hotel owners, or most hotels are to be owned by blacks who exclude whites. Hence, Parfit restates the Golden Rule as “We ought to treat others only in ways in which we would rationally be willing to be treated, if we were going to be in these other people’s positions, and would be relevantly like them” (p.324). His ‘and be relevantly like them’ means that a strict application of the Golden Rule may be morally inappropriate when the circumstances of the other person are significantly different. Consider a doctor explaining the grave prognosis of a disease to a patient who has the strength and family support to prepare for his own death, as the doctor himself might be, compared with doing the same to another patient who has neither the personal nor the family resources to hear the full truth.

The Golden Rule may however be useful when used to check that one is not making an unjustified exception of oneself. This should not however mean that one could not perform acts of heroic bravery that go beyond what is morally required, despite the fact that another may not be able to do the same thing.


golden rule walking
Walking the Golden Rule

The negative formulation of the Golden Rule is something along the lines of ‘Do not do to another that which you would not have them do to you’. The inversion of the Rule, however, is different. The inversion of the Golden Rule is ‘Do unto others as they would have you do unto them’ (M.G. Singer, ‘The Golden Rule’, Philosophy 38, p.294, 1963). As another Singer – Peter – notes, taken at face value, the inversion implies perfect altruism: it implies that you should acquiesce to the request of another to, for example, hand over your property, to become their slave, and similar untenable requirements – because that is what the other would like you to do for them. Following the inversion, and sacrificing one’s own happiness, one’s true wants, in order to promote the welfare of others, Kant writes, “would be a self-contradictory maxim if made a universal law” (Groundwork, p.117). However, the inversion of the Golden Rule may be a more apposite formula for medical dilemmas, where patient autonomy is important. Respecting a patient’s autonomy in decisions around, for example, end-of-life withdrawal of support, or heroic surgical intervention, revolves around what it is that they would wish for you to do unto them, and not what you might wish in the same situation.

Value Pluralism

While intuitively appealing, brief, easily understood, and hence attractive as a stand-alone ethical code, arguably the Golden Rule is less useful in our current era characterised by rapidly increasing access to information technology throughout the world, which has resulted in a much wider knowledge of different cultures, ethics, and ways of living. With widespread travel and immigration, there is now a pronounced diversity of peoples within our communities with accordingly diverse cultures, religions and values. This means that doing unto others as you would have them do unto you may sometimes not be at all appropriate, since the values which are important for you and for the other person may be widely different, and may indeed be mutually unknown or unknowable.

So although not without brevity and intuitive appeal as a common moral principle, the Golden Rule is insufficient as a stand-alone ethical framework in our era of pronounced value pluralism, where even with the best of intentions, the values which are important to one person may be unwanted by another.

© Dr Paul Walker & Ally Walker 2018

Paul Walker is a surgeon in Newcastle, NSW, and received his PhD from the University of Newcastle in 2016. Ally Walker is a final year social work student at the University of Sydney, NSW.

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