The Golden Rule is one of the oldest and wisest moral maxims. Five hundred years before the birth of Christ, Confucius was asked, “Is there one word that may serve as a rule of practice for all one’s life?” He answered, “Reciprocity. What you do not want done to yourself, do not do to others.” This basic principle, now called the Golden Rule, can be found in every major religion and philosophy.
Goethe’s variation in the poster above, “Treat people as if they were what they ought to be and you help them become what they are capable of becoming” focuses on the impact we have on others simply in how we treat them and what we expect of them.
Although many people evoke one version or another of this rule, it’s often misused. You see, the Golden Rule is not primarily a rule of enlightened self-interest. Sure, people are more likely to be nice to you if you’re nice to them, but the moral center of this principle is lost if you simply view it as a rule of exchange: “Do unto others so they will do unto you” or a rule justifying revenge: “Do unto others as they have done unto you.” or a rule of self-defense: “Do unto others before they do unto you.”
The core of the Golden Rule is a moral obligation to treat others ethically for their sake, not ours, even if it’s better than the way they treat us. Therefore, we should be honest to liars, fair to the unjust, kind to cruel people.
Why? Certainly not because it’s advantageous, but because it’s right. And because the way we treat others is about who we are, not who they are. It’s like the man who broke off an argument that had descended into name-calling by saying, “Sir, I will treat you as a gentleman – not because you are one, but because I am one.”
Here are classical versions of the Golden Rule in the major religions:
Christianity: “Therefore all things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them: for this is the law and the prophets.” Matthew 7:12; “And as ye would that men should do to you, do ye also to them likewise.” Luke 6:31
Judaism: “Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.” Leviticus 19:18; “What is hateful to you, do not to your fellow man.” Talmud, Shabbat 31a
Islam: “None of you [truly] believes until he wishes for his brother what he wishes for himself.” Number 13 of Imam “Al-Nawawi’s Forty Hadiths.”
Buddhism: “Hurt not others in ways that you yourself would find hurtful.” Udana-Varga 5:18
Confucianism: “Do not do to others what you do not want them to do to you.” Analects 15:23; ‘Is there one word that can serve as a principle of conduct for life?’ Confucius replied, ‘It is the word ‘reciprocity. Do not impose on others what you yourself do not desire.'” Doctrine of the Mean 13.3
Hinduism: This is the sum of duty: do not do to others what would cause pain if done to you. Mahabharata 5:1517