The Golden Rule
The golden rule is endorsed by all the great world religions; Jesus, Hillel, and Confucius used it to summarize their ethical teachings. And for many centuries the idea has been influential among people of very diverse cultures. These facts suggest that the golden rule may be an important moral truth.
Let's consider an example of how the rule is used. President Kennedy in 1963 appealed to the golden rule in an anti-segregation speech at the time of the first black enrollment at the University of Alabama. He asked whites to consider what it would be like to be treated as second-class citizens because of skin color. Whites were to imagine themselves being black -- and being told that they couldn't vote, or go to the best public schools, or eat at most public restaurants, or sit in the front of the bus. Would whites be content to be treated that way? He was sure that they wouldn't -- and yet this is how they treated others. He said the "heart of the question is ... whether we are going to treat our fellow Americans as we want to be treated."
The golden rule is best interpreted as saying: "Treat others only as you consent to being treated in the same situation." To apply it, you'd imagine yourself on the receiving end of the action in the exact place of the other person (which includes having the other person's likes and dislikes). If you act in a given way toward another, and yet are unwilling to be treated that way in the same circumstances, then you violate the rule.
To apply the golden rule adequately, we need knowledge and imagination. We need to know what effect our actions have on the lives of others. And we need to be able to imagine ourselves, vividly and accurately, in the other person's place on the receiving end of the action. With knowledge, imagination, and the golden rule, we can progress far in our moral thinking.
The golden rule is best seen as a consistency principle. It doesn't replace regular moral norms. It isn't an infallible guide on which actions are right or wrong; it doesn't give all the answers. It only prescribes consistency -- that we not have our actions (toward another) be out of harmony with our desires (toward a reversed situation action). It tests our moral coherence. If we violate the golden rule, then we're violating the spirit of fairness and concern that lie at the heart of morality.
The golden rule, with roots in a wide range of world cultures, is well suited to be a standard that different cultures can appeal to in resolving conflicts. As the world becomes more and more a single interacting global community, the need for such a common standard is becoming more urgent.
Treat others only as you consent to
being treated in the same situation.
• I do something to another.
• Im unwilling that this be done
to me in the same situation.
My 2008 talk at Bard College
Here is the same video in WMV and M4V format -- and here are the golden-rule slides. I gave this talk at a golden-rule conference hosted by Bard College's Institute of Advanced Theology; you can order all the talks on DVD from them.
My 2010 talk at Boston College
Here is the same video in MP4 format -- and here are the golden-rule slides. I gave this talk at Boston College. And click here for the audio of a talk I gave in 2011 at Scarboro Missions (Toronto).
My Golden Rule book
This video is about my book, Ethics and the Golden Rule (Harry Gensler, Routledge Press, 2013). The video simulates paging through the book quickly to get an overview.
Paul McKenna's 7-minute golden-rule video (Scarboro)
- Scarboro Missions (Paul McKenna, Tina Petrova, and others): GoldenRuleTV (see also the DVD)
- Karen Armstrong: Let's revive the Golden Rule (or shorter)
- Izzy Kalman: Treat bullies like friends #1 and #2 and #3 (or the Website)
- Donald Pfaff: Golden-rule brain mechanisms
- Animal golden rule: Elephants (start at 3:00) and turtles
- Humanity Healing: The Golden Rule
- Robert Gass: Golden rule across the world
- Above the Golden State: Golden rule? (keep watching until the end!)
- Arizona Interfaith Movement: Children talk about the golden rule
- WatchKnowLearn: For young children
- Review: Berenstain Bears and the Golden Rule
- Ron Paul: Golden rule gets boos
- Other: google videos
My Formal Ethics (Routledge, 1996) focuses on the golden rule ("Treat others as you want to be treated") and on other formal ethical principles (like "Be logically consistent in your beliefs," "Follow your conscience," and "Make similar evaluations about similar cases"). Formal Ethics shows how to formulate these principles in clear ways that don't lead to absurdities -- and how to use the principles to help with practical problems, like racism and moral education. This book is addressed to specialists in the area of moral philosophy.My Ethics and the Golden Rule (New York and London: Routledge, 2013) is a fairly comprehensive treatment of the golden rule. It covers a wide range of topics, such as how the golden rule connects with world religions and history, how it applies to practical areas like moral education and business, and how it can be understood and defended philosophically. I wrote this to be a "golden-rule book for everyone," from students to general readers to specialists. Click here for a video overview or here to preview the first 30 pages. Click here to order.
I got interested in the golden rule in 1968, after hearing a talk in Detroit by R.M. Hare. I did a masters thesis (1969 Wayne State University) and doctoral dissertation (1977 Michigan) on the golden rule. Since then, I've done many book chapters and articles on the golden rule (the short essay above is adapted from my golden-rule entry in the Blackwell Dictionary of Business Ethics). Three of my earlier books have much on the golden rule.
My Ethics: A Contemporary Introduction, second edition (Routledge, 2011) is an introductory textbook in moral philosophy. Chapters 7 to 9 talk about how to understand, defend, and apply the golden rule. This book is written in a simple way and should be understandable to the general reader. This book and Formal Ethics have cool Web exercises and EthiCola downloadable exercise software, much of which deals with the golden rule.
My Introduction to Logic, second edition (Routledge, 2010) has a chapter that formalizes a system of ethics, leading to a proof of the golden rule in symbolic logic. This gets pretty technical. Other books of mine have golden-rule parts, including my Historical Dictionary of Ethics, Anthology of Catholic Philosophy (the essay on pages 523-31), and Ethics: Contemporary Readings. To order any of my books, click here or here. Several of my books are available in e-book format: Kindle, Sony, Routledge (search for author Gensler). Yes, the golden rule does have an intellectual component; it's not as simple as it might seem.
Here are some books on the golden rule by others: (1) R.M. Hare's Freedom and Reason (Oxford 1963) greatly influenced my thinking; compared to Hare, I am more neutral on foundational issues, formulate the golden rule a little differently, and am more of a logician at heart. (2) Jeff Wattles's The Golden Rule (Oxford 1996) emphasizes historical and religious aspects and thus complements my logical-rational approach; I have benefited much from our discussions. (3) Oliver du Roy's La règle d'or: Le retour d'une maxime oubliée (Cerf 2009) and Histoire de la règle d'or (Cerf 2012); here is a short talk of his on the golden rule, in English and French. (4) Martin Bauschke's Die Goldene Regel: Staunen, Verstehen, Handeln (Erbverlag 2010). (5) Howard (Q.C.) Terry's Golden Rules and Silver Rules of Humanity (Infinity 2011).
- Here are slides of the golden rule in 13 world religions (downloadable zip format) that I made based on the words and images in Paul McKenna's poster. You could use these to display on a large screen (or even an iPad) as people come in for a golden-rule presentation or workshop. Paul put these same slides on the Web in a rotating format (you can even adjust the speed), if you prefer to use these.
- The first two videos in the video section have downloadable versions that you can save to your hard disk.
- You can download the EthiCola instructional program (for Windows, Macintosh, and Linux) that goes with two of my ethics books; much of this deals in some way with the golden rule. The same materials are also online in a Web format.
- Some of my older golden-rule articles are available online (at least from university locations) and can be downloaded. I suggest especially "Ethical consistency principles," Philosophical Quarterly 35 (1985): 156-70; "A Kantian argument against abortion," Philosophical Studies 48 (1985): 57-72 and 49 (1986): 83-98; and "Ethics is based on rationality," Journal of Value Inquiry 20 (1986): 251-64. More technical, and related to the difference between my view and R.M. Hare's, are "The prescriptivism incompleteness theorem," Mind 85 (1976): 589-96; "Acting commits one to ethical beliefs," Analysis 43 (1983): 40-43; and "How incomplete is prescriptivism?" Mind 93 (1984): 103-107.
Google scholar | Google books | Amazon books | Acrobat files
If you have one of these shirts, it's fun to ask people to guess which symbol goes with which religion. One smart first-grader that I know got most of them right.