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Golden Rule
Treat others as you want to be treated

Golden-rule essay

    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.

      Golden Rule  
      Treat others only as you consent to  
      being treated in the same situation.  

      •  I do A to another.  
      •  I’m unwilling that if I were in the same  
          situation then A be done to me.
      ⇐  Don’t  
      ⇐  combine  
      ⇐  these  

       KITA - four elements for using the golden rule wisely   
      Know: "How would my action affect others?"   
      Imagine: "What would it be like to have this done to  
      me in the same situation?"  
      Test for consistency: "Am I willing that if I were in the  
      same situation then this be done to me?"  
      Act toward others only as you're willing to be treated  
      in the same situation.  

Golden-rule videos

History of the Golden Rule (26 minutes, 2014 at Now You Know Media)

This is talk ten, which is based on my chronology, of a series of twelve talks on the golden rule that I did for Now You Know Media. My twelve talks break into four parts: BASICS (introduction, fallacies, stories); RELIGION (Christianity, interfaith dialogue, non-Christian religions); PRACTICE (moral education, egoism & evolution, applied ethics); and HISTORY (before 1900, the slavery debate, since 1900). These talks give some high points from my recent book on the golden rule. The talks are available on DVD (video) and CD-or-MP3 (audio) and are suitable for classroom, church, or interfaith use.

Golden Rule (long version, 51 minutes, 2014 at Marquette)

Golden Rule (short version, 17 minutes, 2014 at Marquette)

I gave this talk on the golden rule on April 8, 2014, at Marquette University in Milwaukee, where I held the Wade Chair in spring 2014. Here are the golden-rule slides that go with the talk.

Is the Golden Rule Gold or Garbage? (58 minutes, 2010 at Boston College)

I gave this talk at Boston College. Here is the same video in MP4 format, and here are the golden-rule slides that go with the talk.

Analyzing the Golden Rule (43 minutes, 2008 at Bard College)

I gave this talk at a golden-rule conference in New York, hosted by Bard College's Institute of Advanced Theology. Here is the same video in WMV and M4V format, and here are the golden-rule slides that go with the talk. You can order all the talks on DVD from them.

My Golden Rule Book (5 minutes, 2013)

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)

Other videos

Golden-rule books

    For my approach to the golden rule, see the first book below (longer) or the second (shorter).
    Ethics and the Golden Rule
    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. Click here for a video overview or here to preview the first 30 pages. Order this book from Amazon or Routledge.

    Ethics: A Contemporary Introduction, third edition

    My Ethics: A Contemporary Introduction, third edition (Routledge, 2018) is an introductory textbook in moral philosophy. Chapters 7 to 9 talk about the golden rule. Order this book from Amazon or Routledge.

    This book and Formal Ethics have cool EthiCola downloadable exercise software, much of which deals with the golden rule.

    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). Some of my earlier books have much on the golden rule.

    Formal EthicsMy 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.

    Introduction to Logic, third editionMy Introduction to Logic, third edition (Routledge, 2017) 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). (6) Mike Bushman's Doing Unto Others (Altfuture 2015). (7) Kim Polman and Stephen Vasconcellos's Imaginal Cells: Visions of Transformation (Reboot the Future 2017).

Golden-rule stories

Golden-rule chronology

Golden-rule downloads

Golden-rule Wikiversity

Golden-rule links

Do a Google search:
For sites that relate the golden rule to something else,
type additional words after "Golden Rule" -- for example
"evolution," "children," "business," "Islam," or "video."
My golden rule exercises (or here) | academic articles (or here)
Google scholar | Google books | Amazon books | Acrobat files

Golden-rule shirts, mugs, buttons, etc.

Golden-rule shirts