The Golden Rule

The “Golden Rule” states that one should do unto others as he would like them to do unto him. This may be the best piece of evidence for a universal absolute moral code. Just about every religion in existence exhorts their followers to practice this simple ideal. A few examples are listed below:

Buddhism (500 BCE)

Hurt not others in ways you yourself would find hurtful.

– Udana-Varga, 5, 18

Christianity (50 CE)

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

Confucianism (600 BCE)

Surely it is the maxim of loving-kindness: Do not unto other that you would not have them do unto you.

– Analects, 15, 23

Islam (622 CE)

No one of you is a believer until he desires for his brother that which he desires for himself.

– Imam An-Nawawi’s 40 Hadiths, 13

Hinduism (1500 BCE)

This is the turn of duty; do naught unto others which could cause you pain if done to you.

– Mahabharata, 5, 1517

Judaism (1800 BCE)

What is harmful to you, do not to your fellow men. That is the entire Law; all the rest is commentary.

– Talmud, Shabbat, 312

Taoism (300 BCE)

Regard your neighbor’s gain as your own gain and your neighbor’s loss as your own loss.

– T’sai Shang Kan Ying P’ien

Zoroastrianism (600 BCE)

That nature alone is good which refrains from doing unto another whatsoever is not good for itself.

– Didistan-i-dinik, 94, 5

If this stricture were limited to only the Abrahamic faiths – and possibly Zoroastrianism – I would write it off as nothing of note. Each of those faiths builds upon its predecessor. The Golden Rule is not so limited however. Even religions and philosophies with little or connection or exposure to the Abrahamic faiths include essentially the same stricture.

While this alone is not proof, it seems to be enough evidence to support postulating a universal absolute morality.

Related Reading:

God Is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions That Run the World
Philosophy 101: From Plato and Socrates to Ethics and Metaphysics, an Essential Primer on the History of Thought
The Religions Book (Big Ideas Simply Explained)
Christian Theology
World Religions: The Great Faiths Explored & Explained

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28 Responses to “The Golden Rule”

  1. Aafke Says:

    Interesting to see you’ve put it so nicely in line.
    I firmly believe in a kind of ”Celestial truth”. And we can all know the basics for good or evil.
    I get really miffed if I read, again, somebody claiming morality for their own belief-system only. (including atheism) I have been reading often from this or that religious person (or atheist) that anybody from another belief-system cannot have the correct morals: They alone can distinguish between ”right” and ”wrong”. It amazes me how people can be so arrogant.

    On the other hand this simularity, or unity, in what is good or evil makes a point for me that it is the essence which counts, and not the constructed religion (or atheism) overlaying it.

  2. Pat Says:

    Super post Jonolan! Thanks! For me, two additional points immediately come to mind; 1) Few people can argue that simply doing something helpful for someone else without the expectation of a reward, leaves both individuals involved with a positive sense of wellbeing, 2) Organized religion is crap, and designed to control, not free people.

  3. jonolan Says:

    Thanks, Pat.

    I’m not sure though that anyone can do something helpful without the expectation of reward. I think that the best we can hope for is that people will not expect reward from the person or people they helped. A lot of people “do good” either to been seen as “good” or for the sense of “worth” it provides for them. Still, good works are good works and we benefit from them even when their motive wasn’t “pure.”

    I’m ambivalent toward organized religion. It’s hard for me to separate a codified set of doctrine (religions) from the errors, misjudgments, and corruption of Man’s theological enterprises (churches).

  4. HannahJ Says:

    It might also have something to do (again, assuming a deity) with conscience, i.e. implanted morality, something people didn’t invent independently.

    In addition to listing the rule alphabetically by religion, could you add a notation to indicate the chronological order? Or a “family tree” of sorts, perhaps? That kind of analysis would, I think, make for very interesting discussion. After all, that is the point of your blog, is it not?

  5. jonolan Says:

    There you go, Hannah! I’ve added very approximate dates for the beginning of each of the religions listed.

  6. C B-K Says:

    As one notices how most folks take very poor care of themselves; smoking, drinking and eating to excess, anger, hate and stress, etc., it would be the height of naivete to actually expect almost anyone, especially a stranger, to be considerate.

    The “golden rule”, IMHO, could be: Move in a positive direction with other positive people. Most people suck, others glow. Severely limit your exposure to those who will drain your energy, your time and your wallet. Befriend those who would stand with you through adversity.

    What would “Uncle Ho”, Jesus, Ghandi or MLK do?

  7. zhann Says:

    Interesting premise, but you have left out an important bit. India and China had a great deal of influence over one another culturally, but more importantly through trade, for thousands of years BCE. It is safe to assume that one of these two areas came up with the idea, and the other adopted it. Furthermore, the Jews were nomads and traders during this time period, and most certainly visited India and China as well. The Old Testament is filled with stories that can be found in countless other religions (Garden of Eden, Noah’s Ark to name a few). It is possible that the Jews came up with this phrase first, then it passed to India/China, but taking into account the history of philosophy in those regions, I would have to guess that India/China originated the idea, or at the very least brought it to prominence.

    The Golden Rule is simply a phrase that is passed on from person to person. The fact that it was first put to paper 1800 years ago is meaningless, primarily because the putting thought to paper had only gained popularity at that time. This concept has most likely been around for thousands of years prior, giving it more than enough time to spread between nationalities and regions.

  8. jonolan Says:

    Zhann,

    That is certainly a plausible hypothesis. It is possible that The Golden Rule was developed by one culture and spread to the others through the ancient trade roots.

    It is also possible though this was immaterial. We’re discussing a “profoundly prosaic” concept. It could have been in use over a wide area long before anyone thought to codify it into a set of words. Philosophers often “make the rent” by writing down and expounding upon things people already “knew.” ;)

    All this is why I only said The Golden Rule was enough evidence to support postulating a universal absolute morality. It’s a long way from definitive proof, but we need good postulates before we can even begin to search adequately for that proof.

  9. zhann Says:

    I see. In that case, you are treading on thin ice. Morality is a relative term which can have drastic differences between cultures. Murder would fall under the same pretext as the Golden Rule (all religions acknowlege its evil), however we all ‘know?’ that Murder is ok in times of war in most cultures. Lying also falls into this category, however lying to your enemy (in the case of Muslims) is perfectly fine … an enemy is also an excluded from the Golden Rule for Muslims.

    Personally, I can’t imagine a universal morality accepted by all. There are always going to be those that find reasons to go around a particular rule, all the while claiming it to be moral. Popular Morality, however, may be a easier to find.

    It would be nice to see the global society accepting a base set of rules for daily life, but I fear we are a long way from that.

  10. jonolan Says:

    Actually, Zhann, my postulate is that morality isn’t a relative term; it’s an absolute that is often not followed.

  11. Ricky Says:

    I’m a little late on joining this conversation, but I would agree with Jonolan that morality isn’t a relative term.

    Zhann, you said: “I can’t imagine a universal morality accepted by all. There are always going to be those that find reasons to go around a particular rule, all the while claiming it to be moral.”

    So because certain people don’t follow the basic moral code of society, a moral code doesn’t exist? That is illogical. A moral code does not need to exist solely on the fact that everyone follows it. Just because someone doesn’t follow the law/moral code of society, doesn’t mean that there isn’t a universal code.

    If an absolute moral standard exists then it’s purpose is to shine the light on those who break it.

    You seem to believe that those who break the rules/laws/morals etc. are wrong, so logically if there is always going to be doing something wrong, then there must always be something to break. This something to break can usually be tapered down into the basic moral code of humanity—the Golden Rule.

  12. jonolan Says:

    I think we run into the problem of conflating two related terms – Ethics and Morality. Ethics in an internally derived at set of behaviors and responses, whereas morality is derived from an outside source.

    Ethics are relative, but morality could be an absolute.

  13. zhann Says:

    Ok, I will entertain a universal code. Lets take a look at some basics:

    – Do not lie
    – Do not steal
    – Do not kill
    – Don’t do unto others what you would not have them do onto you

    These are basic moral codes that all societies agree upon, correct?

  14. jonolan Says:

    Zhann,

    If we were to assume that the lie was for malicious intent then I think the 1st three points could be subsumed in the 4th one.

    Of course many current cultures place limitations on the needfulness of these behaviors. Those limitation do not necessary invalidate the existence of an absolute morality; they only show that people are not universally moral in their behavior.

  15. zhann Says:

    Ok, I am with you so far. Let us define Morals, then. My understanding of a Moral is an absolute truth that guides an individual in life. This truth is something that the individual accepts as Right, as apposed to Wrong, and if accepted, the individual does his/her best in order to stick to these Morals.

    The definition I posted is a bit crude, but Webster’s wasn’t a great deal better. In my opinion, a Moral is absolute. It can’t change from one circumstance to another because that would defy its point of existence.

    This brings me to my final point. As you may have guessed by the last paragraph, let’s take a hypothetical situation where in order to save your life you have to lie, cheat, steal … or maybe even kill another innocent life. Would that be Immoral? Regardless of whether it is Moral or not, it is necessary. I think Sanctity of Life trumps all rules. Hence, I would argue that there can not be a Universal code Morality that people must live by, but instead Morals are only there to guide us in our decisions of day to day life. Since different people have different values, as Jonolan pointed out earlier, Morals are bound to be affected.

  16. jonolan Says:

    Technically and at its most basic level morality is a system of determining right and wrong that is established by some authority. That the authority is an absolute one is not actually required by the definition, nor is adherence by people required.

    Now I agree with you – it’s the focus of this article ;) – in the belief that there is an absolute morality – a fundamental and absolute Right and Wrong. By the very nature of that belief I also believe that this absolute morality is not situational; it does not change based on circumstance.

    Approached from a normative sense one could assert that any society, culture or population group might develop a morality that is not in line in all – or potentially any – points with the dictates of the overarching absolute morality.

    Insofar as making choices such as the ones you put forth, we may differ on a very fundamental point in our respective world views. Your question seems to imply a belief that there is always a right choice – a choice that will carry no negative moral burden. I do not hold to such a belief; sometimes one must choose between immoral, bad, or wrong actions.

  17. zhann Says:

    I see. My honest opinion, as you likely have already put together, is that Morality is Relative. When attempting to put together a Universal Morality, it is difficult to ignore ones own morals, and ones own upbringing.

    I know I am going way out on a limb here, but I would have to assume that a Universal Morality must also fit for other species, outside of Humans. Just looking at nature, it is hard to find a universal set of morals. Predatory animals have a completely different set of morals from non predatory. I know that this is a bit abstract, but I honestly don’t feel that we are a great deal different from Animals, outside of our intelligence of course, which would imply that our set of Morals, if universal, must apply to them as well. To go even farther, we can look at extra-terrestrial beings as well, but it is hard to argue about something that we know nothing of.

    Regardless, I have no intention of convincing you of my opinion. Reading some of your other threads, it is clear that we agree on much, but disagree on numerous points as well.

  18. OneTime Says:

    Found this website doing some researches and felt i should note something.

    Did you guys notice the difference between the Christian version (and muslim much later, though most likely taken), and all the other religions? “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” compared to “Do not unto others as you would not have them do unto you”.

  19. jonolan Says:

    I find it interesting only because it is a reasonably rare occurrence within the Abrahamic religious texts – a positive instruction as opposed to a negative proscription.

  20. Salahudin Al-Rawandi Says:

    Jonolan, that doesn’t seem to me to be absolute morality, but just societies trying to survive by establishing common sense rules. You can boil that principle down to the following: “Don’t hurt others please.”

    It’s absolute only in the sense that humanity has the wherewithal to understand societies won’t survive if we hurt each other. Therefore it’s based on survival, not morality.

    Morality, I think, would be more akin to “doing unto others what it is your duty to do. Which is to not act on the selfish premise of first thinking about how you would have them behave unto you and then applying that on them. It would be to do unto them what have you from the goodness of your heart.”

  21. jonolan Says:

    Salahudin Al-Rawandi,

    Since all continuing societies ascribe to this basic rule, I think it could be evidence of an absolute morality – that is all. Your own view – as posted here at least – could be summed up prosaically as “play nice!.” and equal valid viewpoint on the issue. Both are essentially pragmatic and prosaic expressions of commn concepts of most cultures.

    It is possible those those common sense rules that you mentioned are the basis of morality.

    Thank you for taking the time to comment. I hope you’ll return here again.

  22. Salahudin Al-Rawandi Says:

    You’re welcome.

    And you make a good point. Although I have to point out that “morality” has a strange connotation of idealism associated with it, when it’s really just evolution – or – survival that guides such rules. It doesn’t change what you’re saying though.

  23. Christy Says:

    Jonolan,

    Phew, read through all the comments and the post. =) So much fun to delve in…great post/discussion.

    It is also possible though this was immaterial. We’re discussing a “profoundly prosaic” concept. It could have been in use over a wide area long before anyone thought to codify it into a set of words. Philosophers often “make the rent” by writing down and expounding upon things people already “knew.”

    Hahaha. *shakes head*

    All this is why I only said The Golden Rule was enough evidence to support postulating a universal absolute morality. It’s a long way from definitive proof, but we need good postulates before we can even begin to search adequately for that proof.

    Random question: have you read C.S. Lewis argument for a universal, absolute morality in “Mere Christianity”? Just curious. =)

    Technically and at its most basic level morality is a system of determining right and wrong that is established by some authority. That the authority is an absolute one is not actually required by the definition, nor is adherence by people required.

    Now I agree with you – it’s the focus of this article ;) – in the belief that there is an absolute morality – a fundamental and absolute Right and Wrong. By the very nature of that belief I also believe that this absolute morality is not situational; it does not change based on circumstance.

    Agreed.

    Approached from a normative sense one could assert that any society, culture or population group might develop a morality that is not in line in all – or potentially any – points with the dictates of the overarching absolute morality.

    Since all continuing societies ascribe to this basic rule, I think it could be evidence of an absolute morality – that is all. Your own view – as posted here at least – could be summed up prosaically as “play nice!.” and equal valid viewpoint on the issue. Both are essentially pragmatic and prosaic expressions of common concepts of most cultures.

    I’ve always found this subject fascinating…in layman’s terms…I think the worldview/system of belief expressed in Judeo/Christian Scripture best fits the evidence for how all these societies and beliefs systems hold the same basic “morality” or conscience and why there are so many Noah’s flood type stories, Garden of Eden stories, etc. worldwide…there does seem to be a common thread or element. And while opinions and culture practices vary in terms of, say, the number of wives one man may have, in general, and throughout history, it’s been usually viewed to be the case that infidelity is immoral (though I wonder if that’s the case today) – but for centuries, that has been the norm cross-cultures. I purposefully am not using absolutist language, here, but that argument, in part, was one of the foundational arguments that started my inquiry into this subject. I think the basic premise of a Creator God who gave us all a conscience, infused in us a “basic morality code” in us, so that intrinsically, we know between right and wrong on some common, shared level…makes a lot of sense. Furthermore, if you consider the possibility of Noah’s flood and the Tower of Babel stories possibly being more history-based than myth, then…a common shared history and oral story tradition, passed down, would be shared by all of humanity that God created…and it would make sense that if after the flood and through the Tower of Babel story, people’s tongues were mixed, and therefore, they were forced to separate into groups (the start of our cultures and ethnicities)…and move to all ends of the world, and not mix due to language constraints, then it would naturally seem to follow that as those specific cultures and people groups developed and moved through the generations, the common stories would change and morph a bit but have a shared ancestry. Thus, the multitude of flood stories, etc. worldwide. =)

    Anyway, great post!

  24. Christy Says:

    Due to the length, I think I should have emailed you. Whoops. =)

  25. jonolan Says:

    Christy,

    LOL – There’s nothing wrong with the occasional long comment, especially when someone is coming late to a thread and striving to respond to various points.

    To answer your “random question,” yes I’ve read C.S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity and it’s very well presented argument for an absolute morality. The differences in individual theologies aside, I tend towards agreement with Lewis’ premise of an underlying “moral law” that is both fundamental and nearly mathematical in its operation

  26. Christy Says:

    Christy,
    LOL – There’s nothing wrong with the occasional long comment, especially when someone is coming late to a thread and striving to respond to various points.

    The sad thing is that you know even if I hadn’t come in late to the thread and wasn’t striving to respond to various points, I still would have been prone to leaving a long comment. ;) Passions or interests get sparked and off I go! ;p

    I just don’t always have to subject your other readers to them, haha.

    To answer your “random question,”

    Muhahaha. ;) Random but pertinent. ;)

    yes I’ve read C.S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity and it’s very well presented argument for an absolute morality. The differences in individual theologies aside, I tend towards agreement with Lewis’ premise of an underlying “moral law” that is both fundamental and nearly mathematical in its operation

    Thought so. ;p

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