Notes on the Golden Rule

Date of last modification: August 14, 2007

For more information see
Ethics of Reciprocity
Exceptions to the Golden Rule

All major religions appear to include an ethic of reciprocity, either in its positive form, as in Luke 6:31 or Mencius VII.A.4, or in its negative form, as in Doctrine of the Mean 13.3 or the Talmud. (See below for the texts of a few versions.)

A positive formulation:
"As you would wish that others should do to you, do also to them likewise."

A negative formulation:
"Do not impose upon others what you yourself do not desire."

Researchers in animal behavior have found that nonhuman animals frequently cooperate with other animals in their own groups. Such cooperation clearly contributes to the ability of the group to survive in its particular environment. Something like the ethic of reciprocity may have been necessary for human communities to survive their first million years on earth as communities of social animals. A tendency to engage in behaviors corresponding to reciprocity appears to be "hard-wired" in us.

Perhaps the major religions, which arose in periods of great social stress,1 restated in words what humans have always instinctively known. It was likely important to state it because desperate circumstances tempt individuals to set aside this "wisdom of nature" and adopt excessively self-interested strategies.

The Golden Rule is affirmed in societies that claim to value truth-telling, promise-keeping, respect for personal property, respect for socially sanctioned intimate relationships, traditional duties associated with child-rearing and caring for the sick, as well as mutual assistance in times of need. It was never intended to stand entirely alone. The Talmud says, "All the rest is commentary," but it might well have added: You won't really understand or be able to apply this summary (of the moral/religious Law) unless you understand major parts of the commentary.


Consider: Who counts as Others?

It's easiest to apply the Golden Rule to somebody who belongs to your primary group, to do favors for your siblings because, even if they do not pay you back to the extent to which you helped them, it is likely that they will reciprocate to some extent. And even if the person you assist does not return the favor herself, the fact that you are a helpful person is likely to be observed by still others and they will want to befriend you.

However, many religious groups who affirm the Golden Rule in the abstract are often willing exclude people outside their group from the class of "others protected by the rule." To be fair, religious groups are not the only culprits: Nation-states and political parties often use other rules of reciprocity: Do unto others (harmfully) before they do unto you, or do unto others (harmfully) as they allegedly did unto you. One group may treat members of another group as expendable-- collateral damage in a military activity or in the energetic pursuit of financial gain.

Consider: What about third parties?
Frequently, in engaging in exchanges or cooperation with certain parties, we fail to reflect upon how our interaction with these second parties will affect third parties, that is, persons or groups apart from ourselves and our current partners in the transaction on which we are currently focused.

Examples: It might seem to be in the interest of arms manufacturers to sell weapons to a government on the other side of the globe and in the interest of the military branch of that government to purchase the weapons. But that government, which in fact is a dictatorship, might be using the weapons to repress its own people, who are demanding more democratic participation. Or that government may be foolishly engaged in an arms race with a neighbor which threatens to break out into a war that cannot be healthy for the population in either of the states involved or their neighbors in the region.

The Lesson: "Others" may not be limited to the persons with whom you are directly dealing. Third parties are also others to whom we should not do what we would not wish done to ourselves.

Consider: What if a person's tastes are idiosyncratic or specialized?
She may actually like celibacy. She is able to serve her community and contribute to the larger world without being a parent and without enjoying the sexual pleasures that those who are not celibate may enjoy. Should others try to pressure her to be like them?

Perhaps the GR means something like: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you when "doing unto you" refers to limiting or not limiting their freedom. But that may need further qualification. What if I value my freedom highly but the other only values it to the extent to which it permits him to choose to live a life that is highly rule-governed, e.g., a member of a religious order whose rules are traditional.


The Golden Rule is not useless. It points to something very important in ethics, but it cannot be the whole story.

Source: "Ethics of Reciprocity" at

Buddhism: Hurt not others in ways that you yourself would find hurtful." Udana-Varga 5:18

Christianity: "And as ye would that men should do to you, do ye also to them likewise." Luke 6:31, King James Version.

Confucianism: Tse-kung asked, 'Is there one word that can serve as a principle of conduct for life?' Confucius replied, 'It is the word 'shu' -- reciprocity. Do not impose on others what you yourself do not desire.'" Doctrine of the Mean 13.3

Confucianism: "Try your best to treat others as you would wish to be treated yourself, and you will find that this is the shortest way to benevolence." Mencius VII.A.4

Hinduism: This is the sum of duty: do not do to others what would cause pain if done to you. Mahabharata 5:1517

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."

Judaism: "...thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself." Leviticus 19:18

Judaism: "What is hateful to you, do not to your fellow man. This is the law: all the rest is commentary." Talmud, Shabbat 31a. (See also Tobit 4:15.)

1. Karen Armstrong, The Great Transformation: The Beginning of Our Religious Traditions, Knopf, 2006.