The golden rule, also referred to as the ethic of reciprocity, is an ethical principle which is promoted by various religions as a way of acting ethically. One of the most famous versions comes from Christianity, its popularized form is: "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you". Versions of the golden rule are also expressed in Confucianism, Taoism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Zoroastrianism, Judaism and Islam, and are implicit in the practices of other faiths. The rule can also be practiced without religious intent since it does not mention God and is not identified with the scriptures or doctrines of any one religion.¹

The golden rule refers to human relationships and advises that human beings should treat each other in the same manner they would choose to be treated.2 The golden rule brings together the principles of justice, benevolence and altruism. The golden rule encourages people to think about how they would feel to be on the receiving end of an action, before they act and then act accordingly.

The golden rule has been and continues to be applied in various facets of our lives. In particular, psychologists have considered its applications in several areas. Jeffrey Wattles summarized many seminal works in the areas of early childhood development, evolutionary psychology and in the various stages of moral reasoning in his book The Golden Rule.3

Neuroscience researcher Donald Pfaff believes “ethics is a hardwired function of the human brain” and that people are wired for altruism and reciprocity.4

Evolutionary psychologists predict how humans might act without societal rules; they believe people will cooperate and reciprocate because they expect that helping others will increase the likelihood that they will receive help in the future.5 Evolutionary psychologists also suggest that people are better able to identify cheaters, those who won’t reciprocate, when there is an expectation of a social contract. Essentially, this area of psychology asserts that the ethic of reciprocity is utilized by human beings as a means of survival. 6

Lawrence Kohlberg's work on the stages of moral development also considered the golden rule. He posited that the golden rule "represented the highest stage of moral reasoning".7

Similar theories

Philosopher Richard Hare developed a moral theory similar to the golden rule; it requires that people consider the impact of their actions and then assess whether they would be satisfied to have it become the universally accepted norm whereby others could do the same thing. If one does not want his or her actions to become the norm then the person shouldn’t take that action.8

Immanuel Kant’s categorical imperative is also similar to the golden rule; it suggests people should look at the universality of their action and only act if satisfied that everyone should do what he is proposing to do.9

Criticism of the golden rule

Critics of the golden rule, which included Kant, have argued that to treat others as we would want to be treated assumes a level of empathetic understanding very few human beings possess. Further, "we typically assume that we understand others intuitively, that we empathize accurately, our expressions of consideration are appropriate. Psychology tells us, however, that despite our customary reliance on empathy to inform us about others, our empathic sense of others is often misleading."10

Another criticism is that what one person wants may be in conflict with another, for example, a man might like the idea of being seduced by a beautiful woman but that doesn’t mean the beautiful woman wants to be seduced by that same man. He should not do unto her what he would like her to do unto him. A modified version of the golden rule has been offered as an improved option, it is called the platinum rule and it proposes that one should treat people the way they want to be treated versus the way the person taking the action would like to be treated. It requires the actor to understand what the recipient wants.11

If the golden rule was taken to the extreme and people tried to meet all of their desires and undertake to do that for everyone else, it would lead to an overuse of the world’s resources which is not sustainable or ethical.12

Wattles, J. (2001). Levels of Meaning in the Golden Rule. The Journal of Religious Ethics, pp. 106-129.
Wattles, J. (1996). The Golden Rule, Oxford University Press
Penttila, N. (2007, December 5). The Golden Rule: Q&A with Donald Pfaff. Retrieved from http://dana.org/news/features/detail.aspx?id=10358
Zywicki, T. J. (2000). Summary of: Evolutionary Psychology and the Social Sciences. Humane Studies Review. Retrieved from http://www.cooperationcommons.com/node/356
Cosmides, L. & Tooby, J. (1997). Evolutionary psychology: A primer. Retrieved from University of California website: http://www.cep.ucsb.edu/primer.html
Crain, W.C. (1985). Theories of Development. Prentice-Hall. pp. 118-136.
Waluchow, W.J. (2003). The Dimension of Ethics: An introduction to ethical theory. Peterborough, Ontario: Broadview Press.
Waluchow, W.J. (2003). The Dimension of Ethics: An introduction to ethical theory. Peterborough, Ontario: Broadview Press.
Anonson, W. A. (2007). Social Psychology 6th Editiion. New Jersey: Pearson Education, Inc.
Allessandra, T. (n.d.). The Platinum Rule. Retrieved September 19, 2013 from http:www.alessandra.com/abouttony/aboutpr.asp
Elliott, H. (1999). The Limits of the Golden Rule. Population and Environment A Journal of interdisciplinary studies 20(6). Retrieved from http://download.springer.com.www.msvu.ca:2048/static/pdf/789/art%253A10.1023%252FA%253A1023322317785.pdf?auth66=1379975374_99a98f617c6755dd217fe7ffe99b49ab&ext=.pdf