The Golden Rule

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The Golden Rule or law of reciprocity is the principle of treating others as one would wish to be treated oneself. It is a maxim of altruism seen in many human religions and human cultures. The maxim may appear as either a positive or negative injunction governing conduct:

  • One should treat others as one would like others to treat oneself (positive or directive form).
  • One should not treat others in ways that one would not like to be treated (negative or prohibitive form).
  • What you wish upon others, you wish upon yourself (empathic or responsive form).

The Golden Rule differs from the maxim of reciprocity captured in do ut des—”I give so that you will give in return”—and is rather a unilateral moral commitment to the well-being of the other without the expectation of anything in return.

The Golden Rule existed among all the major philosophical schools of ancient China: Mohism, Taoism, and Confucianism. Examples of the concept include:

  • “Never impose on others what you would not choose for yourself.” — Confucius(c. 500 BC)
  • “If people regarded other people’s families in the same way that they regard their own, who then would incite their own family to attack that of another? For one would do for others as one would do for oneself.” — Mozi (c. 400 BC)
  • “Regard your neighbor’s gain as your own gain, and your neighbor’s loss as your own loss.” — Laozi (c.550 BC)

Buddhism

Buddha (Siddhartha Gautama, c. 623 – c. 543 BC)[49][50] made this principle one of the cornerstones of his ethics in the 6th century BC. It occurs in many places and in many forms throughout the Tripitaka.

Comparing oneself to others in such terms as “Just as I am so are they, just as they are so am I,” he should neither kill nor cause others to kill.

— Sutta Nipata 705

One who, while himself seeking happiness, oppresses with violence other beings who also desire happiness, will not attain happiness hereafter.

— Dhammapada 10. Violence

Hurt not others in ways that you yourself would find hurtful.

— Udanavarga 5:18

Putting oneself in the place of another, one should not kill nor cause another to kill.

Confucianism

己所不欲,勿施於人。
“What you do not wish for yourself, do not do to others.”
子貢問曰:”有一言而可以終身行之者乎”?子曰:”其恕乎!己所不欲、勿施於人。”
Zi gong (a disciple of Confucius) asked: “Is there any one word that could guide a person throughout life?”
The Master replied: “How about ‘shu’ [reciprocity]: never impose on others what you would not choose for yourself?”
–Confucius, Analects XV.24, tr. David Hinton (another translation is in the online Chinese Text Project)

Taoism

The sage has no interest of his own, but takes the interests of the people as his own. He is kind to the kind; he is also kind to the unkind: for Virtue is kind. He is faithful to the faithful; he is also faithful to the unfaithful: for Virtue is faithful.

— Tao Teh Ching, Chapter 49

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

— T’ai Shang Kan Ying P’ien

Mohism

If people regarded other people’s states in the same way that they regard their own, who then would incite their own state to attack that of another? For one would do for others as one would do for oneself. If people regarded other people’s cities in the same way that they regard their own, who then would incite their own city to attack that of another? For one would do for others as one would do for oneself. If people regarded other people’s families in the same way that they regard their own, who then would incite their own family to attack that of another? For one would do for others as one would do for oneself. And so if states and cities do not attack one another and families do not wreak havoc upon and steal from one another, would this be a harm to the world or a benefit? Of course one must say it is a benefit to the world.

— Mozi, c. 400 BC

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