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Although many detailed rules for living vary, most traditions have
some version or other of the ‘Golden Rule’. It can be expressed both
positively (‘Treat other people in a way you would like to be treated
yourself’) and negatively (‘Do not treat others as you would not like
to be treated yourself’). Some people think that the negative versions
are more realistic because it is easier to agree on the things we would
not like done to us: all of us can work out what would cause suffering
to another person and we may then avoid doing it. The apparently universal
nature of this rule is impressive. It is based on human nature and experience,
using our need to be treated well by others and our aspiration to live
harmoniously with others as its foundation.
The Golden Rule can be worked out by anyone, anywhere, by reference
to experience. It has been called ‘a searchlight, not a map’, a metaphor
which summarizes its undogmatic appeal. It might seem, if understood
superficially, to encourage immoral acts, for example someone who enjoys
danger could try to justify putting other people's lives at risk by
saying that he would welcome his life being endangered by others. But
none of us wants anyone to act towards us without considering our personal
wishes and interests, and this aspect of treating others as we would
wish to be treated would not permit a danger-lover to take risks with
our lives, unless we wanted them to. The golden rule, unlike dogmatic
commandments, is therefore self-correcting.
Implicitly, the Golden Rule requires kindness and care for the less fortunate, because this is what we would want in their situation. It discourages lying, bullying and theft, for example, because no one wants to be lied to or bullied or to have their property stolen. It has the virtues of simplicity and clarity and works well in many situations. The Golden Rule has been attractive to communities well before the existence of Christianity, Islam and other religions and, applied to the whole of humanity, gives us a global moral principle.