The Golden Rule
Let's consider an example of how the rule is used. President Kennedy in 1963 appealed to the golden rule in an anti-segregation speech at the time of the first black enrollment at the University of Alabama. He asked whites to consider what it would be like to be treated as second class citizens because of skin color. Whites were to imagine themselves being black - and being told that they couldn't vote, or go to the best public schools, or eat at most public restaurants, or sit in the front of the bus. Would whites be content to be treated that way? He was sure that they wouldn't - and yet this is how they treated others. He said the "heart of the question is ... whether we are going to treat our fellow Americans as we want to be treated."
The golden rule is best interpreted as saying: "Treat others only in ways that you're willing to be treated in the same exact situation." To apply it, you'd imagine yourself in the exact place of the other person on the receiving end of the action. If you act in a given way toward another, and yet are unwilling to be treated that way in the same circumstances, then you violate the rule.
To apply the golden rule adequately, we need knowledge and imagination. We need to know what effect our actions have on the lives of others. And we need to be able to imagine ourselves, vividly and accurately, in the other person's place on the receiving end of the action. With knowledge, imagination, and the golden rule, we can progress far in our moral thinking.
The golden rule is best seen as a consistency principle. It doesn't replace regular moral norms. It isn't an infallible guide on which actions are right or wrong; it doesn't give all the answers. It only prescribes consistency - that we not have our actions (toward another) be out of harmony with our desires (toward a reversed situation action). It tests our moral coherence. If we violate the golden rule, then we're violating the spirit of fairness and concern that lie at the heart of morality.
The golden rule, with roots in a wide range of world cultures, is well suited to be a standard to which different cultures could appeal in resolving conflicts. As the world becomes more and more a single interacting global community, the need for such a common standard is becoming more urgent.
My Formal Ethics (Routledge, 1996) focuses on the golden rule ("Treat others as you want to be treated") and on other formal ethical principles (like "Be logically consistent in your beliefs," "Follow your conscience," and "Make similar evaluations about similar cases"). Formal Ethics shows how to formulate these principles in clear ways that don't lead to absurdities - and how to use the principles to help with practical problems, like racism and moral education. This book is addressed to specialists in the area of moral philosophy.
My Ethics: A Contemporary Introduction (Routledge, 1998) is an introductory textbook in moral philosophy. The middle chapters talk about how to understand and apply the golden rule. This book is written in a simple way and should be understandable to the general reader. My two Routledge ethics books have cool Web exercises and downloadable exercise software.
My Introduction to Logic (Routledge, 2002) has a chapter that formalizes a system of ethics, leading to a proof of the golden rule in symbolic. This gets pretty technical.
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