Site Map The Secular Morality Project - Towards a Shared Morality


There are many formulations of the Golden Rule. Over the last 150 years, millions of children first came across it by reading about Mrs Do-As-You-Would-Be-Done-By in Charles Kingsley's fairy tale "The Water-Babies" but variants can be found in most cultures, present and past, religious and secular:

  • Secular: 'Do not do to others that which would anger you if others did it to you.' Socrates (fifth century BCE, Greece)
  • Judaism/Christianity: 'Love your neighbour as yourself.' Leviticus 19, in The Torah (about 400 BCE, Israel), quoted by Jesus in Matthew 22 and Mark 12 (first century CE)
  • Islam: "None of you [truly] believes until he wishes for his brother what he wishes for himself." (#13 of Imam Al-Nawawi's Forty Hadiths.)
  • Secular: "Treat other people as you'd want to be treated in their situation" and "Do not treat others in a way you would not like to be treated yourself." British Humanist Association (2016)

Many people, and certainly many secularists, believe that the Golden Rule is a universal moral code that is all we need to guide our morality. The world would certainly be a better place, indeed unrecognisable, if no one broke any one of the formulations of this rule, but there are good reasons for thinking it is not sufficient on its own.

Positive and Negative formulations
Positive formulations, taken literally, run the risk of people hurting others by failing to understand, or perhaps even care, how those people wish to be treated. The thrill seeker might choose the dangerous path for the timid person. The positive component of the British Humanist Association formulation tries to avoid this by referring to "their situation". Negative formulations have the problem that we can usually avoid mistreating another person by ensuring that we have no interaction with them at all. Few people would claim that this is enough. Charitable organisations only exist because most people think that we should seek out those who need our help.

Early versions of the Golden Rule were usually only directed towards those close and dear to us and only later extended as in Matthew 5:43-45, "Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you" Nowadays we would expect it to cover our behaviour to at least the whole human race. Any restriction of scope could have its opponents but there are limits. Arguably, Buddhism teaches us not to harm any animal and many charities urge us in this direction but it should be clear that if we extended this to vegetables we would start to have a problem. What is needed is to accept that the kinship dimension cannot be ignored and that we are obliged to make calculations about which living things are most deserving of our care.

The Golden Rule is easily confused with a social contract whereby we promise to behave well in the expectation that others will respond in kind - a reciprocal agreement. Admittedly, if this was done universally, the world would be a much better place but is it enough to achieve the sort of society in which would all like to live? Its implementation is unlikely to go far when we can be pretty certain that many people will never keep to the contract. It is even true that the wider its implementation progresses, the larger is the evolutionary niche that can be exploited by those willing to take advantage, unfairly, of other people's goodwill. Many of society's greatest advantages are achieved because some people are willing to dedicate themselves to helping others when they know there is little or no chance of their kindness being returned. This can be true for many doctors, charity workers and the like and society would probably not be stable without them. None of the formulations of the Golden Rule quoted above restrict its application to reciprocal cases, but neither do they emphasise this fact.

These issues are clarified in Stephen Anderson's article The Golden Rule: Not So Golden Anymore . His conclusions are critiqued in the paper Anderson and the Golden Rule by Roger Haines who shows that there is something inspiring all of them that each formulation (including Stephen Anderson's Platinum Rule) fails to wholly capture because they have such varied provenance, with language and culture affecting them. Perhaps the Triax concept of Kindness gets us closer to this. An explanation of how this might be can be found in the additional information on the Triax.

In any case, it should be clear that NO single rule can embody an answer to every moral question without additional input.