The Golden Rule is often stated, "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you," or more simply, "Treat others as you would like to be treated." Also known as the ethic of reciprocity, the same concept has been the basis of social morality in many cultures throughout history. Although the Golden Rule is often attributed to Jesus, many forms of the ethical principle long predate him. Jesus himself, in Matthew 7:12 , describes it as the "sum of the law and the Prophets."
Golden Rules in the Bible
Several passages in the Bible can be interpreted as being different forms of the "true" Golden Rule:
18 Thou shalt not avenge, nor bear any grudge against the children of thy people, but thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself: I am the LORD.
12 Therefore all things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them: for this is the law and the prophets.
31 And as ye would that men should do to you, do ye also to them likewise.
9 For this, Thou shalt not commit adultery, Thou shalt not kill, Thou shalt not steal, Thou shalt not bear false witness, Thou shalt not covet; and if there be any other commandment, it is briefly comprehended in this saying, namely, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.
Sometimes the Golden Rule is misinterpreted as, "Do unto others as they would do unto you," or, in an even more problematic formulation, "Do unto others as they have done unto you." Both versions tend to encourage a kind of "tit-for-tat" ethics. The latter version in particular suggests retaliation and revenge, not unlike the "eye for an eye" style of "justice" promulgated in several places in the Old Testament:
23 And if any mischief follow, then thou shalt give life for life,
24 Eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot,
25 Burning for burning, wound for wound, stripe for stripe.
17 And he that killeth any man shall surely be put to death.
18 And he that killeth a beast shall make it good; beast for beast.
19 And if a man cause a blemish in his neighbour; as he hath done, so shall it be done to him;
20 Breach for breach, eye for eye, tooth for tooth: as he hath caused a blemish in a man, so shall it be done to him again.
21 And he that killeth a beast, he shall restore it: and he that killeth a man, he shall be put to death.
22 Ye shall have one manner of law, as well for the stranger, as for one of your own country: for I am the LORD your God.
19 Then shall ye do unto him, as he had thought to have done unto his brother: so shalt thou put the evil away from among you.
20 And those which remain shall hear, and fear, and shall henceforth commit no more any such evil among you.
21 And thine eye shall not pity; but life shall go for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot.
Some apologists make the argument:
- "If I didn't know Jesus, I would want someone to teach me about him so I could be saved. Therefore, I should witness to non-Christians wherever I discover them."
With this argument, minor but significant flaws of the Golden Rule become apparent. Where people's needs differ significantly, a strict interpretation of the Golden Rule can tend to strain relationships rather than smooth them.
An alternative (sometimes known as the Platinum Rule) can be stated:
- Do unto others as they would have you do unto them.
Treat people how they actually want to be treated, rather than how you assume they would want to be treated. The needs of others are considered more important than the individual's assumption on how the other should be treated. With this alternative, one cannot instill his own values on another without the other's consent.
"The Golden Rule is a Christian invention!"
This is a rather snarky comeback directed to atheists who claim that they base their morality on the Golden Rule. This is type of response is typical from Christians who are not familiar at all with history, or from someone who essentially does not care.
The truth is that the Golden Rule predates Christianity, and by that fact alone destroys this argument. Furthermore, if Christians argue that atheists "stole" from a christian worldview, they must keep in mind that Christianity took the Golden Rule from the Jews, who earlier on adopted the Golden Rule from the pagans.
The Golden Rule does not require religion to come into existence. Mere empathy alone can develop the Golden Rule. Historically, the Golden Rule can be found in ancient Egypt, Babylon, China, and even within Native American tribes. The Golden Rule did not come into existence with the development of Judaism or Christianity. Therefore, an atheist who uses the Golden Rule as a guide for their morality, did not borrow or stole it from a Christian worldview.