The Golden Rule Is Still Golden
One of the first lessons I learned as a toddler also happens to be one of the most important lesson I’ve learned to this day. I was about four years old, and my mom sat me down on the edge of the bed one evening before bed. “This is the Golden Rule,” she said, looking me gently in the eyes. “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” I looked confused, I’m sure, since the wording is a bit archaic for a young child. She explained that it means that I should treat other people the way I’d like to be treated. “You like it when people are nice to you, right? So be nice to other people. You don’t like when someone is mean to you? So don’t be mean to other people.”
Of course! It is so simple… but so ridiculously hard in practice.
Despite the difficulty in adhering to this deceptively simple practice, lately I’ve reflected quite a bit on the potential for this Golden Rule mindset to reap massive societal benefit – particularly considering the level of divisiveness and fear that has taken hold of our country in recent times.
While the rule is easy enough for a toddler to understand (in theory), I would argue that for us “grown-ups”, learning to embody this concise wisdom can make a transformative impact in our personal lives, our communities, and our society as a whole.
Understanding the historical context, exploring the barriers to compassionate action, and envisioning the widespread benefits can help to get us there.
Historical and Global
The Golden Rule is arguably one of the most common themes in moral and spiritual thought across the globe. That is to say, regardless of your background or religious beliefs, it’s likely that some form of this moral and ethical philosophy can speak to you. Further, upon it emergence this teaching played a major role in a revolutionary shift in the beliefs and behaviors of numerous societies, creating a sea change of compassionate action.
In her book The Great Transformation, world renowned religious scholar Karen Armstrong paints an engaging picture of the cultural evolution of four different regions around the ancient world – in the Middle East, Greece, China, and India – and of their respective spiritual practices. For centuries, violence dominated each of these cultures. Even the religions of each region incorporated violence into the rituals and belief systems – committing harm against others was the way handed down directly from the gods.
But roughly around 2600 years ago, each of these regions began a profound spiritual shift. For perhaps the first time in recorded history, compassion, nonviolence, and ethics became part of the core religious and philosophical teachings of the day. Spiritual leaders had begun to see the futility of the ceaseless violence all around them. Sacrifice gradually was removed from rituals. The gods themselves began to take on more compassionate forms, embodying virtuous qualities that common men and rulers alike should embody. It was during this time that the Golden Rule in its various forms was born.
In China, it took the form of Confucius’s “never impose on others what you would not choose for yourself.”
In Greece, Isocrates (not Socrates, although they were contemporaries) taught his pupils they should not “do to others that which angers you when they do it to you.”
An epic from ancient India has a teaching that “by self-control and by making dharma (virtuous behavior) your main focus, treat others as you treat yourself.
And then of course we have what is possibly the first appearance in the Judeo-Christian tradition, from the book of Leviticus: “If a stranger lives with you in your land, do not molest him. You must treat him like one of your own people and love him as yourselves. For you were strangers in Egypt.”
According to Armstrong, at this point in history, holiness and connection with the divine became a matter of living ethically with our fellow humans and all other creatures: “it involved absolute respect for the sacred ‘otherness’ of every creature.” We are all strangers to someone, so treating others with respect seems a wise strategy if we hope to also be respected by others.
Barriers to Gold
However widespread the teaching of “treat others well because you want to be treated well” might be, and how simple it is in theory, it is arguably not widespread in its practice. Author and evolutionary psychologist Robert Wright offers some insights into why the Golden Rule might be difficult in practice. According to Wright, our genes – not just our spiritual teachers – lead us towards compassion. But there’s a catch: our genes encourage a kind of compassion that will lead only to narrow reciprocal altruism: you scratch my back, I scratch yours. If you’re a total stranger, I’m probably not going to trust you with a potentially sharp object like a back scratcher behind my back, so I’ll keep that kind of mutual benefit to those I know and love.
In essence, from a genetic perspective, the selfish gene only looks as far as “what’s in it for me?”
So That’s the Bad News…
But what about the good news? Wright doesn’t leave us on a depressing note. He believes that game theory can lead us to convince our genetic bosses that all of life isn’t a zero-sum game: not every situation has a winner and a loser. In fact, most of modern society is built around quite the opposite premise, that cooperation leads to better outcomes for a community or a society. Every time you make a purchase, you are making a cooperative agreement with the vendor, in which each of you will come out a winner. The vendor wants your money, and you want their product. You both win (most of the time). Likewise, our public education system is built around common good – we provide education to our youth, they in turn provide value to society as working adults. The health care system involves taking care of complete strangers, not only for the money that is exchanged (although there’s clearly a lot of that), but also because society benefits from having a healthy population.
These non-zero sum relationships are everywhere we look. We have far more mutually beneficial arrangements in modern society than winner-take-all deals, no matter how much the media cynics may try to convince us otherwise.
Bringing Golden Back
While it may seem a stretch to equate the Golden Rule with paying someone for the sandwich they just made, but it makes sense. A chef doesn’t just strive to make delicious food only because of the money, she does it because she loves to eat great food, and also loves to share that love with others. In a similar light, a locksmith has the power to be the greatest thief in town, but he doesn’t use this skill for evil; and I would argue that fear of punishment isn’t what prevents his descent into treachery, but rather, a goodwill for his neighbors and a recognition that he wouldn’t want others to steal from him. However materially focused our society may be, I would argue that behind every product, service, or system, there are people who take some joy in knowing that others may benefit from what they are offering.
Obviously, that’s not always the case, and many are simply out to screw others over for personal benefit. There’s a whole heckuva lot of greed pervading our society, with our self-serving genes driving us towards the selfish benefits of profit and pleasure.
But selfish gain ultimately leads to ruin. Perhaps not in the short term, but eventually, all self-serving behavior will have individual or societal consequences.
As renowned economist Henry Hazlitt says in his often-cited work Economics in One Lesson:
“The art of economics consists in looking not merely at the immediate but at the longer effects of any act or policy; it consists in tracing the consequences of that policy not merely for one group but for all groups.”
In other words, economics is about empathy. Thinking about any negative consequences down the line, regardless of whether affecting stockholders or strangers. Empathy in turn builds trust. Healthy economies are built on trust between the parties engaged in a transaction, and healthy societies are built on trust between the members of that society.
Selfishness erodes that trust. The Golden Rule brings it back.
Reciprocal altruism is the subtle force behind healthy societies; it’s just a matter of spreading out our conception of who’s part of our network. Making the Golden Rule more prevalent in our lives would seem to be a matter of cultivating the voice in our minds that seeks to benefit others, whether stranger or sibling, and neglecting the voice that seeks only selfish gain. Whichever of these we feed will get stronger.
Or at least if we’re going to be selfish, recognize that we benefit when others receive some form of benefit as well – the non-zero-sum scenario. As the Dalai Lama says:
“It is important that when pursuing our own self-interest we should be “wise selfish” and not “foolish selfish”. Being foolish selfish means pursuing our own interests in a narrow, shortsighted way. Being wise selfish means taking a broader view and recognizing that our own long-term individual interest lies in the welfare of everyone. Being wise selfish means being compassionate.”
We have the choice of being a part of a movement towards greater cooperation, kinder behavior, and mutually beneficial solutions. Or we could watch as greed and destructive behavior slowly degrade our society.
I’d like to believe, though, that just like the historic sages of the world’s great religions recognized the power of the Golden Rule to reduce violence in their societies, so can we use this simple idea to catalyze a cultural transformation. Let greed and hatred wither away, and let kindness and compassion flourish in their place.
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