top of page

The Golden Rule: The Transcendent Value That Is the Basis of a Good Society


by John Spritzler

The URL of this article for sharing it is

[Also see "Most People Are Egalitarians"]

[Also see "The Capitalist Big Lie about Human Nature"]



The Golden Rule [1], both its positive version – "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you" – as well as its negative version – "Do not do unto others as you would not have them do unto you," expresses a universal human standard of morality and appears universally in the world’s religions. [2] 


The Golden Rule is the value that unites the vast majority of (but not all) people, despite their having different religious beliefs and belonging to different social or ethnic groups and having different physical appearances and different interests and talents and strengths and weaknesses.


The Golden Rule is thus the actual transcendent value on the basis of which a good society--an egalitarian society--can be built and flourish.

The Universality of the Golden Rule


Two thousand years before Jesus was born, an ancient Babylonian sacred teaching said, "Do not return evil to your adversary; Requite with kindness the one who does evil to you, Maintain justice for your enemy, Be friendly to your enemy." (Akkadian Councils of Wisdom, as cited in Pritchard's Ancient Near Eastern Texts.) [Note that there is a difference between "returning evil to your enemy" versus using force and even violence, if necessary, in self-defense, as discussed further here.]

A Buddhist holy teaching written centuries before Jesus was born said: "Shame on him who strikes, greater shame on him who strikes back. Let us live happily, not hating those who hate us. Let us therefore overcome anger by kindness, evil by good, falsehood by truth." 

Hillel, a great Jewish rabbi who lived just before Jesus' day, taught, "What is hateful to thee, do not to another. That is the whole law and all else is explanation." (b Shabbatt 31a; cf. Avot de R. Natan ii.26) The Positive Golden Rule is also found in Jewish literature (Mishneh Torah ii: Hilekot Abel xiv.I.)

Jesus said, "All things therefore that you want people to do to you, do thus to them." (Matthew 7:12)

Islam teaches: "That which you want for yourself, seek for mankind." (Sukhanan-i-Muhammad, 63)

A Buddhist holy teaching is: "In this world hate never yet dispelled hate. Only love dispels hate. This is the law, ancient and inexhaustible." (The Dhammapada)

In ancient China, Confucius taught, "Do not impose on others what you do not desire others to impose upon you." (Confucius, The Analects. Roughly 500 BCE.). 

According to Hindu sacred literature: "Let no man do to another that which would be repugnant to himself." (Mahabharata, bk. 5, ch. 49, v. 57) 

Buddhist sacred literature teaches: "Hurt not others in ways that you yourself would find hurtful." (Udanavargu, 5:18, Tibetan Dhammapada, 1983) 

Historically human beings the world over have tried to shape social relations with fundamental codes of conduct such as the Golden Rule [3], and they sanctified these codes as an authority standing above the state or ruling regime by means of religion.

Why Is the Golden Rule So Universal?

The universality of the Golden Rule is discussed more fully here. Briefly, the Golden Rule is the basis for the mutual trust between people that is, in turn, the basis for cooperation; and without cooperation human beings cannot survive. Unlike some animals that can survive as lone individuals, relying on features of their body such as armor or claws to do so, humans can only survive by cooperation. Humans hunted successfully when they hunted in groups (like wolves). Our human newborns need to be cared for much longer than most other animal newborns, requiring cooperation between the human nursing and caring for the child and the human hunting or gathering food. Lacking fur, we need to build our shelters, which requires cooperation. The more civilization has advanced, the more our daily lives and very survival depend on cooperation. We are a social species.

Being a social species means we have evolved to have the mental as well as physical requirements for success as a social species; an an innate respect for the Golden Rule is as much a result of such evolution as is the innate behavior of some birds to migrate south in the winter.

Contributing to the universality of the Golden Rule is the fact that humans are keenly sympathetic to one another, the more so when they are in close proximity. David Hume, a keen analyst of human thought and behavior, wrote in the eighteenth century about this as follows:

“We may begin with considering a-new the nature and force of sympathy. The minds of all men are similar in their feelings and operations; nor can any one be actuated by any affection, of which all others are not, in some degree, susceptible. As in strings equally wound up, the motion of one communicates itself to the rest; so all the affections readily pass from one person to another, and beget correspondent movements in every human creature. When I see the effects of passion in the voice and gesture of any person, my mind immediately passes from these effects to their causes, and forms such a lively idea of the passion, as is presently converted into the passion itself. In like manner, when I perceive the causes of any emotion, my mind is conveyed to the effects, and is actuated with a like emotion. Were I present at any of the more terrible operations of surgery, it is certain, that even before it begun, the preparation of the instruments, the laying of the bandages in order, the heating of the irons, with all the signs of anxiety and concern in the patient and assistants, would have a great effect upon my mind, and excite the strongest sentiments of pity and terror.”


— Delphi Complete Works of David Hume (Illustrated) by David Hume

People thus know and sympathize with the needs and desires of others and feel a natural desire to do unto others as they would have others do unto them.

Western culture got it wrong about the origin of respect for the Golden Rule

In Western Christian culture the connection between belief in God on the one hand and the Golden Rule (morally good behavior) on the other hand was misunderstood. The wrong, but widely accepted, view was (still is among many people) that respect for the Golden Rule (morally good behavior) only existed when there was a fear that God would punish one in the afterlife if one behaved immorally. [4] Thus people referred to morally good people as "God fearing" people. Those who held (or hold) this view did (do) not grasp that the reason virtually all major religions of the world embrace the Golden Rule is because any religion that did not do so would never have gained substantial numbers of adherents, any more than a religion that condemned eating as immoral would have gained a following.

Who Knows Best the Importance of the Golden Rule?


The vast majority of people in human society do the work that makes that society possible, and this work is overwhelmingly cooperative. Thus farmers depend on truck drivers to get their crop to market, and depend on teachers to teach their children to read and doctors to provide medical care when needed, etc. etc. 


People who do the real work of society are the ones who thus most intuitively understand that the Golden Rule is vital. They understand this no matter what other religious (or anti-religious) beliefs they may or may not have. This is why any religion that did not embrace the Golden Rule could never have gained widespread acceptance. 


Among working class people (in the broad sense of everybody except the small oppressive ruling elites that have great wealth and privilege and power) the Golden Rule is considered the basis of morality. In virtually any gathering of ordinary people where a social decision is to be made, people defend their opinion by arguing that it is the one that is most consistent with the Golden Rule. Seldom will anybody explicitly deny the moral authority of the Golden Rule, even if they don't want to follow it.

Not Everybody Honors the Golden Rule

Human beings are not so hard-wired as to be incapable of acting contrary to the Golden Rule. There are two ways this happens.


#1. Ruling oppressive elites subvert the Golden Rule


Some, a minority, do indeed act contrary to the Golden Rule, for very selfish reasons. Such people are the ones who constitute (or want to join) the oppressive ruling classes in society, people who do not do the useful work but instead exploit and oppress those who do.

Human nature, however, is not what the capitalists say it is. The capitalists say that it is human nature to be selfish. Capitalists say that capitalism is the best of all possible kinds of social systems because it, unlike other social systems, acknowledges this (supposed) fact of human nature and channels the inevitable human selfishness into the creation--for profit--of social wealth. This capitalist defense of capitalism is false, as I discuss in detail in "The Capitalist Big Lie about Human Nature."

The vast majority of people honor and respect the Golden Rule and try as best they can to apply it in the little corner of the world over which they have any real control (as this online book demonstrates). Applying the Golden Rule in our society, however is hard. It's hard because the ruling elite--that controls all of the major institutions in society and uses its power to manipulate and coerce ordinary people--attacks the Golden Rule, by its actions if not its words. The ruling elite refuses to abide by the Golden Rule and does all it can to undermine working class solidarity, which is a key expression of the Golden Rule. The fundamental conflict in society is between those who respect the Golden Rule by supporting the egalitarian values of no-rich-and-no-poor equality, mutual aid, fairness and truth, versus those who have contempt for it.

Contempt for the Golden Rule can and often does, of course, take the form of defending some instance of oppression with specious arguments about how doing so is consistent with the Golden Rule. Thus slave owners in the antebellum U.S. South often said that, because slaves were an inferior race of people who actually benefited from having a master, therefore the slave master was acting in accordance with the Golden Rule when he/she enforced slavery.


Another major way that oppressive ruling classes subvert the Golden Rule is by declaring that some people (for example, blacks in the United States, especially up the the late 1800s when there were public lynchings of blacks in the South conducted in a celebratory carnival manner, and Palestinians today whom the Israeli government with great public support from Israeli Jews massacres routinely and treats like dirt between such massacres) are not fully or truly human beings and thus are not included in the "other" of the Golden Rule's "Do unto others..." Ruling classes do this to create a bogeyman enemy in order to control "their own" people, as I discuss here.


The fact that the Golden Rule can be deceitfully used or subverted in these ways does not take away from the fact that society ought to be shaped by an honest and sincere application of the Golden Rule.

#2. People don't apply the Golden Rule to those whom they perceive to be non-human enemies

Humans evolved over hundreds of thousands of years in small societies (tribes or similar aggregations of one sort or another.) People in a given society perceived each other as being humans but often perceived members of other societies as non-human enemies; 'Do unto others' did not apply to such others. Over time, the size of our societies, in which all members are viewed as fellow humans for whom the Golden Rule applies, has grown enormously. Still, there are people today who view other people as non-human enemies, and when/where this happens the Golden Rule is not applied to perceived enemies.

The Revolutionary Significance of the Golden Rule

When ordinary people make an egalitarian revolution, it will be because they intend to shape all of society by the Golden Rule, and remove from power those with the opposite intent. Shaping all of society by the Golden Rule is what egalitarian revolution is all about.


1.Different religions at different times have varied with respect to whether "others" referred to people of different religions or not. But regardless of whether society was conceived as universal or tribal, the Golden Rule was understood as the proper basis of behavior within it.

2. Another code of conduct found in many religions is the principle of "an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth" which, to many a modern ear, seems barbaric. But this principle actually was formulated as an attempt to reduce violence among people, as the following account of its origin demonstrates. 

"The law of 'an eye for an eye' is usually called the law of retribution, or 'lex talionis' (Latin, lex [law] and talio [like]; the punishment is like the injury), or the law of equivalency.

1. History of the legislation. The lex talionis is found in three passages in the Old Testament (Ex. 21:23, 24; Lev. 24:19, 20; and Deut. 19:21). A similar law is found in the ancient Mesopotamian code of Hammurabi. Earlier codes legislated financial compensation for bodily injuries, but Hammurabi seems to have been the first to require physical injury for physical injury. This has led some historians to conclude that there was a time when monetary compensation redressed personal injuries because the state did not consider them to be crimes against society.

The law of equivalency was a significant development in the history of jurisprudence in the sense that what used to be a private matter between two families was now taken over by the state and considered to be criminal behavior. This fits very well with the Old Testament understanding of offenses against others as offenses against the covenant community and against the God of the covenant.

2. The principle involved. The law of equivalency was an attempt to limit the extent of a punishment and to discourage cruelty. The principle of this legislation is one of equivalency; that is to say, the punishment should correspond to the crime and should be limited to the one involved in the injury (Deut. 19:18-21).
This law was a rejection of family feuds and the spirit of revenge that led the injured party to uncontrolled attacks against the culprit and the members of his or her family (cf. Gen. 4:23). The punishment was required to fit the crime, a principle still used in modern jurisprudence." [Bible Research Institute]

3. The Golden Rule quotations and sources presented here are taken from "The Golden Rule" and Christian Apologetics by Edward T. Babinski

4. The wrong notion that morally good behavior only follows from fear of God's punishment of morally bad behavior in the afterlife is illustrated in the writing, around 1832, of Alexis de Tocqueville's Democracy in America. Here are excerpts from that book on this topic, the first about how most Americans held (or at least acted as if they held) this wrong view and the second about how de Tocqueville himself also did:

“In the United States, if a political character attacks a sect, this may not prevent even the partisans of that very sect from supporting him; but if he attacks all the sects together, everyone abandons him, and he remains alone. Whilst I was in America, a witness, who happened to be called at the assizes of the county of Chester (State of New York), declared that he did not believe in the existence of God, or in the immortality of the soul. The judge refused to admit his evidence, on the ground that the witness had destroyed beforehand all the confidence of the Court in what he was about to say. The newspapers related the fact without any further comment.”


— Democracy in America (Fully Illustrated with Author Biography) by Alexis de Tocqueville

“But there are others who look forward to the republican form of government as a tranquil and lasting state, towards which modern society is daily impelled by the ideas and manners of the time, and who sincerely desire to prepare men to be free. When these men attack religious opinions, they obey the dictates of their passions to the prejudice of their interests. Despotism may govern without faith, but liberty cannot. Religion is much more necessary in the republic which they set forth in glowing colors than in the monarchy which they attack; and it is more needed in democratic republics than in any others. How is it possible that society should escape destruction if the moral tie be not strengthened in proportion as the political tie is relaxed? and what can he done with a people which is its own master, if it be not submissive to the Divinity?”


Democracy in America (Fully Illustrated with Author Biography) by Alexis de Tocqueville


bottom of page