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Who We Are

1693 to 1788

1693 Quaker George Keith, in an influential pamphlet, gives the first anti-slavery publication in the American colonies. He writes: "Christ commanded, All things whatsoever you would that men should do unto you, do you even so to them. Therefore as we and our children would not be kept in perpetual bondage and slavery against our consent, neither should we keep others in perpetual bondage and slavery against their consent."

1698 Quaker Robert Piles writes: "Some time ago, I was inclined to buy Negroes to help my family (which includes some small children). But there arose a question in me about the lawfulness of this under the gospel command of Christ Jesus: Do unto all men as you would have all men do unto you. We ourselves would not willingly be lifelong slaves."

1704 Gottfried Leibniz raises objection 8 (in my §14.3d), that the golden rule assumes antecedent moral norms: "The rule that we should do to others only what we are willing that they do to us requires not only proof but also elucidation. We would wish for more than our share if we had our way; so do we also owe to others more than their share? I will be told that the rule applies only to a just will. But then the rule, far from serving as a standard, will need a standard."

1706 Samuel Clarke's Discourse Concerning the Unchangeable Obligations of Natural Religion proposes: "Whatever I judge reasonable or unreasonable, for another to do for me, that, by the same judgment, I declare reasonable or unreasonable that I in the like case should do for him. And to deny this either in word or action, is as if a man should contend, that though two and three are equal to five, yet three and two are not so."

1715 John Hepburn's American Defense of the Golden Rule says: "Doing to others as we would not be done by is unlawful. But making slaves of Negroes is doing to others as we would not be done by. Therefore, making slaves of Negroes is unlawful."

1725 Jabez Fitch's "Sermon on the golden rule" defends the golden rule against objections and bases it on Christ's authority, abstract justice, and self-interest.

1739 David Hume's A Treatise of Human Nature, disputing those who see humans as essentially egoistic, argues that sympathy is the powerful source of morality (bk. 3, pt. 2, §1): "There is no human whose happiness or misery does not affect us when brought near to us and represented in lively colors."

1741 Isaac Watts's Improvement of the Mind, in discussing key principles in various fields, says: "Such is that golden principle of morality, which our blessed Lord has given us, Do that to others, which you think just and reasonable that others should do to you, which is almost sufficient in itself to solve all cases of conscience which relate to our neighbor."

1747 Methodism founder John Wesley says that the golden rule "commends itself, as soon as heard, to every man's conscience and understanding; no man can knowingly offend against it without carrying his condemnation in his own breast." (Sermon 30, on Mathew 7:1-12)

1754 John Wollman protests slavery on the basis of the golden rule: "Jesus has laid down the best criterion by which mankind ought to judge of their own conduct: Whatsoever you would that men should do unto you, do you even so to them. One man ought not to look upon another man, or society of men, as so far beneath him, but he should put himself in their place, in all his actions towards them, and bring all to this test: How should I approve of this conduct, were I in their circumstance and they in mine?"

1762  Jean-Jacques Rousseau's Émile (bk. 4) says: "The precept of doing unto others as we would have them do unto us has no foundation other than conscience and sentiment. When an expansive soul makes me identify myself with my fellow, and I feel that I am, so to speak, in him, it is in order not to suffer that I do not want him to suffer. I am interested in him for love of myself, and nature leads me to desire my well-being wherever I feel my existence."

1763 Voltaire, inspired by Confucian writings that Jesuits brought from China, says: "The single fundamental and immutable law for men is the following: 'Treat others as you would be treated.' This law is from nature itself: it cannot be torn from the heart of man." (du Roy 2008: 94)

1774 Caesar Sarter, a black ex-slave, writes: "Let that excellent rule given by our Savior, to do to others, as you would that they should do to you, have its due weight. Suppose that you were ensnared away - the husband from the dear wife of his bosom - or children from their fond parents. Suppose you were thus ravished from such a blissful situation, and plunged into miserable slavery, in a distant land. Now, are you willing that all this should befall you?"

1776 Humphrey Primatt's On the Duty of Mercy and Sin of Cruelty to Brute Animals uses the golden rule: "Do you that are a man so treat your horse, as you would be willing to be treated by your master, in case you were a horse."

1776 Thomas Jefferson writes the Declaration of Independence: "We hold these truths to be self-evident; that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." But he owns hundreds of slaves. The poet Phillis Wheatley, a black ex-slave, complains about the inconsistency between American words and actions about freedom.

1777 New England Primer for children has this poem: "Be you to others kind and true, As you'd have others be to you; And neither do nor say to men, Whate'er you would not take again." Some added a retaliatory second verse: "But if men do and say to you, That which is neither kind nor true, Take a good stick, and say to men, 'Don't say or do that same again.'"

1785 Immanuel Kant's Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals has a footnote objecting to the "trivial" golden rule, that it doesn't cover duties to oneself or benevolence to others (since many would agree not to be helped by others if they could be excused from helping others) and would force a judge not to punish a criminal. Kant's objections (which I answer in §14.3c) lowered the golden rule's credibility for many. Yet Kant's larger ethical framework is golden-rule like. His "I ought never to act except in such a way that I can also will that my maxim should become a universal law" resembles Gold 7 of my §2.3. And his "Treat others as ends in themselves and not just as means" is perhaps well analyzed as "Treat others only as you're willing to be treated in the same situation."

1788 John Newton's Thoughts upon the African Slave Trade begins with the golden rule and condemns the trade. A former slave trader, Newton during a storm at sea converted to Christianity. He wrote the Amazing Grace hymn, which begins "Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me!"


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