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Who We Are

1948 to 1994

The United Nations Declaration of Human Rights, supported by most nations of the world, begins with a golden-rule like idea: "All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood."

1948 Hans Reiner's "Die Goldene Regel" revives a German discussion on the golden rule that had stalled since Kant's objection (1785). Reiner distinguishes various golden-rule interpretations and tries to answer the objections of Kant and Leibniz.

1948 A high-school teacher in Los Angeles conducts an experiment. Seniors agree to follow the golden rule with their families, without telling them, for 10 days. The results are dramatic. Students find that they get along much better with their families and like living this way, even though their families are perplexed. Many vow to live this way forever. 

1950 C.D. Broad's "Imperatives, Categorical and Hypothetical" says "A person ought never to treat others in a way he would not be willing to be treated by others."

1950 Albert Tucker creates the prisoner's dilemma, a game-theory story where two prisoners can do better for themselves if they cooperate instead of following their individual interests. Many discuss how this relates to the golden rule.

1955 C.I. Lewis's Ground and Nature of the Right gives the basic rational imperative as "Be consistent in thought and action." This involves the idea that no way of thinking or acting is valid for anyone unless it's be valid for everyone else in the same circumstances. He gives golden-rule like norms: "Act toward others as if the effects of your actions were to be realized with the poignancy of the immediate - hence, in your own person" and "Act as if you were to live out in sequence your life and the lives of those affected by your actions."

1956 Ullin Leavell introduces the Golden Rule Series of books for moral teaching in public grade schools.

1956 Erich Fromm's Art of Loving says we distort the golden rule if we see it as having us respect the rights of others while caring little about their interests. Instead, the golden rule calls us to oneness and brotherly love.

1957 Leon Festinger's theory of cognitive dissonance explains that we're distressed when we find that we're inconsistent, and so we try to rearrange our beliefs, desires, and actions so that they all fit together. This can be applied to golden-rule consistency: we're distressed when our action (toward another) clashes with our desire about how we'd be treated in a similar situation.

1957 Damon Knight's novel Rule Golden describes a reversed golden rule enforced by aliens, whereby we receive the same treatment that we give to others. This makes it in our interest to follow the golden rule.

1957 Chuck Berry's School Days song mentions the golden rule in the curriculum: "Up in the mornin' and out to school, The teacher is teachin' the golden rule, American history and practical math, You study 'em hard and hopin' to pass."

1958 The Golden Rule ship travels into the Pacific to disrupt and protest the American nuclear atmospheric testing program (which was later stopped).

1958 Kurt Baier's Moral Point of View suggests (paraphrase): Treat others only as you find acceptable whether you're on the "giving" or the "receiving" end.

1959 Dagobert Runes's Pictorial History of Philosophy begins with a sidebar listing golden-rule sayings in nine world religions. Many similar lists would follow.

1960 Alan Gewirth's "Ethics and normative science" says: "There is good evidence that ideals like the golden rule have seemed no less cogent ethically than non-contradiction and experimentalism have seemed in science."

1961 Monk Thomas Merton's New Seeds of Contemplation (p. 71) explains God's will as requiring that we unite with one another in love: "You can call this the basic tenet of the Natural Law, which is that we should treat others as we would like them to treat us, that we should not do to another what we would not want another to do to us."

1961 Norman Rockwell's Golden Rule painting (showing the golden rule and people from many religions, races, and nations) appears on the cover of the popular Saturday Evening Post magazine. The United Nations wasn't interested when Rockwell wanted to paint it for them as a large mural. But the UN in 1985 put up a mosaic version and today you can buy several other versions of it at (which has hundreds of golden-rule references).

1962 Albrecht Dihle's Die goldene Regel studies the golden rule in ancient Greece and sees it as about self-interest (you do for me and I'll do for you) and retaliation.

1963 Marcus Singer writes that the golden rule has had little philosophical discussion, despite its importance and almost universal acceptance. He discusses absurdities that the usual formulas lead to (e.g., "If I love to hear tom-toms in the middle of the night, does the golden rule tell me to inflict this on others?"). He suggests that we apply the golden rule only to general actions (like treating someone with kindness) and not specific ones (like playing tom-toms). (But we still get absurdities like "If you want people to hate you (as you might do), then hate them.")

1963 R.M. Hare's Freedom and Reason argues that the logic of "ought" supports the golden rule: You're inconsistent if you think you ought to do A to X but don't desire that A be done to you in an imagined reversed situation. Rational moral thinking requires understanding the facts, imagining ourselves in a vivid and accurate way in the other person's place, and seeing if we can hold our moral beliefs consistently (which involves the golden rule). 

1963 Aldous Huxley writes: "In light of what we know about the relationships of living things to one another and to their inorganic environment - and what we know about overpopulation, ruinous farming, senseless forestry, water pollution, and air pollution - it has become clear that the golden rule applies not only to the dealings of human individuals and societies with one another, but also to their dealings with other living creatures and the planet."

1963 President John Kennedy appeals to the golden rule in calling for an end to racism and segregation. He is assassinated later that year. In 1965, the U.S. government passes a Civil Rights Act; Senator Hubert Humphrey, in the act's closing defense, began by quoting the golden rule.

1964 William Hamilton's "The genetic evolution of social behavior" looks at evolution as the survival of the fittest genes; this leads to sociobiology and discussions about kin altruism,reciprocal altruism, and the golden rule's genetic basis.

1964 Erik Erikson's "The golden rule in the light of new insight" suggests (paraphrase): Treat others in ways that strengthen and develop you and also strengthen and develop them.

1966 Bruce Alton at Stanford writes one of only two philosophy doctoral dissertations ever written on the golden rule. He proposes this golden rule: "If A is rational about rule R, then if there are reasons for A to think R applies to others' conduct toward A, and A is similar to those others in relevant respects, then there are reasons for A to think R applies to A's conduct toward others."

1966 C.I. Lewis's Values and Imperatives says: "Suppose there are three persons involved in the situation: A, B, and C. Then nothing can be, for you, the right thing to do unless it should still be acceptable to you whether you should stand in the place of A, B, or C."

1966 Senator Robert Kennedy, in a speech in South Africa against racism, appeals to the golden rule: "The golden rule is not sentimentality but practical wisdom. Cruelty is contagious. Where men can be deprived because their skin is black, others will be deprived because their skin is white. If men can suffer because they hold one belief, others may suffer for holding other beliefs. Our liberty can grow only when the liberties of all are secure."

1968 On December 6, R.M. Hare gives a golden-rule talk at Wayne State University in Detroit. On this day, I (Gensler) become a golden-rule junkie, with a love-hate relationship to Hare's golden-rule approach.

1970 Thomas Nagel's Possibility of Altruism says (p. 82): "The rational altruism which I defend can be intuitively represented by the familiar argument, 'How would you like it if someone did that to you?' It is an argument to which we are all in some degree susceptible; but how it works, how it can be persuasive, is a matter of controversy."

1971 John Rawls's A Theory of Justice suggests (paraphrase): Treat others only in ways that you'd support if you were informed and clear-headed but didn't know your place in the situation.

1971 Robert Trivers's "The evolution of reciprocal altruism" argues that organisms that mutually benefit each other will tend to develop an altruistic concern for each other. This is important for the golden rule's genetic basis.

1977 Harry Gensler at Michigan writes one of only two philosophy doctoral dissertations ever written on the golden rule. He proposes this (like Gold 1): "Don't act to treat another in a given way without consenting to yourself being treated that way in the reversed situation."

1978 Alan Gewirth's "The golden rule rationalized" points out absurdities that common golden-rule sayings lead to and suggests instead (paraphrase): Treat others only as it's rational for you to want others to treat you - and hence in a way that respects the right to freedom and well-being.

1979 Dr. Bernard Nathanson, who had fought to legalize abortion and later directed the world's largest abortion clinic, now appeals to the golden rule against abortion. His Aborting America (p. 227) rejects his former view as falling "so short of the most profound tenet of human morality: 'Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.'"

1979 Milton Bennett attacks the (literal) golden rule as wrongly assuming that people have the same likes and dislikes. He proposes instead the platinum rule: "Treat others as theywant to be treated." 

1981 Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard publishes The Way to Happiness. Two chapters discuss easier-to-follow golden rules: "Try not to do things to others that you would not like them to do to you" and "Try to treat others as you would want them to treat you."

1981-84 Lawrence Kohlberg's Essays on Moral Development, based on empirical data, claims that people of all cultures develop moral thinking through six stages. The golden rule appears at every stage, but with higher clarity and motivation at higher stages. We treat others as we want to be treated because this helps us escape punishment (stage 1), encourages others to treat us better (2), wins Mommy's and Daddy's approval (3), is socially approved (4), is a socially useful practice (5), or treats others with dignity and respect (6). We can best teach children the golden rule by discussing moral dilemmas with them and appealing to a stage just higher than what they use in their own thinking.

1983 Germain Grisez's Christian Moral Principles (q. 7-G) sees the golden rule as about how to promote good and respect integral human fulfillment in an impartial way that doesn't unduly favor one person over another.

1983 Hans Reiner's "The golden rule and the natural law" sees the golden rule as about autonomy. The golden rule takes the standards I use in evaluating others and applies them to myself. The golden rule, which all cultures recognize, is the basis for natural law. This suggests (paraphrase): Treat others following the norms you use to evaluate their actions toward you.

1983 Jürgen Habermas's Moral Consciousness and Communicative Action suggests (paraphrase): Treat others following norms that all affected parties could ideally accept.

1984 Robert Axelrod has game-theory experts propose strategies for playing matches made up of many prisoner-dilemma episodes. Strategies play against each other on a computer. The winner is TIT FOR TAT, which cooperates on the first move and then mimics what the other party did on the previous move (following "Treat others as they treat you").

1986 H.T.D. Rost, a Bahá'í, publishes The Golden Rule: A Universal Ethic, about the golden rule in world religions.

1986 Pope John Paul II, speaking to world-religion leaders, says: "Jesus Christ reminded us of the golden rule: 'Treat others as you would like them to treat you.' Your various religious creeds may have a similar injunction. The observance of this golden rule is an excellent foundation of peace."

1987 Jeff Wattles's "Levels of meaning in the golden rule" proposes six levels, starting with sensual self-interest ("Do to others as you want them to gratify you") and ending with taking God's love for us as the model of how to love others ("Do to others as God wants you to do to them").

1990 Paul Ricoeur's Oneself as Another connects our self-identity with our narratives about ourselves, where we see ourselves as if we were another. The golden-rule heart of morality is the opposite, to see another as ourself, to feel the pain of another is if it were our own, to act from love.

1990 Paul Ricoeur's "The golden rule," in talking about the golden rule in Luke's gospel, argues that the context rules out a self-interested interpretation (we treat others well just so they'll treat us well), that "Love your enemies" is more demanding than the golden rule but less useful as a general guide, and that the proper motivation for these norms is gratitude for God's love.

1992 Armand Volkas, a drama therapist whose parents were Holocaust survivors, conducts workshops that bring together children of Nazis and children of Holocaust victims. The participants role play, taking the other side's place. Volkas says: "If you can stand in somebody's shoes, you cannot dehumanize that person." (Wattles 1996: 117f)

1992 Harry Handlin's "The company built upon the golden rule: Lincoln Electric" says: "If, as managers, we treat our employees the way that we would like to be treated, we are rewarded with a dedicated, talented, and loyal work force that will consistently meet the needs of the marketplace."

1992 Donald Evans's Spirituality and Human Nature (p. 36) warns against a prideful misuse of the golden rule: I follow the golden rule toward others but don't let others help me.

1993 Mark Johnson's Moral Imagination says (p. 199): "Unless we can put ourselves in the place of another, enlarge our perspective through an imaginative encounter with others, and let our values be called into question from various points of view, we cannot be morally sensitive."

1993 The second Parliament of the World's Religions, led by theologian Hans Küng, overwhelmingly supports a "Declaration for a global ethic" that calls the golden rule "the irrevocable, unconditional norm for all areas of life." For the first time, representatives of the world's religions formally agree on a global ethic.

1993 The Catechism of the Catholic Church says three rules always apply in conscience formation: "One may never do evil so that good may result; the golden rule; and charity always respects one's neighbor and his conscience."

1993 Stephen Holoviak's Golden Rule Management: Give Respect, Get Results explains how to use the golden rule in business.

1994 Neil Cooper's "The intellectual virtues" says: "The readiness to cooperate critically in humility and honesty for the advancement of knowledge is an intellectual virtue required by our goals. We should treat others in argument as we would have them treat us. This is the golden rule of the ethic of inquiry."

1994 Nicholas Rescher's American Philosophy Today proposes this golden rule (p. 72): "In interpreting the discussions of a philosopher, do all you reasonably can to render them coherent and systematic. The operative principle is charity: do unto another as you would ideally do for yourself."


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