Updated on 03.10.12


Trent Hamm

One of the basic guidelines that I try to live my life by is the Golden Rule. It’s a simple statement that pops up in almost every world religion and many significant works of philosophy.

Simply put, treat others as you would like to be treated.

All things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye so to them; for this is the law and the prophets. – Matthew 7:1

I apply it pretty simply. Whenever I’m in a situation where there’s a significant interaction with another person, I simply stick myself into their shoes and ask how I would like to be treated if I were in that situation. I use that as a balance against my own interests and strive for a point where we can both walk away happy and fulfilled.

What happens, time and time again, is that when I treat others in that way, they generally reciprocate at least in kind. People seem to expect that the other guy is generally out there to take advantage of them, and when that doesn’t happen, they’re actually happy and respond with similar behavior. In other words, if you treat others better, they will treat you better.

Do not do to others what you would not like yourself. Then there will be no resentment against you, either in the family or in the state. – Analects 12:2

Beyond that, though, you’ll start feeling better about yourself. If you apply the Golden Rule consistently, you begin to genuinely feel (and with good reason) that you’re a good person, and that will lead to more self-trust and genuine self-esteem.

These are huge, life changing rewards. They alter almost every interaction you have with other human beings, elevating them to a level where they’re much more enjoyable, you feel much better about the value exchange, the other people walk away with a great impression of you (which spreads via word of mouth), and you don’t find yourself having to deal with burnt bridges.

Hurt not others in ways that you yourself would find hurtful. – Udana-Varga 5,1

Yes, there are many good arguments against the Golden Rule, the biggest one being that there are no moral absolutes and that you are making an assumption about what the other person would consider good and bad. Take, for example, a masochist – you would not want that person operating Even given that, you’ll find that the Golden Rule ends with a positive result the vast majority of the time, particularly when dealing with day-to-day life within your own culture.

For the remainder of this article, I’m going to offer up ten examples of how you can take advantage of the Golden Rule in your everyday life. Take these not as hard-and-fast rules, but examples that you can utilize and modify to the situations in your own life.

This is the sum of duty; do naught onto others what you would not have them do unto you. – Mahabharata 5,1517

If someone asks you for a small favor, do it. If you can accomplish that favor with little effort or in just a moment or two, always say yes. The tiny amount of time and energy you have to invest in the task is well worth the goodwill it earns you.

If someone asks you for a big favor, consider it. It’s easy to say “no” when a request sounds difficult, but you’ll often find that it’s not as difficult as it initially seems. Take a look at your life. Is there any reason you couldn’t burn a Saturday afternoon helping a friend move? Is there any reason you couldn’t help out with a project on Tuesday after work?

Woe to those… who, when they have to receive by measure from men, they demand exact full measure, but when they have to give by measure or weight to men, give less than due – Surah 83

Be friendly. Whenever you interact with people, interact in a positive fashion. Look for good things to say or simply don’t say anything at all. Whenever I hear someone say something negative, I usually just nod my head, say “Yeah…,” and then change the subject.

When you see someone in need, help. If someone drops their package, pick it up for them. If someone is approaching a door, hold it for them for a second (I do this for men and women – it’s not a chivalry thing or a sexist thing, just a courtesy thing). If someone is having difficulty finding exact change, drop a quarter in their hand.

What is hateful to you, do not do to your fellowman. This is the entire Law; all the rest is commentary. – Talmud, Shabbat 3id

Listen to what others are actually saying. Don’t spend the time when someone else is speaking or when you’re reading what someone else has written to already be writing the response in your head. Try to figure out what they’re actually saying. If you don’t have an understanding of what they’re saying, you can’t formulate a good worthwhile response.

Cut out the criticism. Criticism is easy. There’s virtually nothing in the world that isn’t somehow wrong and we can all find ways to correct it. The thing is that most people are trying hard to achieve something and criticism simply deflates their efforts. There’s no easier way to convince someone to no longer bother to help you or to interact with you than to just toss out criticisms at them all the time. Look for positives 99% of the time and keep the criticism to yourself.

Regard your neighbor’s gain as your gain, and your neighbor’s loss as your own loss. – Tai Shang Kan Yin P’ien

Recognize the independence of others. Do you like to be told what to do? Neither do most people. You can’t control the details of the lives of others, and trying to do so builds resentment (whether you see it or not). Back off the minutiae and let others do their own thing. Yes, even if they’re doing it wrong. They’ll ask you for help if they want it.

Act in accordance with what you value. This goes for big things and small things. If you think being courteous to others is important, be courteous to others. If you think stopping world hunger is important, donate some money to organizations that fight world hunger. If it’s something you value, directly support it and act upon it. Don’t just talk a good game. Do something. People respect actions far more than empty words, and you’ll respect yourself more, too.

That nature alone is good which refrains from doing another whatsoever is not good for itself. Dadisten-I-dinik, 94,5

Before you interact, think. If you know you’re about to interact with someone, put yourself in their shoes for a minute. What needs to happen for them to walk away feeling good and happy with you and with what went on? The goal of an interaction is not just to get what you want out of it, but to make sure the other person walks away happy. Sending people walking away upset just ends up hurting you in the long run because it makes every future interaction with them more difficult and also adversely affects your interactions with everyone they’re close to. Think for a moment and you’ll avoid this.

Don’t be afraid to let down your guard. This one goes out there to all the people who clam up in social situations, which I sometimes do. Imagine what would happen if everyone clammed up in those situations. Would that be enjoyable? Would you want to be around those other people? Open up a little, even if it means the potential of mild self-embarrassment (which is usually a positive if handled with grace).

Blessed is he who preferreth his brother before himself. — Bahá’u’lláh

In the end, you have to make the decision as to how you want others to interact with you. If you treat others like you want to be treated, they’ll pick up the cue. If you treat others horribly, rest assured they’ll pick up on that cue, too.

What you’ll find is that treating others well feels good, results in others treating you well, and ends up building a positive reputation for you. That’s a triple win.

Loading Disqus Comments ...
Loading Facebook Comments ...
  1. Emma says:

    “Cut out the criticism.” That should reduce number of comments.

  2. kc says:

    Best post ever! Well written, carefully proofed, and utterly without cliché! I even like the ad in the middle of it. Please write more like this.

  3. Johanna says:

    So by lecturing your readers like we’re naughty children, are you saying that that’s how you want others to treat you? Because I’m sure that can be arranged.

  4. Wren says:

    @Johanna – So, out of the whole article, all you could see was that you were being lectured at? Really? You didn’t find it interesting that so many different philosophies say much the same thing about what really is a golden rule? You felt that you were lectured to, like a naughty child? I find that almost as interesting as this post.

    @Emma – If only. :D

  5. Aerin says:

    Please don’t feed the trolls, everyone. I enjoyed this article very much, especially the quotes from different texts that show the Golden Rule in different religions and philosophies.

  6. Wren says:

    I did as well. That was very interesting, to me, as was the rest of it. A good article, with good information that it doesn’t hurt us to remember, as we go through our days.

  7. Adam P says:

    I have always like Emmanual Kant and the Categorical Imperative, creating moral rules that everyone would willingly adopt..it always seemed like the Golden Rule to me. I’m a huge proponent of the Golden Rule.

    I liked this post. A lot.

  8. DrFunZ says:

    I appreciate the references to so many different religious and philosophical traditions in this post. I think we have already established that the writer named Johanna’s day rise and sets on criticizing this blog. So very sad.

  9. Johanna says:

    @Wren: Interesting, I don’t know, but I didn’t find it particularly surprising that Christianity doesn’t have a monopoly on well-intended rules that people preach but don’t practice. Did you?

  10. K Ann says:

    Very, very nicely done. If I were to choose pieces of inspiration for my week as you do on Saturdays, I think I would choose this article.

  11. Kai says:

    Better yet, treat others as *they* want to be treated. Sure, in the genera sense of ‘be nice’, it works, but I think a lot of problems are caused by people projecting their own self onto others.
    Think of the parent who is offended if you don’t eat seconds – she’d eat lots of good food you made, so why won’t you eat hers (because you’re full).
    Or the guy who buys others gifts that he would love – but they don’t really care for.
    Have you ever been told ‘you’ll love this!’ about something, then figured out what was really meant was ‘I love this’?
    I don’t put too much stock in ‘treat others the way you want to be treated’.

  12. David says:

    Among common misconceptions of the work of Immanuel Kant (an uncommon misconception is that he spelled his name “Emmanual”, which sounds like a user’s guide to French soft porn movies) is that he constructed a single “Categorical Imperative” which was in essence “do only those things that you would wish everyone did”. Instead, Kant viewed “imperatives” as being of two kinds: “hypothetical imperatives” are principles that prescribe acting in a certain way to gratify some desire; while “categorical imperatives” are principles that prescribe acting in a certain way at all times, regardless of one’s desires.

    The first examples that Kant gives in the Critique of Practical Reason are:

    “Tell a man, for example, that he must be industrious and thrifty in youth, in order that he may not want in old age; this is a correct and important practical precept of the will.” But it is a hypothetical rather than a categorical imperative because it prescribes a mode of behaviour appropriate only to those who want to enjoy a comfortable old age on the basis of their earlier industry and thrift; it does not apply to people who expect to be provided for by others in old age, or people who expect to die young, or people who think that they will be able to get by on very little.

    By contrast: “tell a man that he should never make a deceitful promise, this is a rule which only concerns his will, whether the purposes he may have can be attained thereby or not; it is the volition only which is to be determined a priori by that rule. If now it is found that
    this rule is practically right, then it is a law, because it is a categorical imperative.”

    Of course, difficulties arise when principles that have equal validity as categorical imperatives conflict. “Never tell a lie” and “Never hurt another’s feelings” are both categorical imperatives, and the dichotomy between them has been keenly felt by anyone whose husband has ever bought a shirt that he thinks is wonderful but that is in fact hideous, and asked “What do you think?” It was left to the later philosophy of Hegelian dialectic to provide the solution: buy your husband’s shirts yourself.

  13. Diane says:

    Long ago, when I used to be bothered by a certain person’s relentless nit-picking, I e-mailed Trent and asked him to put the commenter’s name first. He did. Now I know who the trolls are and I don’t read their input. It’s “golden” because they are free to do the same with mine!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *