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Redefining The Golden Rule

What Does it Mean in Today’s Society to “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you?”

I’m a big believer in following The Golden Rule as a standard for ethical behavior. After all, how can anyone argue that the concept, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” is not an appropriate standard for ethical behavior? Sure, narcissistic people might object because their view might be better explained as “Do unto others in a way that benefits oneself” or some other self-serving way to approach ethics. But most people aren’t that way and truly want to treat others the way they want to be treated: with honesty, trustworthiness, respect, fair-mindedness, responsibly and with integrity, to name a few ethical values.

I’m writing today’s blog on The Golden Rule because I read an article by Mark W. Merrill on relationships. He points out that everyone has heard the Golden Rule.  It’s one of those basic rules that parents tell their kids to follow. But, according to Merrill, we may be showing our kids something different. He contends that parents may not be teaching the lesson of The Golden Rule, at least the way it was intended years ago by the ancient Greek philosophers.

Here are 3 ways Merrill believes parents sometimes misinterpret or misapply the cherished Golden Rule.

  1. Do unto others so they will do something good back unto you.

This attitude is manipulation disguised as kindness. It’s a twist on The Golden Rule that teaches us to treat others nicely, not because we would appreciate it, but so we can expect good things from them in return. It’s I scratched your back. Now you better scratch mine in some way. The true spirit of the Golden Rule is to treat others like you wish to be treated without expectation one way or another of how they might treat you. In other words, it’s a way of behaving that is its own reward – the way it makes us feel about ourselves.

  1. Do unto others precisely what you want them to do unto you.

This misapplication of the Golden Rule is like the first manipulation, but it has a very specific expectation. Instead of just hoping for something positive in return, this twist on the Golden Rule says, I scratched your back. Now you better scratch mine the same exact way. With this interpretation, The Golden Rule is used like a battering ram to get one’s way or else. It’s almost like a threat to take action if the other person does not reciprocate in kind.

  1. Do unto others before they do unto you. Golden rule

This old joke is a cynical twist on the Golden Rule. It forces us to look at others with a skeptical, guarded eye. It’s I’ll stab you in the back before you stab me. It’s the pain-inflicting and pain-avoiding opposite of the Golden Rule. This interpretation promotes self-serving behavior with an expectation that others will do the same, so you had better be first in line to get a jump on them.

During my years of teaching business ethics, I often heard some students express The Golden Rule this way: He who has the gold makes the rules. They come to that conclusion because they believe money drives behavior and it can lead someone with money to use it and make rules that harm others – all so that the decision-maker can benefit from their actions.

It’s a challenge to teach students otherwise because let’s face it, it does seem, at least sometimes, that money talks and if you don’t have it, your opportunities for advancement are limited. I believe that is the message of The Varsity Blues case a few years ago where wealthy parents bought their kids admission to some of the best colleges and universities.

There are other ways to view The Golden Rule that have been described over the years. Here are some of them.

The Silver Rule. “Do unto others as you would not want done to you.

The Platinum Rule. Treat others the way they want to be treated.

The Rule of Love. Love others as you do yourself (or better).

Role-Taking. Put yourself in other’s shoes in order to know how to treat them ethically.

Empathy. Feel and care about the suffering of others.

Kant’s Categorical Imperative. “Act only according to that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law. In other words, “Only follow ethical rules that you think should be universal.”

I’ve concluded that The Golden Rule is missing from today’s society where selfish behavior clouds its true meaning, kindness and empathy are a thing of the past, and individual’s do not look outward to define their behavior but inwards toward their personal desires.

Have I become a cynic? To some extent, yes. However. there are good people out there, but it seems the bad ones get the press and are followed on social media, and all too often they get away with bad behavior. In other words, there are no consequences for acting that way even though it is wrong by most standards of right and wrong.

Posted by Dr. Steven Mintz, The Ethics Sage, on September 15, 2021. Steve is the author of Beyond Happiness and Meaning: Transforming Your Life Through Ethical Behavior. You can sign up for his newsletter and learn more about his activities at: Follow him on Facebook at: and on Twitter at: