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The Golden Rule

By Brant Abrahamson

One of the most basic guidelines of human behavior that we can teach children involves treating others as they would want to be treated themselves (if in a similar situation). This is the Golden Rule. It is the most ancient universally accepted behavioral guideline that we have, and it remains relevant today.

One of the earliest records of a Golden Rule-like saying comes from ancient Egypt. It’s in The Tale of the Eloquent Peasant originally written in hieroglyphics about 5,000 years ago. Later, in the 700s BCE, Homer wrote, “I will be as careful for you as I should be for myself in the same need.” (The Odyssey, bk. 5 vv. 184-91) Confucius lived in the 500s BCE, and his secular philosophy was put in writing by his disciples after he died. These writings include “Try your best to treat others as you would wish to be treated yourself.” (Menaces VII A 4) Golden Rule statements from this time period and later are found in the literatures of most enduring religions.

More recently, generations of children have been uplifted by the easily remembered phrase, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” They learned it from texts such as McGuffey’s Eclectic Readers. It’s been printed on millions of rulers and pencils. Parents use variations such as these: “If you do that, your brother may try to do the same thing to you.” “Help your sister because sometime you’ll need help.”

There is a self-interest element in the Golden Rule, as in most things that people do, but altruism also is a human trait. It too is an evolved characteristic. (Alfie Kohn, The Brighter Side of Human Nature: Altruism & Empathy in Everyday Life, 1990) Small children often spontaneously share, and they are not thinking about return favors. Giving simply makes them feel good, and as adult caregivers, we need to build upon this natural inclination.

Our society is extremely competitive, and children must learn how to function in this environment. However, they need counterweights. Their lives will be enriched if their Golden Rule inclinations are maintained and built upon. Think of the ways that children helped in tsunami relief efforts and those relating to the devastating hurricanes. With our help this Golden Rule idealism can become a part of their lifetime ethic, and they’ll become part of a larger human quest for a just world.

Golden Rule thinking has expanded as human identification with others has increased. At one time empathy did not go much beyond the family, band or tribe. In the ancient Greek world of Homer, for instance, most people believed in helping friends and harming enemies. (Dale B. Martin, Inventing Superstition, 2004, p. 61) The form of the Golden Rule found in the Hebrew Bible--“ your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18, RSV)--is similarly limited. Today people identify with millions of individuals they do not know personally--groups that often are worldwide in scope. Young people should know there are no outward limits to Golden Rule use.

The Golden Rule as understood today means that there should be equality in the “global village,” and equality now is honored as an ideal in many nations. Consider the United Nations’ 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It emphasizes the “dignity and worth of the human person...the equal rights of men and women...without any limitation due to race, nationality or religion.” It states that no one is to “be subject to torture or...degrading treatment or punishment.” Governments are to be based on “the will of the people [as] ...expressed in...elections” based upon equal suffrage. Children are to have “the right to education [that’s] directed to the full development of the human personality.”

We are far from realizing these goals, but the “Declaration” itself is an achievement, and actual progress is being made. In many societies women now have a larger measure of economic and political power than in past times. Despite problems, the number of democratic governments has increased. Young people are raised more humanely than in previous centuries. Especially, girls’ prospects for fully developed lives have improved. On a personal level, Golden Rule thinking increases a person’s sense of self-worth. Unselfish individuals often are among the most happy people one encounters. They find joy in making the lives of others more pleasant, a truth our children should learn.

Religious leaders may say that Golden Rule living is based upon their god’s command, a god who rewards or punishes humans now or in an assumed afterlife. Such views demean the human spirit. Having empathy is an evolved human tendency, but it’s one that needs reinforcement. If we treat others as we would want to be treated in their situation--and teach this ethic to young people--their world can become a more desirable place in which to live. (Wouldn’t a Golden Rule plaque in public schools make a more effective display than posting the sectarian Ten Commandments?)

As a footnote, it’s interesting to know that the term, “Golden Rule” is relatively new--as is the most common way that the ethical saying is phrased.

The first surviving references to the term “Golden Rule” seem to date from the 1840s, and it was not capitalized. For instance, Frederick Douglass was a leading abolitionist and civil rights advocate for African Americans. He frequently referred to the moral teaching, but the first recorded evidence we’ve found that he called it the “golden rule” comes from a speech given in 1842. The title was somewhat more commonly used in literature written in the 1850s. A story entitled “A Lesson From the Golden Rule” was in the Oct. 1853 issue of Godey’s Lady’s Book. In 1859 Charles Dickens used the “golden rule” in a satirical way in “The Battle of Life,” a story following “A Christmas Carol” in his Christmas Books: Tales and Sketches. From then on it appears with increasing frequency. Charles Darwin used it in The Descent of Man published in 1871 (Chapter IV). The McGuffey's Reader reference mentioned previously was added to the Fourth Reader (Lesson 51) in the 1879 edition. “The Golden Rule,” was a short moral lesson that had been written much earlier, probably in the 1840s.

During this time period--the early and middle 1800s--the wording, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” also emerged, apparently evolving out of folk tradition. Although many people assume that this wording is ancient--even biblical--the exact phrase is not found in any classical reference or standard translation of the Bible.

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About the Author

Following graduate work at the University of Iowa and the University of Chicago, Brant Abrahamson taught world history, sociology and related subjects at Riverside-Brookfield High School. During this time he co-authored Thinking Logically: A Study of Common Fallacies and Prejudice in Group Relations. He was selected as an Illinois Master Teacher in 1986. Currently he directs The Teachers' Press and is co-author of History of the Hebrew Bible: Current Academic Understandings, a lesson series for young adults. He has written articles for Family Matters since 2001 and will continue to be a regular contributor to the online newsletter for Inquiring Minds. Brant can be reached via e-mail at


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