By Vexen Crabtree 2001 Dec 28
The Golden Rule (do unto others as you would have them do to you) and the Wiccan Rede (If no harm is done, do as you will) are forms of the Ethic of Reciprocity. Greek philosophers in the fourth centuryBCE derived it from logic as the most basic moral code, and four thousand years ago it appeared in ancient Egypt. It is the most basic relativistic-logic ethic. On account of its simplicity it is the most universal moral code known; appearing in nearly all cultures, being derived from multiple teachers, religions and philosophies at different times in different ways.
“The principle of reciprocity is often the justification, motivation and, in some cases, the essence of a moral code.”
The Golden Rule appears in most religions including: African Traditional2, Baha'i, Buddhism, Christianity, Confucianism, Hinduism, Islam, Jainism, Judaism, Native American, Paganism, Scientology, Shintoism, Sikhism, Taoism, Wicca3 and Zoroastrianism.
The oldest occurrence of the golden rule may be from 1970 to 1640BCE in ancient Egypt, making it at least a four-thousand old doctrine. The Egyptian empire spread its methods of religion and myths worldwide.
The Golden Rule is based around doing what you think is best (and no more). The negative approach (the Silver Rule) is about avoiding doing what you think is worst. The philosopher Lester R. Kurtz gives a general overview:
“The fundamental ethical teachings of all the major traditions are actually very similar. They tend to begin with a basic compassion or respect for others, such as the Golden Rule from Jesus ("Do unto others as you would have them to do you") or the Silver Rule from the Buddha ("Do not do unto others what you would not have them do unto you").”
It is not only theistic religions and Eastern philosophies that embrace this ethic; the respected atheist philosopher Richard Carrier notes that most atheist schools of thought adopt it too:
“Every atheist I have known has always fallen back upon the one concept echoed worldwide, and taught by religious and secular leaders throughout all time: the so-called "Golden Rule." Jesus was repeating an old Jewish proverb when he said "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you," and Confucius was recording an old Chinese saying when he wrote "Do not do to others what you would not want done to you."
All atheist systems of morality seem to derive in various ways from this core principle, and so it would be appropriate to say that atheists stand for the Golden Rule in its fullest meaning and significance. I believe that any rule or belief which violates this principle is discarded by most atheists as immoral...”
Richard Carrier (1999)
Unfortunately, we see below that the ethic of reciprocity does not work. It is merely a goodwill gesture, and is not a practical belief to enforce.
Yet it is not a universal belief of all religions. Nordic culture is probably an exception. Satanism does not accept the ethic of reciprocity5 and Anton LaVey edited the Golden Rule to add a note saying that he believed that punishment was acceptable for a person's actions if a person deemed them deserving of it for some reason.
Be kind to your enemies, because you want them to be kind to you. This is the kind (or naíve) interpretation of the golden rule. Selfless and noble, this ethic has ironically catalysed some of the worst atrocities in history. It has led to people being led happily by ruthless rulers into barbaric warfare and inhumane oppression as the indoctrinated masses fail to revolt against corrupt rule, for example, against the rule of Christianity during the Dark Ages/Age of Faith.
“At its higher level it becomes more generous and less mercenary, recognising the superior quality of the idea as formulated for instance by Lao Tzu in ancient China: 'For good return good: for evil return good'”
This misguided, but noble, practice is unfortunately impractical and inhuman. It has only ever been realized by asocial sectarian groups who break away from the rest of the world; rather than create a working ethic that increases the goodness of the world they abandon the world to the more cruel leaders who they fail to oppose.
The more common form of the ethic of reciprocity gives antagonizers free reign to bring down general morality to their own level. So, it also doesn't work. A violent warrior is going to have a very different idea of what normal conduct is. One who fights for survival is both willing to attack others, and defend himself, and upholding the ethic of reciprocity appears to tell him that it is ok for him to attack others, just because it's something he expects to happen to him too. Survivalists and those who expect others to treat them badly, who are happy in a tooth-for-tooth world are given the all-clear to go forth and act as they wish. The ethic of reciprocity is too idealistic, and can only ever maintain the status quo rather than create an atmosphere of goodwill. Most support it because they are unable to think of a better way, and it has a feel-good factor because the statement is given much credence in popular religious and spiritual writings.
We look to Oliver Thomson for a brief reprise:
“At the lower end, this is the rule of vendetta, 'an eye for an eye'. Violent behaviour by one group tends to produce a justification for the morality of violence by any opposing groups.”
Mostly this is due to its simplicity, it is the first general ethical statement that can be made when you take relativism between people into account, so most organized systems of thought and personal philosophies contain many exceptions and additions to this ethic. For example, no-one wants to be put in jail, yet most people believe that a prison system is morally better than having no prison system.
In short, this form of reciprocal ethics only can support the status quo, it does not create any better moral system than what already exists. It is superfluous, and with codes like these things can only get worse!
Some of the holy texts and religious literature quoted below asserts the ethic of reciprocity in a "negative" form, where it says "do not" do something, and some display the positive form where it actively states that you behave positively as you want others to treat you. The most ancient form of the golden rule, 4000 years old, is expressed in the positive form.
The Bible (NIV). The NIV is the best translation for accuracy whilst maintaining readability. Multiple authors, a compendium of multiple previously published books. I prefer to take quotes from the NIV but where I quote the Bible en masse I must quote from the KJV because it is not copyrighted, whilst the NIV is. [Book Review]
Kurtz, Lester R.
Gods in the Global Village (2007). 2nd edition. Published by Pine Forge Press, California, USA. Was previously Director of Religious Studies at Texas and holds a master's in Religion from Yale Divinity School and a PhD in Sociology from the University of Chicago. Kurtz is Professor of Sociology at the University of Texas, USA.
Pilkington, C. M.
Teach Yourself Judaism (1995). Published by Hodder Headline PLC.
Jesus Versus Christianity (1993). Originally published 1988. Cambridge International Publishers, London UK.
Stanton, Elizabeth C.. (1815-1902)
The Woman's Bible (1898). Amazon's Kindle digital edition. Produced by Carrie Lorenz and John B. Hare. Public Domain.
Stenger, Prof. Victor J.
God, the Failed Hypothesis: How Science Shows That God Does Not Exist (2007). Published by Prometheus Books. Stenger is a Nobel-prize winning physicist, and a skeptical philosopher whose research is strictly rational and evidence-based.
A History of Sin (1993). Hardback. Canongate Press.