In using the Golden Rule, we somehow put our own self, or a loved one, or some other
valued person, in the place of somebody else with similar needs – automatically.
We can identify four kinds of self-other equivalence used in the Golden Rule, which
we can call the equivalences of: 1) the body; 2) the heart; 3) the mind; 4) the soul,
or moral standing, moral equivalence, equivalence based on a sense of right and wrong.
The recognition of self-other equivalence must depend on approving of the stranger,
since if we do not approve of someone, we see them as less of a person.
We have to see them as deserving, in order to recognise their needs. “Deserving”
means that they are a good cooperator: that we approve of their behaviour, or that
they are part of our group (i.e. part of our cooperative enterprise: someone with
whom, in principle, we are interdependent).
early humans came to a sense of the equal deservingness of collaborative partners
by combining a sense of partner (self-other) equivalence with the need to exclude
Michael Tomasello – “A Natural History of Human Morality”
If we recognise them as deserving then we feel empathy towards them: we wish to understand
them (even if we are not good at understanding other people), and we wish to help
them (even if we are not in a position to do so).
The equivalences are automatic and involuntary, because they are forms of empathy,
which is a neurological process. In an empathic sense of recognising needs, two
deserving people (you, a loved one, a valued person) and another (potentially a complete
stranger) are merged into one.
The four equivalences:
1) body – recognising the equivalence of the other’s body with one’s own kind. An
example is seeing an injury on somebody we don’t know. According to one hypothesis,
one’s sense of body is expanded to include someone else’s body.
2) heart – emotions of equivalence, emotions of empathic concern, and wanting to
understand how the other feels, in order to help. One’s heart is expanded to include
someone else’s heart (needs), in the sense of actual empathic concern and neurological
motivation to act.
3) mind – intellectually recognising the equivalence of the “strange” other with
self, and attempting intellectual understanding of the other. Treatment of the other
is given according to the way we cognitively know that we would treat our own kind.
Metaphorically, one’s own mind is expanded to merge with another’s existence, [hypothetically]
leading to the sense of one person.
4) a soul: moral standing – they “ought” to be treated the same as us – equivalence
based on approval, which in turn is based on whether someone is in our in-group or
we approve of their behaviour. Each fellow of the community, or worthy stranger,
is afforded special standing and privileges compared with the outside world.
In the universal version of the Golden Rule, no. 4 means “any human being”.
Interchangeability of humans
The Golden Rule is a guide to behaviour that human beings readily follow, feel is
ethical, and, it is believed, feel instinctively.
Instinctively, we humans feel a sense of interchangeability with other humans. This
is because we are a cooperative species.
Cooperation involves roles, or jobs to do within a collaborative task, and these
are fixed by the need to do things the right way to ensure success. Each person
engaged in the collective task knows that in theory, any person with the right skills
could perform each of the roles, so people are in a sense interchangeable within
What is more, each person: 1) knows they are being evaluated and monitored, and that
they need to do a good job; 2) evaluates and monitors others, to see that they are
doing a good job; leading to another sense of interchangeability.
In addition, each member of the team also needs to monitor each other to see if they
need help – stepping into each others’ shoes for this purpose.
The Golden Rule and cooperation
The fact that we have the Golden Rule demonstrates how important cooperation is to
the human race. People who cooperate with us are so important to us that we mentally
change their place with a stranger in need who reminds us of them.
Empathic experience and extraordinary altruists
Altruism, defined as an intentional benefit given from one person to another at a
cost to the actor, is normally explained rationally – from the point of view of self-interest
– by reciprocity. We give because we know we will receive back somehow in the future,
whether that is between relatives or friends.
Extraordinary altruism, defined as altruism given to a stranger, with no possibility
of a return benefit to the actor, presents an evolutionary puzzle.
1 in 200 people in the USA will give away a kidney to a stranger. (Dr Abigail Marsh,
Philosophically speaking, perhaps extraordinary altruism is where empathic experience
meets the Golden Rule.
Possibly, the Golden Rule has its roots in cooperation and three of its corollaries:
1) helping people who help us, or are otherwise valuable to us; 2) self-other equivalence,
where roles are fixed but people are interchangeable within roles; 3) the deservingness
of people who cooperate with us on an equal basis (versus the non-deservingness of
It may be that many extraordinary altruists have witnessed other people in extreme
need or pain, especially those close to them. So, when they see some stranger in
need or pain, their experience is awakened and they mentally place the person they
value (themselves, a loved one, a friend, etc.) in the role of the stranger.
This depends of course on a sense of the stranger being “deserving” for whatever
reason (e.g. we approve of their behaviour).
Also, people sometimes seek to replay a story so that it turns out right, or somehow
undoes, or provides closure on, a traumatic event.
Humans have a general altruistic attitude because ancestrally, early humans depended
on each other to survive, and it makes sense to invest in (help) those we need. This
evolutionary scenario translates into present-day instincts of wanting to help in
response to need.
Universal human rights and Kant’s Categorical Imperative
If “each person” is equivalent to “each person”, and each person is treated as a
person, then we have individual rights universalised as universal human rights.
Categorical Imperatives: These command unconditionally. E.g. “Don’t cheat on your
taxes.” Even if you want to cheat and doing so would serve your interests, you may
What is the connection between morality and categorical imperatives? Morality must
be based on the categorical imperative because morality is such that you are commanded
by it, and is such that you cannot opt out of it or claim that it does not apply
The last sentence is referring to ethics: the “best” morality that we "should" follow.
in order to have moral authority, a proposed “ethical” principle must apply at all
times: i.e. must be good (ethically) for all people at all times; and consequently,
therefore, good (qualitatively) for society. These principles are necessarily general,
and allow any human being to interact successfully with any other, on a personal
A proposed “ethical” principle must have a reason why it is (to be regarded as) ethical:
why it is described as “the best” way to behave.
All of the ways in which a person wishes to be treated are ethical ways (with the
maximum benefit and minimum harm available to them).
Often we combine the Golden Rule with the norm of reciprocity. People say “my parents
were helped as refugees from the Nazis, and so I would like to help present-day Syrian
refugees in return”.
President Michelle Bachelet of Chile, whose father died under politically motivated
torture, showed the way when she said recently, “Because I was the victim of hatred,
I have dedicated my life to reverse that hatred and turn it into understanding, tolerance
and – why not say it – love.”
Donald W Pfaff, PhD – “The Neuroscience of Fair Play”
So, cheating. I don’t like it. I will not accept it from my partner. It’s a deal
breaker. If I don’t like it and won’t accept that from my partner, I cannot logically
allow it for myself. That’s part of my code. Some people call that a moral, for me
it’s a logical choice.
In China, Confucius (551-479 BCE) had also made the Golden Rule the centrepiece of
his moral philosophy.
In the Analects we find the passage: “When Chung Kung asked the meaning of jen, the
master said, ‘... Do not do to others that which you do not wish yourself ....’”
(XII, 2.) Again, Confucius is reported in the Analects as saying: “The man of jen
is one who, desiring to sustain himself, sustains others, and desiring to develop
himself, develops others. To be able from one’s own self to draw a parallel for
the treatment of others; that may be called the way to practise jen.” (VI, 28.)
Thus the practice of jen consists in consideration for others. “Desiring to sustain
oneself, one sustains others; desiring to develop oneself, one develops others.”
In other words, “Do to others what you wish yourself.” This is the positive aspect
of the practise, which was called by Confucius chung or “conscientiousness to others.”
And the negative aspect, which was called by Confucius shu or “altruism”, is “Do
not do to others what you do not wish yourself.” The practice as a whole is called
the principle of chung and shu, which is “the to practice jen.”
“Chung and Shu” (A Short History of Chinese Philosophy – Fung Yu-lan)
Buddha in the Metta Sutta said,
May I be well, may I be happy, may I be peaceful.
May all beings be well, may all beings be happy, may all beings be peaceful.