In using the Golden Rule, we somehow put our own self, or a loved one, or just someone
we value, in the place of somebody else – 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
We can place either our own self, a loved one, or some other valued person, into
this equivalence with someone we may not even previously know.
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. Approval
generally means either approving of someone’s behaviour, or seeing them as part of
one’s in-group (which can include the whole human race, and other species).
If we recognise the equivalence of another person 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 help them).
The equivalences are automatic and involuntary, because they are forms of empathy,
which is a neurological process. In some undefined sense, two people (you, a loved
one, a valued person) and another (potentially a complete stranger) are merged into
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 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 persons
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. Each person engaged in the collective task knows
that in theory, each person could do each of the roles.
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.
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.