Legal Dictionary

golden rule

Definition of golden rule


golden rule (plural golden rules)

  1. (idiomatic) A fundamental rule or principle.

    * 1859, Charles Darwin, On the Origin of Species, ch. 10:
    It is all-important to remember that naturalists have no golden rule by which to distinguish species and varieties.

  2. (ethics) The principle that one should treat other people in the manner in which one would want to be treated by them.

    * 1818, Sir Walter Scott, Rob Roy, ch. 2:
    "Mr. Francis seems to understand the fundamental principle of all moral accounting, the great ethic rule of three. Let A do to B, as he would have B do to him; the product will give the rule of conduct required." My father smiled at this reduction of the golden rule to arithmetical form.

Further reading

The Golden Rule or ethic of reciprocity is a maxim, ethical code, or morality that essentially states either of the following:

  • (Positive form): One should treat others as one would like others to treat oneself.
  • (Negative/prohibitive form, also called The Silver Rule): One should not treat others in ways that one would not like to be treated.

The Golden Rule is arguably the most essential basis for the modern concept of human rights, in which each individual has a right to just treatment, and a reciprocal responsibility to ensure justice for others.

The notion that the Golden Rule pertains to "rights" per se is a contemporary interpretation and has nothing to do with its origin. The development of human "rights" is a modern political ideal that began as a philosophical concept promulgated through the philosopy of Jean Jacques Rousseau in 18th century France, among others. His writings influenced Thomas Jefferson, who then incorporated Rousseau's reference to "inalienable rights" into the Declaration of Independence. To confuse the Golden Rule with human rights is to apply contemporary thinking to ancient concepts.

A key element of the Golden Rule is that a person attempting to live by this rule treats all people with consideration, not just members of his or her in-group. The Golden Rule has its roots in a wide range of world cultures, and is a standard way that different cultures use to resolve conflicts.

The Golden Rule has a long history, and a great number of prominent religious figures and philosophers have restated its reciprocal, bilateral nature in various ways (not limited to the above forms). As a concept, the Golden Rule has a history that long predates the term "Golden Rule" (or "Golden law", as it was called from the 1670s). The ethic of reciprocity was present in certain forms in the philosophies of ancient Babylon, Egypt, Persia, India, Greece, Judea, and China.

Statements that mirror the Golden Rule appear in Ancient Egypt in the story of The Eloquent Peasant. Rushworth Kidder states that "the label 'golden' was applied by Confucius (551-479 B.C.), who wrote a version of the Silver Rule. Kidder notes that this framework appears prominently in many religions, including "Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism, Zoroastrianism, and the rest of the world's major religions", and Simon Blackburn states that the Golden Rule can be "found in some form in almost every ethical tradition".

Even though the Golden Rule certainly is part of the concept of reciprocity, one thing that separates and distinguishes it from the Silver Rule and other similar concepts of reciprocity is that, whereas the Silver Rule simply serves as a prohibition against negative action, the Golden Rule actually serves as a motivation toward positive action. As Dr. Frank Crane put it, "The Golden Rule is of no use to you whatsoever unless you realize that it's your move!"

Criticisms and responses to criticisms

Many people have criticized the golden rule; George Bernard Shaw once said that "the golden rule is that there are no golden rules". Shaw suggested an alternative rule: "Do not do unto others as you would that they should do unto you. Their tastes may not be the same" (Maxims for Revolutionists; 1903). Karl Popper wrote: "The golden rule is a good standard which is further improved by doing unto others, wherever reasonable, as they want to be done by" (The Open Society and Its Enemies, Vol. 2). This concept has recently been called "The Platinum Rule" Philosophers, such as Immanuel Kant, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Bertrand Russell, have objected to the rule on a variety of grounds. The most serious among these is its application. How does one know how others want to be treated? The obvious way is to ask them, but this cannot be done if one assumes they have not reached a particular and relevant understanding.


  1. Wiktionary. Published under the Creative Commons Attribution/Share-Alike License.


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