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Philosophical reflections on the golden rule

The following paper was presented at an April 2008 conference organized by the Institute of Advanced Theology of Bard College.  It was published in Jacob Neusner and Bruce Chilton, eds., The Golden Rule: Analytical Perspectives (Lanham, Maryland: University Press of America, 2009). 
Philosophical reflections on the golden rule
            It is a privilege and a pleasure to participate in Jacob Neusner’s finely organized conference on the Golden Rule, launched by William Green’s generous keynote address, and attended by so many scholars who are expanding our knowledge and understanding, including two who I know have long been making distinguished contributions to the understanding of the Rule: Harry Gensler, whose logically incisive writing clarifies thinking on the topic, and Olivier du Roy, whose newly completed dissertation at the Sorbonne far surpasses any previous book in resources for a multicultural history of the Golden Rule from antiquity to the present day.  It is to be hoped that his voluminous typescript in French will find a publisher and translators.  The paper that follows offers and adds to a digest of my book, The Golden Rule.

Is the Golden Rule truly golden?  Can it be a rule—the rule—of living?  Only if it is broadly and flexibly conceived, relying on teamwork to approach an interdisciplinary and global perspective.  It needs to note of developments in diverse cultures of the ancient world, as well as modern social science, philosophy, and religion.  The Golden Rule needs to symbolize living in truth and beauty, as well as goodness.  Does the project become overwhelming, inviting confusion and skepticism?  Let us see whether a single paper can set forth a viable order in terms of which to listen to, question, and integrate the multiplicity of cultures and disciplines.

The Golden Rule—Do to others as you want others to do to you—is intuitively accessible, easy to understand in its simplicity, communicating confidence that the agent can find the right way.  It tends to function as a summary of the practitioner’s moral tradition.  The Rule most commonly expresses a commitment to treating others with consideration and fairness, predicated on the recognition that others are like oneself.

            The Golden Rule serves the needs of educated and uneducated people alike, and stimulates philosophers to codify its meanings in new formulations.  Given the equal, basic worth of each individual, the rule implies a requirement of consistency; as Samuel Clarke put it, “Whatever I judge reasonable or unreasonable for another to do for me; that, by the same judgment, I declare reasonable or unreasonable, that I in the like case should do for him.”  In addition, the Rule carries implications for social, economic, and political matters.  In one form or another, with interpretations that differ and overlap, the Rule is a precious word in the shared language of our world.[1]

            The Rule’s simplicity enfolds complexity, levels of meaning, which are uncovered in cultures and academic disciplines wherever the Rule has been studied.  The specific cultural and disciplinary challenges which have been met with the help of the Golden Rule have each added meanings to the Rule that become, through education, the common heritage of humankind.  In ancient China, the challenge was to move from an ethics of social-ethical conformity to a life of moral spontaneity.  In ancient Greece, the challenge was to separate a sophistic principle of social acceptability from norms of philosophic reason.  In ancient Judaism, the challenge was to summarize a complex tradition in a way that highlighted essentials.  In the New Testament presentations of the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth, the challenge was to integrate, first, realism about the consequences of right and wrong conduct, second, an emerging summary of morality, and, third, an ideal of spiritually transformed living.  In medieval thought the challenge was to distinguish the level of conduct that could be expected of persons without faith from the quality of living expressive of spiritual renewal.  In early modern philosophy, the challenge was to separate interpretations of the Rule that were vulnerable to counterexamples from reformulations that would capture the Rule’s implicit moral reason.  Those efforts of reformulation have been taken to new heights in recent analytic philosophy, while European philosophers have deepened our comprehension of empathy and our awe in the presence of the Other.  In twentieth-century psychology, Lawrence Kohlberg linked developmental levels of moral reasoning with levels of meaning in the Golden Rule; and Erik Erikson gave interpretations of the Rule to fit the sequence of challenges that people face during the course of life.  These summary statements suffice to indicate the Rule’s ability to illumine paths of progress through diverse cultural and personal problems.

            We thus glimpse the life in the Golden Rule.  It cannot be captured in a static interpretation, since it engages the thoughtful doer in a process of growth.  To follow it to the end is to move from egoism to sympathy, to sharpen moral intuition by reason, and to find fulfillment beyond duty-conscious rule-following in spontaneous, loving service.  The unity of the Rule, amid its wide diversity, is its function as a symbol of this process of growth.  Whoever practices the Golden Rule opens him- or herself to a process of change.  Letting go of self to identify with another individual, or with a third-person perspective on a complex situation, or with a divine paradigm, allows a subtle and gradual transformation to proceed, a transformation with bright hope for the individual and the planet.  The Rule begins by suggesting that the way the agent wants to be treated can function as a standard of conduct; but by placing the other on a par with the self, the Rule engages the agent in approximating a higher perspective from which the kinship of humanity becomes evident.  To pursue this higher perspective is to risk encountering the divine and the realization that every step along the forward path is illumined by the Creator.[2]

            A bit of reasoning will show the way to a series of levels of interpretation of the Golden Rule.  The levels mark a unified process of growth that integrates psychology, philosophy, and religion.  The levels also furnish questions for comparative cultural study.

            A rule of sympathy.  The Golden Rule expressed as a rule of sympathy runs, “Treat others with sympathy and consideration, as you want others to treat you.”  Children as young as eighteen months can imagine themselves in another person’s place (for example, feeling jealous of another child on the mother’s lap).  Children that young can also behave sympathetically, seeking to relieve the distress of another child (for example, bringing a toy to a child that is crying or going to get that child’s mother).  As children grow up, one of the early lessons is to be considerate of others’ feelings.  Ironically, children are taught not to hurt others sometimes by parents who ask harshly, “Is that the way you want others to treat you?”  Tones of threat or condemnation accompanying the message may become associated in the child’s mind with the Golden Rule itself and with morality generally.  Erik Erikson warned about the suppressed rage that can be instilled in children by parental moralism.  The wise parent learns loving and sympathetic ways to teach consideration for the feelings of others.

            Sympathy is so valuable that if a Golden Rule of sympathy were universally followed, it would put an end to the indifference and cruelty that mar our world.  Sympathy is a biologically prompted emotion (e.g., mammalian mother-love) which, at its height, blends with compassion, a feeling of soul.

            Nevertheless, sympathy is not a sufficient guide to morality, since sympathy can be short-sighted.  Pity, which can develop from sympathy, is often unhelpful and loses sight of the dignity of the other person.  False sympathy leads parents to shield children from the consequences of their actions.  Nor are sympathy and pity reliable guides to political wisdom; sensational media easily rouse these emotions, but to engage the public in thoughtful consideration of problems is a different kind of enterprise.

            Thus, two levels of interpretation of the Golden Rule can be distinguished, correlating with two gears of the self.


  1. Sympathy.
  2. Reason.


            The need to join sympathy with reason becomes more evident as we consider the practice of imagining oneself in another person’s situation, a practice widely associated with the Golden Rule.  The practice is beneficial insofar as it often rouses us from complacent self-centeredness and brings to mind what we know and imagine of the other.  Research has found, moreover, that persons tend to be more effective in helping those in need when they do not merely fill their minds with the impression of the other person suffering, but rather imagine themselves in the other person’s situation, seeing the world through their eyes, which conduces to a less emotional and more practical approach to the person and problem at hand.[3]

            But the imaginative role-reversal also has limits.  First, it is neither necessary nor sufficient for moral discernment.  Intuitive empathy may be fully adequate without any deliberate effort of imagining.  In addition, merely imagining oneself in the other person’s situation may not yield an adequate comprehension of the other.  There are cognitive limits to imagining, which gives no magic access to new knowledge, though it does give us a chance to recall and give weight to what we already know about the other person.  The more the other is a stranger different from the agent, the less information is carried by the act of imagination, but a sensitive effort to imagine can remind one of https://sites.google.com/a/kent.edu/jwattles/home/golden-rule-home/quotes-from-the-chaptersone’s ignorance.  It may be necessary to get to know the other through personal acquaintance, the study of history, psychology, and sociology, exposure to the arts, and so on.  Moving beyond imagination to dramatic role playing in which persons act out the roles of nurse and patient, for example, can be very educational; and one discovers how important it is to get feedback from the recipient to confirm or correct one’s intuitive understanding.  Still, even a good understanding of the other does not suffice for moral clarity or moral motivation.  And viewing oneself through the eyes of others can be overdone, as becomes clear in W. E. B. DuBois’s 1903 classic, The Souls of Black Folk.


After the Egyptian and Indian, the Greek and Roman, the Teuton and Mongolian, the Negro is a sort of seventh son, born with a veil, and gifted with second-sight in the American world—a world which yields him no true self-consciousness, but only lets him see himself through the revelation of the other world.  It is a peculiar sensation, the double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity.[4]


The final caveat about imagining oneself in another’s situation is implied in Joseph Conrad’s novel, Heart of Darkness, which portrays the risk of empathizing with someone who is monstrously immoral.

            The levels of reason.  If the Golden Rule is to function as the rule of living, it must symbolize a broad range of virtues indeed.  Moral conduct is not only well intentioned; it is also intelligent, looking well into the future.  It is common in ethics to observe that one needs to be aware of the facts of the situation to decide rightly, and countless applied ethics texts give one-paragraph situation descriptions in order to set up the problem to be solved.  How would we prefer to be treated: on the basis of an intuitive and inadequate understanding or on the basis of a reasonable understanding of our long-range welfare?  When we go to a physician, we expect the latter, so far as our physical welfare is concerned.  A career counselor should have information about career prospects for the range of fields that the client is considering.  A well-informed parent knows something of developmental psychology.  The desire to show goodness apart from truth is empty.  Utilitarianism is sometimes faulted for requiring decision-makers to achieve impossible calculations of future effects of alternative courses of action, but the theory should be credited for bringing decision-makers face to face with one component of responsible deliberation.  “Deliberate slowly, act quickly,” admonishes Aristotle, and the Golden Rule should not be embraced as a short-cut when there is time and need for more deliberation.  And Kant tells agents to do all the good they can, which requires far more than consulting the pure, apriori deliverances of moral reason; and if his third major formulation of the categorical imperative in the Groundwork were adjusted in the light of his understanding of historical and political evolution, it might read, “Act so that the maxim of your action, if generally followed, would conduce to progress toward an advanced civilization.”  Clearly such a principle calls for historical wisdom.  The Golden Rule of scientific reason is, “Treat others with due regard for their long-run welfare, as you desire others to treat you.” 

            In addition to the need for Golden Rule conduct to be empirically well-informed, there is a higher and properly moral level of reason that is expressed and implied in a replete concept of the Golden Rule.  The Golden Rule of moral reason is this: “Treat others in the light of moral reason, as you would have others treat you.”

When Aristotle talks about the beautiful or noble deed, when Kant talks about the awesome fact and value of human dignity, when Mill appeals to what has been called an ideal observer’s perspective for weighing the interests of all beings affected by a course of action, when Hegel portrays human freedom becoming real through family life, economic activity, and political participation, we see moral reason coming into its own.  Kant and Mill both regarded the Golden Rule as a popular maxim that approximates what their theories were designed to articulate philosophically.  The Rule engages us in the exercise of moral reason, and as we discover problems in texts of Aristotle, Kant, Mill, Hegel, or other thinkers, we will inevitably find the need to add or subtract, to give a fresh restatement or at least a contemporary interpretation, even if we value a particular text as scripture.[5]

            One of the ironies of the Golden Rule is that, at the hands of a certain kind of reason, which Hegel would call understanding rather than reason (Verstand, not Vernunft), dozens of objections have been raised, complaining that the standard implied by the Rule was too low, too high, or too vague.  In quest of an “ethical theory” that would give necessary and sufficient conditions for moral judgment, some way to complete the sentence, “An action is if right if and only if . . .” it became popular to reject the golden rule because of counterexamples that could be alleged.  In response, one is forced to reject, reformulate, or re-interpret the Golden Rule. 

            Let’s consider two objections.  First, the Golden Rule naively presupposes that we are alike; as George Bernard Shaw wrote, “Don’t treat others as you want others to treat you—their tastes may be different.”  On the surface, this objection may be handled by considering how we treat a friend at the ice-cream store: we don’t order the flavor we prefer, but the flavor our friend prefers.  In other words, we generalize the Rule to an intuitively appropriate degree.  Put more deeply, this objection points to the need to treat others with due regard for their individual uniqueness and for any relevant specific characteristics, sex, racial composition, social and economic class, age, condition of health, culture, education, and so on.

            The second objection generates another level of meaning in the Golden Rule.  The objection alleges that the Rule tells a person with base desires to treat others so as to gratify the same desires.  After Augustine’s example of a person who wants to get drunk with a companion and Alan Gewirth’s example of a person who wants to sleep with his neighbor’s wife, the current version of the objection consorts with perversity.  “What if a sadomasochist were to treat others as he wants others to treat him?”  An adequate reply includes several points.  First of all, there is a remarkable recursive feature to the Golden Rule which enables it to rebound resiliently from objections.  I do not want to be treated in accord with a rule interpreted to yield bad results, so I must reinterpret the rule to use it.  Second, the critic is neglecting to ask what the rule means, for example, in the teaching of Confucius, Hillel, or Jesus, and is asking only what its words can be made to mean if abstracted from every context.  Third, the Golden Rule is addressed to you, not to a hypothetical third person, and it presupposes a certain level of moral maturity in the agent.  Take care not (sadistically) to dehumanize “the sadomasochist” by conjuring up a fantasy of strangers accosting strangers on the street.  Be careful not to assume an exaggerated picture of what the Rule, even if taken literally, might seem to authorize.  Strictly speaking it might be said to authorize, at most, engaging in such behavior only with others who choose the same.  Fourth, this is indeed one interpretation of the Rule—the lowest one; though the Rule has a moral flavor associated with it that is inconsistent with such applications.  Nevertheless, we human beings do project distorted desires onto others who sometimes do share those desires.  The Golden Rule interpreted on the level of the flesh sometimes describes us far better than we are ready to acknowledge.  In addition, people have acted abusively when attempting to apply the Golden Rule.  And we sometimes do conform to moral norms mainly because of self-interest.  Fifth, if a sadomasochist were to make a sincere effort to apply the Golden Rule in every area of life, he would probably grow in the sympathy and self-respect presupposed by the Rule.  Let it be made clear that the normal physical desires are part of the Creator’s provision for us, and they have a genuine role to play in the functioning of superbly integrated men and women.  It is only the distortion and wrong expression of those desires that is here under discussion.

            We may now piece together a more complex schema of levels of interpretation of the Golden Rule.  The meanings of the Rule may be expressed in terms of the following capacities of the self.


  1. Material desires.
  2. Sympathy.
  3. Long-range, altruistic prudence.
  4. Moral reason.


            There are many reasons to seek a level of meaning in the golden rule beyond the level of moral reason.  Sometimes even the most exhaustive study of circumstances and principles and patterns does not suffice to indicate what is to be done, and the mind seeks for higher wisdom.  Moral reason points beyond itself, since it is committed to choosing the best course of action, all things considered.  In attempting to take an ideal perspective in a complex situation, it is natural for the human mind to reach for an actual ideal, for God.  Moreover, even when what is to be done is clear, the graciously spontaneous way to act may remain beyond one's powers.  If moral decision and action are be wholehearted, they must draw on the full range of the personality, not only the mind, and must respond to the fullness of the other person, including the spiritual dimension.  In addition, many people need religious motivation to fuel the engine of moral conduct.  Indeed, a reasonable, do-your-best ethic is misleading if grace is needed to do your best.[6] 

            The levels of love.  The only time in history when the Golden Rule seems to have approached the status of a slogan for a mass movement was during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in the United States, when there was widespread allegiance to the gospel of the fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of man.  This trend within liberal Protestant Christianity combined with America’s earlier religious heritages to give the Golden Rule a special place in the minds and hearts of untold numbers of persons.  It is well to recall the functions performed by the combined concepts of the fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of man.  The teaching implies the unity and personality of God.  The concept of God as parent preserves the thought that God transcends the believer yet suggests that God is close, that we may experience the divine presence.  The sequence of components in the slogan implies the primacy of the relationship of the individual with God.  The phrasing does not privilege any religion.  The brotherhood of man is the social consequence of the individual's relationship with the Creator.  Talk of brotherhood addresses the special challenges of modernity, to dissolve the forces that tear the fabric of humankind: religious intolerance, nationalism, racism, sexism, economic and political injustice, and so on.  And “the fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of man" sets forth those components of religion with the universal logic of family life.[7]  The teaching of this movement can be simply put.  The Golden Rule is the principle of the practice of the family of God.

            What relations obtain between a Golden Rule of brotherly and sisterly love and a Golden Rule of moral reason?  From the perspective of modern ethics in general and Kant in particular, any religious interpretation would be no more than a supplement, adding meaning and motivation.  Religion, moreover, must take care not to interfere, since bad religion betrays moral reason.  What is sought is the power of an integrating alignment of spiritual faith and moral reason.  But Kant did not acknowledge the fragility of moral reason, its need for a religious foundation.  Kant’s testifies with all his heart and mind and soul and strength: “Now I say that man, and in general every rational being, exists as an end in himself and not merely as a means to be arbitrarily used by this or that will.”  Kant proclaims the infinite dignity of the humanity in each person—empirical evidence seemingly to the contrary notwithstanding.  His affirmation is an article of faith.  At the same time he is agnostic about ever being able to tell whether we truly act from that motivation which alone lifts us above our material nature.  Thus what we can lucidly certify is nothing actual, only our potential for rational self-governance.  Because our own conduct so often betrays our birthright as sons and daughters of God, it is very easy to lose sight of our dignity as creatures with moral reason which is God’s gift to us all.  Kant’s celebration of the infinite worth of humanity “that indwells us” is a rationalist amalgam, launched by Plato, assimilating reason and spirit.  But if we are actually the family of God, and if the divine spirit gift is actually within each of us, and if each unique and mysterious personality is actually a masterpiece of the Creator’s art, then we have more robust grounds for affirming one another and more leverage for the labor of growth.  There was an unacknowledged and partly mutilated religious layer beneath Kant’s rationalism.  What is common still today is for ethicists to assume, without argument, the equal, basic worth of persons.  I propose that there is a religious ground for the flourishing of moral reason: the source of human dignity is our common origin in the Creator.  One may hazard the hypothesis that without a religiously based sense of human kinship, the drive to assert and actualize equality on other grounds courts error and frustration.  In a world where nationalism and racism and domestic violence are so widespread, given the logical and practical fragility of the affirmation of human dignity, moral reason is wise to acknowledge a religious basis for the recognition of the infinite worth of the individual.

            If we follow the suggestions implicit in the argument thus far, the resulting schema of interpretations now has five levels of meaning.


  1. Material desires.
  2. Sympathy.
  3. Long-range, altruistic prudence.
  4. The love of brothers and sisters in the family of God.
  5. Moral reason.


            There is another level of love, another practice of the family of God, and that is to love another with the love of God which is shed abroad in the human heart.  This goes beyond brotherly and sisterly love to parental love, fatherly and motherly love.  Leviticus 19 gives as the word of God, “Be holy as I am holy.”  Matthew 5 teaches, “Be you perfect as your Father in heaven is perfect.”  In various ways, the human being is called to be like God in the humble and delightful measure possible for a mortal.  A parent is willing to do far more than a brother or sister is willing to do (in the typical case that I assume here).

            Divinely parental love goes beyond reciprocity in once sense.  Anthropologically speaking, the expectation that the good we do to others merits good returned to us is well-nigh universal in human communities.  Even an unconscious expectation of receiving good in return may cast a shadow on our altruism, but this darkness departs in the sunrise of the motivation of divine love.  This is not to suggest that God does not desire communion with us, only that his blessings are not given with strings attached, requiring that we know, on each occasion, whence they come and formally express, on each occasion our gratitude.  Nevertheless, reciprocity in another sense persists, for the Golden Rule invites the agent to extend to others the same attitude of service that one would welcome as the recipient of someone else's divinely parental love in the same kind of situation.

            In God, whose spirit dwells within, we find the source of boundless love, and to God we turn for wisdom to guide our expression of love.  When that wisdom meets that motive, the summit of the Golden Rule is reached.  This level, added to the others, gives a list of interpretations correlating with six possible factors of motivation, the last of which transcends the human self, even in its indwelling.


  1. Material desires.
  2. Sympathy.
  3. Long-range, altruistic prudence.
  4. Brotherly and sisterly love.
  5. Moral reason.
  6. Divine love.


            This culminating list needs three comments.  First, it is not a hermeneutic tool that can be assumed to apply in any obvious way to the Golden Rule’s diverse expressions, many of which cannot be simply classified.  In such cases this list can often simply guide inquiry into what dimensions may be present.

            Second, it might seem that moral reason has been quite transcended here by the agent flooded with grace, but this is not the case.  Rather, there is something like a game of leapfrog going on between our growth in moral reason and our growth in spiritual experience.  In this game, the first child goes forward by leaping over the child just in front of him.  Then the first child kneels down, and the second one leaps over him.  Every philosophic advance prepares a new religious advance, and vice-versa.[8] 

            An agent seeking to find and do the will of God may use three principles for prayer that integrate well with the best of Kantian moral reason.

            1.  In seeking to know the will of God, one should not expect prayer to replace an intelligent study of the situation and an exhaustive effort to make the necessary adjustments.  One does not expect the Deity to do one’s homework, and one needs to be prepared carefully to work out the details of what is to be done.  Scientific and philosophic thinking have a role to play in the prayer process.  They are taken to the limit, not marginalized, by the responsible person seeking the will of the Creator of a universe where, despite mystery and uncertainty, one may observe dependable laws of matter and mind.

            2.  One prays for the growth that the problematic situation requires, for assistance in the quest for perfection.  Such religious hope is already part of the Kantian program.[9]

            3.  At the summit of the prayer process, having done one’s utmost to think through the problem, one opens the mind to receive a higher wisdom.  As one’s prayer life matures, there increasingly comes an influx of truth, beauty, and goodness, a new perspective on the situation.  However, one does not relinquish the responsibility to assess the meanings and values of what comes to mind during this time.  If energies from the subconscious stream in, fine—we can use these energies.  If new ideas and impulses arise, they will be reflectively reviewed before the decision is made.  Given the dangers of fanaticism, it is safer to risk rejecting a spiritual input than to mistake a personal impulse for the divine lure.  Thus Kant’s requirement of autonomy is not compromised.  Responsible freedom and the dignity of human personality are preserved in this relation between the Creator Father and the creature son or daughter.  Reason—our best thinking—is enhanced, not overturned, in the process.  This integration of emerging reason and emerging spiritual experience protects against fanaticism.

            The last comment highlights one more phenomenon of the life of the Golden Rule: it does not draw attention to itself, but directs attention into the texture of what is to be done and the person who is to be served.  Rule consciousness vanishes in self-forgetful service.  One does not need continually to remind oneself of the rule of living.  Just as empathy often it unnecessary deliberately to put oneself in the other person’s shoes, so the agent who lives the Golden Rule is increasingly immersed in sympathy, long-range prudence on the other’s behalf, brotherly or sisterly solidarity, moral reason, and parental love infused by God.  Repeated work with this list or any worthy path of thoroughness returns one to the way of simplicity.       In 4th century B. C. E. China, Mencius put it thus: “A noble man steeps himself in the Way (tao) because he wishes to find it in himself.  When he finds it in himself, he will be at ease in it; when he is at ease in it, he can draw deeply upon it; when he can draw deeply upon it, he finds its source wherever he turns.”  Truly, the life in the Golden Rule, the rule of living, derives from the Way that resides therein.


[1] This paragraph is adapted from the conclusion of Jeffrey Wattles, The Golden Rule (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996), pp. 189-90.

[2] The Golden Rule, pp. 189-90.

[3] The Golden Rule, p. 119.

[4] W. E. B. Dubois, The Souls of Black Folk [1903] 1990, pp. 8-9.

[5] Indeed, a historical review of the meanings of the Golden Rule expands our very concept of what moral principle is.  The first set of meanings comes from Confucian tradition.  A moral principle provides the key to—or symbolizes—some central virtue of character.  A moral principle may be grouped with others in a cluster that expresses the core of morality.  A moral principle expresses a norm of relationships.  Living in accord with moral principle is essential to the flourishing of social groups.  One can use a moral principle throughout one’s lifetime.  Since a lifetime involves growth to maturity through various stages, one’s experience of the practice of the principle will undergo transformation in the process.  Accordingly, the meaning of such a principle may be multiple and non-static.  Not only does one pursue different objects, but the very structure of one’s motivation changes, too.  Since, at the summit of moral maturity, one’s conduct of relationships is not primarily motivated by restraint in conscientious conformity to a rule, a moral principle leads beyond itself, leads to loving spontaneity, bringing a certain transcendence of the moral standpoint from which it was initially undertaken.  The next two meanings come from ancient Greco-Roman culture: a moral principle orients the agent in a way that is generally consistent with prudence born of social-psychological insight; and there is more to a moral principle than a maxim of prudence: justice and fairness are expressed (or at least not violated) in a moral principle.  Classical Jewish thought adds four more meanings: A moral principle functions as a summary connoting the best of one’s tradition.  Divine conduct can be the paradigm for the practice of a moral principle.  A moral principle governs one’s relations with all people, and all people are expected to abide by a moral principle.  The New Testament adds that the necessary prerequisite for fruitful and sustained living in accord with moral principle is spiritual transformation by grace through faith.  From medieval and early modern thought we can add that a moral principle is inherently accessible in the mind of every person.  A moral principle expresses an eternal pattern. A moral principle expresses the best of human sentiment.  A moral principle is rational at least in that it is intelligible and provides a guide to moral reflection.  And—what is most problematic for the Golden Rule—a moral principle has no counterexamples; it provides a necessary and /or sufficient basis for sound moral judgment.  During the past century, the following meanings have become explicit.  A moral principle expresses the practical import of central religious truth.  Moral principles never contradict each other.  A moral principle expresses the universalizability and prescriptivity implicit in the use of moral language.  The ideal moral principle makes minimal assumptions and permits the derivation of maximal practical consequences.  In particular, a moral principle must be a universally available standard (i.e., one with no religious presuppositions).  Religious meanings and values associated with a moral principle need not be explicit in order for productive moral discussion to operate.  And finally, a moral principle should enhance sensitivity to the problems of domination over the other, moralistic presumption, and the tendency of action to inflict passivity, if not suffering, on the recipient.  The tension between the secular and religious dimensions is resolved by interweaving levels of reason and spiritual love.


[6] The Golden Rule, p. 182.

[7] The Golden Rule, p. 91-92.  Since the heyday of the gospel of the Fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of man, Neo-Orthodox teaching has challenged the concept of the brotherhood of man, and feminism has challenged the Father concept of God.  If Jesus’ concept of sonship with God can be interpreted as embracing a plurality of meanings, and if the Father concept of God can be grasped not only as metaphor but also as analogy, Christianity could regain a synthesis of these key elements.  See http://www.personal.kent.edu/~jwattles/unifam.htm and http://fp.dl.kent.edu/jwattles/cgospel.htm .

[8] The concluding list rejoins the one set forth in my article, “Levels of Meaning in the Golden Rule” (Journal of Religious Ethics 15.1, 106-129 (Spring, 1987).

[9] Immanuel Kant, Metaphysics of Morals, The Doctrine of Virtue, #21; Religion within the Limits of Reason Alone (New York: Harper & Row, 1960), p. 47).