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Julia Tesch

Frances McCue
What We Know and How We Know It
The Golden Rule
As children, we are taught to always follow the Golden Rule, which states, do unto
others as you would have them do unto you. In this essay, I will argue that the Golden Rule isnt
a practical or appropriate way to approach social interactions and shouldnt be the basis for our
treatment of others, because it cant achieve its goal of making everyone happy with how theyre
I will first explain that the Golden Rule argues for identical treatment of everyone. The
Golden Rule implies that how one person wants to be treated is exactly how everyone else
should be treated. Lets look at a scenario with John and Jane. If John wants to be treated in
Fashion A, then by the Golden Rule he should treat everyone with whom he interacts in Fashion
A as well. If, as the Golden Rule claims, Fashion A is the correct way for John to treat everyone,
including Jane, then Jane is being treated as she wants. If the Golden Rule says to treat others as
one wants to be treated in return, and Jane is being treated in Fashion A as she wants, then Jane
must also be treating everyone with whom she interacts in Fashion A. This continues on to all of
Johns and Janes friends, their friends friends, and so on. Thus, if followed, the Golden Rule
results in identical treatment of everyone. However, this does not work in reality. Our differing
cultural backgrounds, perspectives, and situations provide each person with an individual idea of
how he or she should be treated.

The culture from which one comes has a dramatic influence on what one views as
socially appropriate. The way in which someone from one culture feels he or she should be
treated could be considered rude or inappropriate in other cultures. For example, in Japanese
culture, it is considered impolite to immediately accept a gift, whereas in American culture it can
be considered rude to refuse a gift. If an American tried to give a Japanese a gift and the Japanese
refused to accept it, both could end up offended. This concept can be applied to any social
interaction between individuals of different cultures: treating the other as one would want to be
treated may be misunderstood and interpreted as offensive.
Different cultural backgrounds arent the only influencing element for our varying ideas
of how we want to be treated. Other factors, such as age, religion, gender, location, societal roles,
or past experiences all also influence ones perspective. For example, a typical fifteen-year-old
American boy might want to be treated in a casual manner, perhaps spoken to with slang and
about topics commonly enjoyed by boys of that age, such as video games or girls. A typical
eighty-year-old American woman, on the other hand, might want to be treated with more formal
respect, and probably wouldnt be particularly interested in either video games or girls (or at
least not in the same sense as the teenage boy). Thus, if such a teenage boy were to treat such an
elderly woman in the way he would want to be treated, he wouldnt be treating the woman in a
way she would appreciate. This shows that the Golden Rule cant be a basis for our interactions
with others.
Additionally, how one wants to be treated might not be how one feels he or she needs to
treat another, based on factors like ones instincts or knowledge of anothers mental capacity. For
example, one may need to treat someone with mental disabilities with more patience or

sympathy than one would want in turn. Alternately, if one meets a strange person in an
unfamiliar location and has a gut instinct that this person is untrustworthy, one would be welladvised to treat this person with apprehension for safetys sake. Or, consider the following: one
would want a criminal to be punished for his or her crimes. However, it is safe to say that no one
wants to receive legal punishment, whether its through mandatory community service or life
imprisonment. Clearly some situations call for treating others differently than one would want in
One might object that the Golden Rule wasnt intended to be a strict rule, and even if it
was, that it was intended to only guide behavior rather than dictate specific actions. Couldnt it
just be reminding us to treat others with respect or compassion? For example, rather than saying
we should bake cookies for all our friends, the Golden Rule could argue that we should just share
and be generous in general. However, this is clearly not the case. Not only is it explicitly called a
rule, it is the Golden Rule, a title that implies its supreme status. Additionally, the rules
wording commands that one do unto others The use of the verb do implies that one is
taking action, rather than just approaching social situations with a particular mindset. Thus, the
Golden Rule was clearly intended to be a strict rule that commands certain actions, rather than
just guiding choices.
Some people say that because we interact for the most part with people of the same
culture as our own, its ok to assume that everyone will share similar societal expectations and
we should thus treat them as we would want to be treated. For example, couldnt one just assume
that everyone within the United States deems gift-giving as socially acceptable? However, this
viewpoint doesnt account for differing perspectives that stem from non-societal causes, such as

age or gender, as previously described in the situation with the elderly woman and the teenage
boy. Additionally, recall that I have established that the Golden Rule was intended to be a strict
rule applying to every single situation, not simply a general guideline. Making a generalizing
assumption about everyones cultures would inevitably result in at least a few people with whom
one interacts being treated in a way they would dislike, thus not following the Golden Rule.
Therefore, this argument is incompatible with the purpose of the Golden Rule.
One could make a few objections to the argument of how to treat a criminal. One might
say that although no one wants to receive punishment, everyone would want to be treated with
justice and equality under the legal system. However, as was explained earlier, the Golden Rule
applies to specific actions, not just general principles. One might also argue that although no one
wants to be punished, as a member of society, one can understand and expect to face
consequences for committing a crime. But this argument is invalid, as understanding and
expectation are wholly different from wanting; just because you want your friends to bake you
cookies every day doesnt mean you expect them to do so.
Still others might claim that the Golden Rule is self-correcting, in that just as one would
want another to take into account ones individual perspective or situation and adjust his or her
treatment accordingly, one should do the same for others. However, if we adhere to the idea
presented earlier that one shouldnt make assumptions about others ideas of how to treat people,
we are left with no way of knowing others wants or needs besides simply asking. While one
theoretically could ask every individual with whom one interacts how he or she would like to be
treated, it is far too impractical an option to be applied in everyday life. Consider again our
friend John, who has decided he wants to follow the Golden Rule by asking others how they

want to be treated. As John leaves work one evening, he stops at the grocery store on the way
home to pick up some milk. Upon getting out of his car in the parking lot, another customer
makes eye contact and nods her head in greeting. Before nodding back in acknowledgment, John
shouts out, How would you like to be treated? The woman looks confused and walks away.
Once John is in the store, an employee asks him if she can help him find anything. John responds
with First, I must ask how you would like to be treated. The employee, confused, says that
shes not sure what he means. At that moment, John spots the milk, thanks the employee, and
heads up to the checkout stands. When he reaches the front of the line, the cashier greets him and
asks how his shopping experience was. Again, John asks the cashier, How should I treat you?
Obviously, carrying out such a practice is ridiculous and implausible. Therefore, there is no
realistic way to know how to adjust ones treatment of others based on each individuals desires,
and so the Golden Rule cannot be realistically self-correcting.
Clearly, the Golden Rule does not result in everyone feeling satisfied with how they are
treated. On the contrary, following it can result in inappropriate assumptions, misunderstanding,
and social discomfort. Rather than deciding how to treat others as a reflection of our own wants
and needs, we should be receptive to others individual needs, regardless of our own. While of
course one should treat others with respect and compassion, as would be included within the
premises of the Golden Rule, it still is not a practical or appropriate rule on which to base our
interactions with others.