Rockwell's Gold Rule, The Saturday Evening Post, April 1, 1961

The “Golden Rule” is not so Golden; it’s Time for New Guidelines

Rockwell's Gold Rule, The Saturday Evening Post, April 1, 1961
Rockwell’s Gold Rule, The Saturday Evening Post, April 1, 1961

More and more, I find myself cringing when I hear friends and colleagues promote the virtues of the Golden Rule or the rule of thumb. A popular ethical ideal, this rule tells that a guide to being ethical is that we should treat people the way we want to be treated; “do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” or “do nothing to others you don’t want to be done to yourself.” The notion is this, limit the harm you may cause to others. Indeed, Google’s old motto, for they have now done away with it, “don’t be evil,” is a reflection of the Golden Rule.

But why talk about the Golden Rule? Isn’t is it old fashion and out of date in practice? This is what philosopher Bill Puka suggests, in his article on “The Golden Rule” for the Encyclopedia of Philosophy; “we must acknowledge that the gold rule is no longer taken seriously in practice or even aspiration, but merely paid lip service.” I must disagree, most folks I know use the Golden Rule as their main barometer for action. It may not be seriously promoted in the upper echelon of education, but most of my students, colleagues, and friends, when asked how they make decisions about how to act, explain how they live their life by the Golden rule. For most of society, it seems a simple, no-nonsense way of being and guide for action.

As a simple philosophy of behavior, the Golden Rule has been around for a very long time, has been celebrated by almost all cultures historically (Western and Eastern philosophy), and it has two primary functions, one problematic and the other helpful. Let’s start with the useful aspect of The Golden Rule.

The Golden Rule asks us to get out of our skin and to consider how someone else may wish to be treated or not treated. As humans, we have a hard time stepping out of our skin. Our emotions, genes, neurological make-up, cultural sensibility, all of these things tend to re-enforce a focus on “self” rather than an understanding of others. And, if you happen to live in communities influenced by individualism, such as the US, Australia or England, it is even harder to step out of your skin to view others. “Me” cultures focus so much on self; the assumption often made is: I feel this way, so others must feel this way too! This assumption is wrong. It assumes (ASS out of U and ME) a Universal value system, which tends to fall flat in most practical situations. However, as a rule, this so-called Rule of Thumb does beg us to think of others, which is the first step toward empathic communication.

However, it is not enough. To assume that people want to be treated the same way I want to be treated, this is what we call an attribution error; we incorrectly attribute the reason for action, motivation, and needs.

Let me give you an example, first, a situation from my point of view. I am driving down the road, and some butthead almost runs me off and into a ditch:

“Oh, Shit,” I say as I struggle to not get in an accident and stay on the road. “What was he thinking? Can’t he see there are other people on the road? We all had to get a license to drive, did he forget the same rules I was given?? Damn, Dude! If I were that driver, even if I were in a hurry, I would take a chill pill and get myself together!”

Now, let’s look at the same situation from the other driver’s point of view. He is speeding down the highway, the same road I was on. He has a child lying in the back of his car, something I cannot see. His thoughts might be:

“I have got to get to the hospital now! Hold on baby, we are almost there; Daddy loves you! Oh god, that woman is in my way. Move! Move!!! Oh god, I can’t get around her! There’s an opening!” He sees the woman yelling in her car and at him. “I am sorry, lady, but I have to get to the hospital now!”

"Alnomuc, or, The golden rule, with twenty-four engravings" Year: 1837 (1830s) Authors: Amory, John H
“Alnomuc, or, The golden rule, with twenty-four engravings” Year: 1837 (1830s) Authors: Amory, John H

It is impossible for me to know what is going on with the other driver, just as it is impossible for the other driver to know what is going on with me. I have limited information about the situation. Indeed, all either of us has to go on are our assumptions, biases, and personal experiences, all of which are failing in this case.

The Golden Rule fails in practice because we really can never tell instinctively or otherwise how someone wants to be treated, or why they do what they do; what their motivation for action happens to be.

Attribution errors are the cause of most negative conflicts in life, miscommunication, and other missteps in life. Because the Gold Rule inherently relies on the attribution error (people act and want to be treated the same way I like to be treated), it is not golden. This is especially true in a global community, made up of many cultures holding varying values. So, what do we do? And how does any of this apply to my life, my community, or my professional and private life?

We inform, question, investigate, and then act. One reason the Golden Rule seems so awesome is that it asks little of us! We have a rule, and all we have to do is to look at ourselves and then decide how to act. How convenient is that?! However, as comfortable as it is, it is not helpful. Rather than creating an attribution error because of built-in assumptions of the work, it is time to proactive rather than simplistically reactive. Let me give you another example from a personal situation.

The other day, I had my tooth extracted. It was not a good dentist appointment. I was shot up with Novocain, and then it turned out that my insurance said I did not exist. So, the procedure was stopped, while the office worked things out. It took over an hour. We got back to it, but I had to be shot-up again. Then the extraction went south. My tooth did not want to leave me, you know, separation anxiety. The experience was more than painful, and I was left exhausted, in a great deal of pain, and emotionally spent. My partner walked me home, and then we went back to work. In pain, I wondered why he was not helping me! “My own husband! He doesn’t care; why is he not soothing me?”

Bernard d'Agesci (1757-1828), La justice, musée de Niort. Holds scales in one hand and in the other hand a book with "Dieu, la Loi, et le Roi" on one page and the Golden rule on the other page.
Bernard d’Agesci (1757-1828), La justice, musée de Niort. Holds scales in one hand and in the other hand a book with “Dieu, la Loi, et le Roi” on one page and the Golden rule on the other page.

From my husband’s point of view, I was in pain, but I was okay. I got up, made myself small things to eat and drink, replied to students, and did other small tasks. Clearly, I was fine. But by the time night came, I was worse and frustrated with him. He, in turn, was not sure what to do for me or if I needed him to do anything for me. “Why,” I wondered, “did he not know the ‘playbook’ for taking care of his wife when she was in pain and emotionally spent?”

Why? Because I never gave him a “playbook” or any instructions on how he could help me. I made a fundamental attribution error in my assumption that he would just know what to do. The next morning, I sent him an email with a playbook: “this is what your wife needs when she is down and out. Please send me your playbook so I can take care of you when you need it.”

What a crazy thought?! Tell the people around you what you need. Likewise, ASK the people around you what they need and why they do what they do. Probing questions immediately take power away from assumptions and other attribution errors:

“I don’t understand why you are doing it this way, can you explain?” “Are you ok? What can I do for you?” “When you send emails to more than one person, please address names on the emails so I can better know when and if you are talking to me, or the other person on the email.” “Emily, I could use your help. I am sorry, I was getting angry at the fact that you were not helping with this office project, but then I realized you did not know I needed help! So, I am asking.”

In the end, using probing questions and other forms of empathic communication can save us the grief that often comes along with a problematic application of the Golden Rule as well as attribution errors. If we start to understand how people need, think, feel and act for different reasons that we do, we can begin to create better-living, working, and communing situations for us all.


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