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The Search For Universal Values II: The Golden Rule.

Chapter 2: Idolatry Then & Now Part 5

In the last few posts, I have been contrasting idolatry as a system of relative values with a set of universal values that do not change with circumstance. And what are those universal values? I argued that the Ten Commandments are a good place to start, but are insufficient in part because ten is too many values to keep track of.  Then, I discovered The Golden Rule – found in over 15 religions and philosophies worldwide.

In 1993, 300 representatives of the world’s religions met in Chicago in an attempt to define a Global Ethic – a set of universal ethical principles.[i]  The cornerstone of this Global ethic was determined to be the Ethic of Reciprocity, aka the Golden Rule, because it is found in so many different religions and philosophies worldwide.

The Golden Rule In World Religions

Religion Statement
Old Testament Love thy neighbor as thyself

Leviticus 19:18[39]

Judaism That which is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow. That is the whole Torah; the rest is the explanation.  Talmud
Christianity Do to others as you would have them do to you.  Luke 6:31
Buddhism Hurt not others in ways that you yourself would find hurtful.    Udana-Varga 5,1
Islam No one of you is a believer until he desires for his brother that which he desires for himself.   Sunnah
Hinduism This is the sum of duty; do naught onto others what you would not have them do unto you.  Mahabharata 5,1517
Confucianism Never impose on others what you would not choose for yourself. Analects 12:2
Jainism Just as pain is not agreeable to you, it is so with others. Knowing this principle of equality, treat the other with compassion.
Taoism Regard your neighbor’s gain as your gain, and your neighbor’s loss as your own loss.
Humanism Ethic of reciprocity: people should aim to treat each other as they would like to be treated themselves – with tolerance, consideration and compassion.
Pima Indians (Arizona) Do not wrong or hate your neighbor. For it is not he who you wrong but yourself.
The Yoruba people of Nigeria One going to take a pointed stick to pinch a baby bird should first try it on himself to feel how it hurts.
The Ba-Congo people of Angola O Man, O woman, what you do not like, do not do to your fellows. 
The Platinum Rule Treat others the way they want to be treated

Amazingly, babies as young as six months show a strong preference for puppets who shared with other puppets over puppets who did not.  [ii] Yale professor Paul Bloom, discusses his resultsWhen looking across the versions of the Golden rule in the table, the bottom line seems to be: consider the needs of other people before you take an action.  Language is imperfect and I am convinced that these versions of the Golden Rule are all expressing the same core idea that is a fundamental part of human nature.

These findings constitute evidence that preverbal infants assess individuals on the basis of their behavior towards others. This capacity may serve as the foundation for moral thought and action, and its early developmental emergence supports the view that social evaluation is a biological adaptation.[iii]

In summary, the first universal value is The Golden Rule, because it is found in numerous cultures and religions world wide, and it seems to be build on an innate human ability to assess how individuals treat one another. But as we shall see in the next post, following The Golden Rule is not sufficient, because in the real world there are people who will take advantage of those who are too giving.

[i] Scarboro Missions Golden Rule and Golden Ethic – retrieved July 5, 2012

[ii] The Moral Life of Babies Paul Bloom May 5, 2010 New York Times

[iii] Social evaluation by preverbal infants. Hamlin JK, Wynn K, Bloom P. Nature. 2007 Nov 22;450(7169):557-9.

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  1. Andy Hegedus says

    Hi Greg,

    Check out the book “Super Cooperators” by Martin Nowak. Systems that have optimizations based on “prisoner’s dilemma” type of features lend themselves to strategies similar to the golden rule. Using game theory, various strategies can be tested and some interesting results pop up. The basic winning strategy is “be nice, with tit for tat” Which can be related to the golden rule, do onto others as you would.. coupled with an eye for eye. Two basic themes in many religions. The moral rules are now derived from basic mathematics without the need of a god. Basic optimization strategies within a system that has constraints such that individual optimization does not yield global optima.

    • Greg Marcus says

      Thank you Andy! I love that book, and it is amazing how the math supports the advice that has been passed down for thousands of years, first as an oral history and then compiled into The Bible and other religious texts.


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