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Empathy and The Golden Rule

It is the ability to imaginatively identify with others that makes morality possible. Read about humanist support for the Golden Rule.

We have learned how reason can help us to establish what is right and wrong. However, reason alone cannot motivate us morally. We cannot work towards human wellbeing or support other people to flourish if we are unable to imagine what it might be like to be them, with their needs, passions, and desires. For that we need empathy. Thankfully, this is a capacity that most human beings have. As we have already seen, empathy evolved naturally to support our nature as a social animal. It can support us when we are reasoning about how we should act.

What enables human beings to live well rather than badly is their capacity for imaginative and sympathetic identification with the joys and sufferings of others. Empathy can motivate us to be good to others as we can imagine what it would be like to be in their position and think about how we would wish to be treated. Here, then, lies the origin of The Golden Rule.

The Golden Rule can be expressed positively:

‘Treat others as you would like to be treated yourself.’

or negatively:

‘Do not treat others in a way you would not like to be treated yourself.’

It promotes kindness and care for the less fortunate, because this is what we would want in their situation. It discourages lying, bullying, and theft, for example, because no one would wish to suffer these injustices themselves.

This rule appears to be almost universal. It has appeared in many different religions and philosophies throughout history and across the world. Below is just a handful of examples.

  1. ‘He should treat all beings as he himself should be treated. The essence of right conduct is not to injure anyone.’ Jainism, from The Suta-Kritanga (about 550 BCE, India)

  2. ‘Do not do to others what you would not like for yourself.’ Confucianism, from The Analects of Confucius (about 500 BCE, China)

  3. ‘I will act towards others exactly as I would act towards myself.’ Buddhism, from The Siglo-Vada Sutta (about 500 BCE, India)

  4. ‘Do not do to others that which would anger you if others did it to you.’ Socrates (fifth century BCE, Greece)

  5. ‘This is the sum of duty: Do nothing to others which, if done to you, could cause you pain.’ Hinduism, from The Mahabharata (about 150 BCE, India)

Rather than assume this rule has some divine source, a humanist has good reason to believe that it is almost universal because it evolved naturally from the way our species has lived together in communities. It is a basic principle based on our common humanity, which grew from our need to form social bonds.


Like other very general moral principles, the Golden Rule has been criticised for being empty (it does not give us specific rules of conduct) and for being incomplete (it requires considerable empathy and understanding of others to put it into practice). Some criticise it as they say it relies too strongly on our own idea of what is good for us. They say one should not do to other people as you’d like them to do to you because other people may not share our tastes and desires.

However, the solution to this problem lies in not applying the Golden Rule according to specific likes and dislikes, but to a level above them, to the general desire to have our interests taken into account, our wishes fulfilled, and our fears avoided. I should not buy my friend a tuna sandwich for lunch because I like tuna. I should buy them whichever sandwich they like best, because I would like to be bought whichever sandwich I like best.

Question: How helpful is the golden rule in helping us to decide how to act? Is it enough on its own?

This article is from the free online

Introducing Humanism: Non-religious Approaches to Life, with Sandi Toksvig

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FutureLearn - Learning For Life

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