This article first appeared in the Christian Research Journal, volume 42, number 3/4 (2019). For further information or to subscribe to the Christian Research Journal please click here.
The expression, “Do to others what you would want others to do to you,” is one of the most well-known ethical principles. Since the seventeenth century it has been called the Golden Rule (GR), ostensibly claiming supremacy among ethical principles.1 From science to religion we have knowledge of GR, and although it has been variously represented across cultures and worldviews for millennia, not all worldviews can equally explain or account for it. While most Christians understand GR only as a principle in ethics and seldom consider its role in apologetics, GR can serve as strong evidence for the veracity of Christianity.
EVIDENCE OF THE RULE’S UNIVERSALITY
Consider the discovery of a contemporary neuroscientist, Donald Pfaff:
For several years now, I have been reading far and wide in the literature of religions throughout the world, looking to answer just one question: ‘Can I find an ethical command that seems to be true of all religions, across continents and across centuries?’ Well, I found one, and you’ll recognize it instantly. You probably know it as the Golden Rule. Once I found abundant evidence for a universal ethical principle, I was convinced there must be a biological reason for it.2
He assumes without argument a biological rather than theological origin of the rule, but nonetheless sees evidence for the rule’s universality. Ponder the various statements from comparative religious and scientific worldviews.
Western Religious Perspectives
Of the rule’s various expressions, a common one is what some call the Silver Rule (SR) because of its negative formulation construed as a do-no-harm principle. In Rabbinical Judaism, the famous Rabbi Hillel says, “That which is hateful to you do not do to another; that is the entire Torah, and the rest is its interpretation.”3
In Christianity, we see Jesus offering a most familiar version of the Golden Rule, “In everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets” (Matt. 7:12 NIV).
In Islam, we see a qualified positive version, “None of you believes until he loves for his brother what he loves for himself.”4 This saying of Muhammad is in the Hadith, a source second in authority to the Qur’an. The passage stipulating love of only fellow Muslims, this statement is as close as the Qur’an gets to the GR.
Eastern Religious Perspectives
In Confucianism, we see the negative version, “Do not impose upon others those things that you yourself do not desire.”5 In Buddhism, the negative version is found in a canonical passage by Buddha: “On traversing all directions with the mind, one finds no one dearer than oneself. Likewise, everyone holds himself most dear. Hence, one who loves himself, should not harm another.”6 In Hinduism we find again the negative version, “One should not behave towards others in a way which is disagreeable to oneself. This is the essence of morality. All other activities are due to selfish desire.”7 Eastern religions seem governed by SR.
Scientistic Worldview Perspectives
Consider GR from a naturalistic scientific (i.e., scientistic) perspective consistent with the assumptions above by Pfaff. Darwinism can be taken as a worldview describing man’s origin, destiny, and, in the scheme of things, “purpose.” Indeed, one prolific Darwinian author notes the elastic nature of defining religion, arguing that Darwinism is a “secular religious perspective.”8 As such, Darwin himself recognized and spoke about GR: “The social instincts — the prime principle of man’s moral condition — with the aid of active intellectual powers and the effects of habit, naturally lead to the golden rule, ‘As ye would that men should do to you, do ye to them likewise,’ and this lies at the foundation of morality.”9
EXPLAINING THE EVIDENCE FOR THE RULE
Some provide an evolutionary explanation for GR from science in terms of cooperation. They observe reciprocal benefit and invoke “kin selection” for an apparently altruistic sort of behavior that seems self-sacrificial. It implies the decrease of individual survival for the sake of one’s kin. Consider the behavior of squirrels or apes when predators are within striking distance. They make sounds to warn their kin, posing a benefit to kin while endangering themselves. But a problem emerges. This behavior promotes survival and reproduction but does not entail a moral principle. As one atheistic philosopher of science quips, “If Darwinism is true, then anything goes!”10 This seems supported by a famous statement by Darwinian philosopher of science, Michael Ruse:
The position of the modern evolutionist…is that humans have an awareness of morality…because such an awareness is of biological worth. Morality is a biological adaptation no less than are hands and feet and teeth….Considered as a rationally justifiable set of claims about an objective something, ethics is illusory. I appreciate that when somebody says “Love thy neighbor as thyself,” they think they are referring above and beyond themselves….Nevertheless…such reference is truly without foundation. Morality is just an aid to survival and reproduction…and any deeper meaning is illusory.11
On a naturalistic evolutionary account of ethics, GR becomes descriptive, not prescriptive. It reveals that beasts do cooperate to get more by hunting in a pack than by going it alone. But this descriptive behavior doesn’t entail prescriptive morality. It doesn’t (and can’t) tell us what we ought to do in a moral sense. It lacks the fundamental normative (“oughtness”) dimension of morality.
Explanatory Scope and Power
The Christian view has greater explanatory scope and power.12 It is consistent with our ethical intuitions that we owe others something. This “ought” is grounded in fundamental human dignity in virtue of being created in God’s image (Gen. 1:26; 9:6; Jas. 3:8–9). The imago Dei accounts for how fundamental morality is pervasively known because that divine image entails a moral imprint (Rom. 1:18–20; 2:14–15). Thus, we should expect everyone to have an awareness of certain moral obligations to fellow humans created in God’s image with intrinsic dignity. Christianity
explains GR far better than naturalism.
The Golden Rule Versus the Silver Rule
From the perspectives of the major religions, two considerations emerge. First, most of the competing views assume SR, which is ethically inferior to GR. To see why, consider the Good Samaritan story, in which the first two men coming across a hurt bystander simply pass him by, and yet a third man, the unsuspecting Samaritan, is the one who helps (Luke 10:25–37). Most people can easily discern independent from one’s worldview who are the villains and who is the hero in the story. Our natural moral intuitions about the rule when considering the narrative are clear that GR is ethically superior to SR. GR directs us to pursue good and not just avoid evil or do-no-harm. On SR, I would simply pass by the hurt individual because that individual isn’t harming me, so I won’t harm him. But nothing follows on SR that I ought to help the individual. That is captured only in GR. Further, it is captured only in a robust formulation of GR that isn’t merely descriptive, but prescriptive, having moral force or obligation, as in Christ’s command. The Christian worldview has an objective frame grounded in God that explains why we know GR through our created moral conscience.
Worldview Impediments to the Rule
Second, there are worldview considerations relevant to understanding and applying the rule. For instance, I previously indicated that Islam has a qualified GR focused on the brotherhood of Islam exclusive of non-Muslims. In confirmation, Muhammad indicated elsewhere something less than GR or SR: “he who changes his religion (i.e., apostatizes), kill him.”13 In the Quran, Surah 9:4–5 tells us that Allah loves only those who obey, and the text talks about killing certain non-Muslims. Chronologically, this Surah is one of the last passages on Jihad. Per the Islamic principle of abrogation, the most recent comments take precedence. Contrast this with Jesus who taught to love our enemies (Matt. 5:44).
From the Buddhist perspective, it seems incoherent that one ought to treat others the way one wants to be treated. This is because GR assumes one is a self; yet, core to Buddhism is the “no-self” doctrine. Part of the grand illusion said to cause suffering includes self-conception as a self. In fact, “no-self” serves as a major point of contention between Buddhism and Hinduism relative to what it is exactly that is being reincarnated. Ultimately, Hinduism may not fare much better if all is maya (illusion). The Buddha’s view about the self is not just that it is false; rather, holding the false view leads to selfishness and egoism. For Hinduism, even if we can make sense of a self, one’s duties to others are hierarchically qualified in a caste system. One isn’t expected to treat members of a lower class the same way. Similarly, one’s dharma (duty) is relative to one’s caste such that a warrior caste’s dharma seems to run into deep internal conflict with the principle of ahisma (non-violence).
Confucianism is a bit different. It suffers from the problem of authority or the moral force of the obligation. If there is no Creator to ground the obligation even with respect to SR, then we are left with mere human wisdom without moral force.
Again, from the scientistic perspective GR is universal and is explained in terms of its being an aid to survival and reproduction. Alex Rosenberg admits, “there are fundamental principles endorsed in all cultures at all times.”14 Yet, for him, what explains this is simply that “nature just seduced us into thinking it’s right. It did that because that made core morality work better; our believing in its truth increases our individual genetic fitness.”15 We are often told by those who reject design in nature or in the moral order that our strong perception of design is simply illusory as evolution has blinded us to reality.16 But if we cannot adequately know truth about the world, including moral truths, then why communicate this as if it is supposed to be a truth we should believe? Naturalistic evolution gives reason to doubt many of our beliefs if our cognitive faculties are allegedly aimed at survival rather than at truth. In a self-defeating way, this undercuts our confidence in the ability of our faculties to produce true beliefs (rather than false beliefs conducive to survival), including the belief in naturalistic evolution itself. This “blind to reality” notion seems shared by the religion of Darwinism and some eastern religions.
UNIVERSALLY KNOWN, BUT UNIQUELY SHOWN
Some might raise the threat of relativism because “Do to others what you want others to do to you” hinges on what we want or desire. Though GR is universally known, it doesn’t exist in a vacuum. The immediate context of Jesus’ statement includes a robust view of love situated in a broader theological context for understanding good in terms of what is objectively desirable, not merely what is subjectively desired. Christianity claims that the very source of goodness made the world such that everyone can reliably map onto it and intuit the basic moral order, making relatively accurate inferences about reality. It’s little wonder that the rudiments of universities and public education, modern science, medicine and hospitals, and the abolition of slavery all emerged in Christian Europe. Christianity makes the best sense of both the universality of GR and its most robust intuited formulation. The Golden Rule is most at home within a Christocentric view of the world.
Corey Miller, PhD, is president and CEO of Ratio Christi and taught philosophy and comparative religions at Indiana University. He is coauthor of Leaving Mormonism: Why Four Scholars Changed Their Minds (Ratio Christi/Kregel, 2017) and author of In Search of the Good Life: Through the Eyes of Aristotle, Maimonides, and Aquinas (Pickwick Publications, 2019).
- For contemporary and historical treatments, see Jeffrey Wattles, The Golden Rule (Oxford University Press, 1996); The Golden Rule: The Ethics of Reciprocity in World Religions, ed. Jacob Neusner and Bruce Chilton (Continuum, 2008).
- Donald Pfaff, The Neuroscience of Fair Play: Why We (Usually) Follow the Golden Rule (New York: Dana Press, 2007), 3.
- Babylonian Talmud (Shabbat 31a), The William Davidson Talmud, www.sefaria.org/Shabbat.31a. For Judaism, while Hillel’s statement represents SR, one can argue that the ancient Jewish position suggests GR roots if grounded in Leviticus 19:18, “love your neighbor as yourself” (NIV).
- Jami Al-Tirmidhi, Vol. 4, Book 35, Hadith
- Confucius, The Analects (London: Penguin Books, 1979), 12.2.
- John Ireland, The Udana: Inspired Utterances of the Buddha (Kandy, Sri Lanka: Buddhist Publication Society, 1990), 68.
- The Mahabharata (Book 13: Anusasana Parvan 113.8), trans., Kisari Mohan Ganguli, Sacred Texts, https://www.sacred-texts.com/hin/m13/index.htm.
- Michael Ruse, Darwinism as Religion (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017), ix.
- Charles Darwin, The Descent of Man (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1981), 106.
- Alex Rosenberg, The Atheists Guide to Reality (New York: Norton and Company, 2011), 95.
- Michael Ruse, The Darwinian Paradigm (London: Routledge, 1989), 262, 268–9.
- Explanatory scope pertains to the range of evidences explained. Explanatory power relates to the likelihood of the evidences explained.
- Sahih al-Bukhari, Vol. 9, Book 88, Hadith
- Rosenberg, The Atheists Guide to Reality, 103.
- Rosenberg, The Atheists Guide to Reality, 109.
- Donald Hoffman, The Case Against Reality: Why Evolution Hid the Truth from Our Eyes (New York: Norton, 2019).