The Golden Rule or ethic of reciprocity is a moral maxim or principle which may appear as either a positive or negative injunction:

One should treat others as one would like others to treat oneself (positive or directive form). One should not treat others in ways that one would not like to be treated. (negative or prohibitive form) REF

Is the golden rule considered childish in philosophy?

I have heard this a few times before, from some fairly well educated people. I am not too sure how to approach this statement though. I can understand that it is a very simple idea and one that has been around for a very long time. Is that enough grounds to consider it childish?

Or is it childish in its philosophical ideas, in that it is a naive viewpoint to hold in our current culture, where there are far more realistic maxims on morality?

  • 1
    The complexity isn't in the statement or the understanding of the concept, it's in the practical application.
    – AndrewC
    Aug 19 '14 at 21:39
  • 3
    I think it's a very useful rule, but whether or not it's childish it's quite poorly defined and doesn't really stand up to rigorous application. Consider what the rule would mean to a masochist, for example.
    – commando
    Aug 19 '14 at 22:55
  • @Gerdi It would help other readers of this question (eg those less conversant in philosophy, such as myself) if you stated what your understanding of "The Golden Rule" was Jan 15 '15 at 13:40
  • It is precisely because its works for "children" that it is so universally efficacious, as noted below. And I know of no modern philosophers who were not also children, much as they deny it. Oct 21 '15 at 16:51

I'm not really sure what the adjective "childish" would mean about a moral rule, so I will work with it as meaning "too simplistic or naive." My general view is "no." The Golden Rule comes up quite often in philosophical literature especially in comparative ethics. Part of the reason is that similar rules exist across many different religious and cultural traditions. To give just one, the Confucian silver rule is do not do unto others what you would not have them do to you.

Kantians might consider it childish for the following reason: it depends directly on how you want to be treated with no intermediate step that transforms this into a moral law that applies to yourself and others. Such, was Kant's own view, and I've seen some who agree with him in the literature. (See for instance Hirst, E. (1934). "The Categorical Imperative and the Golden Rule." Philosophy , 328-335.)

I could imagine a utilitarian objecting that it is not sufficiently calculative to warrant our attention as a good moral rule. But in that case, I would take Bernard Williams stance that utilitarian projects try to simulate our moral intuitions insofar as we check them against what makes sense (we think a utilitarian project is off the tracks if it thinks strangling your spouse in their sleep is okay [for instance]), and in this way, utilitarianism is largely predicated on the golden rule.

But apart from that, it's generally considered a minimal standard open to a wide variety of interpretation but basically valid on some level concerning our moral conduct.

  • I don't understand what is meant by "sufficiently calculative", and why a utilitarian would want a rule which has that property. And then is your point with Bernard Williams that we in fact use the golden rule to evaluate the recommendations of utilitarianism? If he says something like that about the golden rule, that goes some way to showing that at least some prominent philosophers take the rule quite seriously, and it would be worth citing in your answer. Aug 28 '14 at 9:36
  • the matrix the golden rule looks at is the immediate agent and the people who experience their consequences alone. Thus, the utilitarian calculus is too small to cover the whole of happiness (or whatever good is maximized).
    – virmaior
    Aug 28 '14 at 11:58
  • Williams' objection is not specifically about the Golden Rule but about how we tend to judge utilitarian systems more generally, viz., we decide whether our utilitarian system is a good approximation of morality if it renders center common sense conclusions -- like it's not okay to murder defenseless people just to get further ahead in the line for bubblegum -- even if me having bubblegum outweighed all of the happiness they would ever experience in the remainder of their lives.
    – virmaior
    Aug 28 '14 at 11:59
  • But that by definition means for Williams that whatever morality is it isn't utilitarianism.
    – virmaior
    Aug 28 '14 at 13:03
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    I think that's a relatively uncharitable reading of what the golden rule is. (But also why are you commenting on a two month old question?)
    – virmaior
    Oct 10 '14 at 10:22

A rule being simple is no reason to think it is incorrect. Likewise, a rule being "sophisticated," whatever one takes that to mean, is no reason to think it is correct.

Moral philosophers disagree about what exactly they are doing. Are they trying to expresses the ordinary moral beliefs that normal people have in a more precise way and offered arguments that these beliefs are correct? Or are they trying instead to reform the moral beliefs of ordinary people through argument. Probably every moral philosopher is doing at least a little bit of both.

At any rate, there is no broad philosophical consensus that the golden rule ("Do unto others, as you would have them do to you.") is a bad moral rule.

  • 1
    Some religions use a less strict "don't harm" version. Aug 21 '14 at 7:39
  • I think most moral philosophers haven't thought they were doing either of those projects, but rather that that they were investigating the facts of morality, and trying to determine its nature, and which actions are truly right and wrong. Aug 27 '14 at 19:18
  • Rawls, Aristotle and Kant all seem to me to be descriptive ethicists. Bentham, Mill, Sidgwick, and Moore are revisionary. Hume is harder to classify. I'd say he's somewhere in between.
    – user5172
    Aug 28 '14 at 17:42

I find that a lot of intro to ethics books talk about the golden rule before going into the more philosophically standard ethical models. And they do that because they need to show that it doesn't really work as a standard. As written, it obviously doesn't work - my friend is allergic to strawberries, but I love strawberries. Applying the rule, I give my friend a strawberry shortcake, because that's what I would want him to do to me. Obviously wrong.

Or again, I'm a teacher, deciding how to grade a paper. If I were the student I would want an "A" even for crummy work. On Golden Rule theory, I must give the student an A, even if it isn't any good. Obviously wrong.

There's something good, here: it does seem right that if I expect others to treat me a certain way, consistency demands I treat then similarly. It's just not clear how to formulate that, and if it really works.

So then there are usually some attempts to "fix" the rule, but it quickly becomes difficult to see how it can be fixed in any reasonable way. So it's abandoned in favor of systems that can at least stand some scrutiny.

So, childish? No. It just doesn't work.

  • I agree with what you've got here, but I think you might be missing that when polished in the right direction, it's not that far from what we write about as professional ethicists, and it reflects the most commonly shared intuition. Of course, the intuition taken as it is turns out to be terribly off.
    – virmaior
    Aug 27 '14 at 8:28
  • Your second example is fine, but your first is wrong. You wouldn't want to be given something you are allergic to. There are always more layers to reconcile.
    – Magus
    Aug 27 '14 at 14:23
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    No, it's a pithy maxim and you're turning your brain off and interpreting it much more narrowly than it's meant. That's not a valid criticism, it's just a misreading. The message is to think of others and you've interpreted it as meaning to not think of others. It doesn't mean suicidal people should go on a killing spree or that you should give addicts cocaine, and interpreting it that way is just silly.
    – AndrewC
    Aug 28 '14 at 8:22
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    Sorry, no, I don't generally accept appeal to authority as a valid argument.
    – AndrewC
    Aug 29 '14 at 0:00
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    The question I answered is whether philosophers think the Golden Rule is childish. The only way to settle that question is to cite philosophical sources which say one thing or another. You seem to want to have a different discussion, about whether the Golden Rule is in fact a good rule, which is fine, but it doesn't answer the question we are supposed to be addressing. Aug 29 '14 at 0:05

not really philosophy but psychology - it's often included in both so called "conventional" morality in Kohlberg's theory of moral development (and so could be called childish, or naive) AND the later stage of "universal ethical principles" (that very few adults are meant to climb to).

i'm afraid i can't tell you the exact difference between the two uses of it in moral reasoning, but expect the "childish" thinker wants to appear to be fair, to do unto others thus, but only on the condition of appearing to do so - because its right to appear so. as i understand "conventional moral reasoning", one does not question social norms, and so the moral agent is stuck in "convention" - other people's perception.

NOW i hope i didn't ruin moral reasoning for you by linking to the wiki article... since i read it - i've been trying to sneak up on myself and my real world moral reasoning for an authentic sense of how i reason. ha !


Quite the opposite!

It is utterly crucial in moral philosophy...and more efficacious than Kant's formalization, precisely because it does work with "children," where moral sentiments are first nurtured.

It is considered one of the moral advances of what Jasper's called the "axial age" because it entails universality, as opposed to "reciprocity," the cycles of revenge portrayed in the Oresteia, or "utilitarianism," where a calculus of impersonal, majoritarian "ends" may justify the personally oppressive "means," as in American slavery or, arguably, capitalist political economy.

Kant himself was quite concerned that his formalization of the categorical imperative conform to the "common" moral sentiments of the golden rule. The result has been criticized by Hegel and others as an "empty formalism" difficult to apply in real cases. By appealing to "personhood" and the imaginative inversion of "you" and "others" the "unsophisticated" golden rule may actually capture a level of evolved, linguistic complexity missed by Kant.

It remains the transcendental compass of applied moral rules felt intuitively and developed circumstantially.

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    He did not want them to be puzzled because it is highly subjective. Most prominently, the golden rule is complete nonsense for any masochistic person. And it does not count for the autonomy of others. As for Hegel's formalism argument he did not understand that the matter comes from the maxims and the formality did only apply to the legislative instance of the will, not the will itself.
    – Philip Klöcking
    Oct 21 '15 at 18:39
  • Good clarifications. However, the GR works fine for two or more masochists, where CI does not allow for such, often necessary, cultural flexibility. GR does not account for the "autonomy" of others, if I take your meaning. But it is precisely this assumed "autonomy" that rubs against biology and history, and runs into so many problems in liberal-capitalist societies. I am not really criticizing Kant, and don't know enough to do so on any precise level. GR and CI are both general "orientations." Anyway, I am delighted to hear that Hegel got confused by someone else's terminology. Oct 21 '15 at 19:19

The golden rule in itself is fine, but it is naive to follow a rule which has no instructions for successful practical application. This, I think, is what is likely referred to when the golden rule is called childish.

"Do onto others, as you would have them do onto you." gives no thought to the practical applications, specifically where two people who have differing ideals come together. The Golden Rule quite often completely fails when one tries to use it across cultural boundaries. Or even in the same culture many people have different views on many things.

If the way you would want to be treated is seen as offensive to another person, what then do you do? The answer requires more thought than simply following the single statement in the golden rule.

Perhaps an amendment to the golden rule should be as follows "Do onto others, as you would have them do onto you if you were in their place". The difficulty of practical application is still present, but at least it is noted that you should consider that not everything you like is liked by others.

  • This is very interesting. You state "no instructions for successful practical application" .. But within your context could you not apply the GR to a situation where both people are fully aware of each others ideals? In a family setting , for example, there is generally a very strong ideal within the group and the awareness of each others likes / dislikes. Also considering cultural differences , would it not just be a matter of understanding the persons position depending on your action within context to the GR? Which could simple be done by asking a question ?
    – user2683
    Oct 12 '14 at 9:33
  • 1
    That is certainly true. I think the situation of differing cultures, however, gets very few people who actually take the time to see the other persons point of view. Sometimes even family members fail to see each other's point of view. It's not impossible, just difficult and as a result unlikely.
    – KnightHawk
    Oct 13 '14 at 0:43

I would ask you all to read the following from the Dalai Lama. Maybe it is childish... as most of the adult human race cannot seem to grasp the concept.

I hope that you can find your answer it in.

A Message on the Golden Rule from the Dalai Lama

Dear friends around the world.

The events of this day [written after 11th September 2001 and the attacks on the Trade centre in New York] cause every thinking person to stop their daily lives, whatever is going on in them, and to ponder deeply the larger questions of life. We search again for not only the meaning of life, but the purpose of our individual and collective experience as we have created it-and we look earnestly for ways in which we might recreate ourselves anew as a human species, so that we will never treat each other this way again. The hour has come for us to demonstrate at the highest level our most extraordinary thought about Who We Really Are.

There are two possible responses to what has occurred today. The first comes from love, the second from fear.

If we come from fear we may panic and do things-as individuals and as nations-that could only cause further damage. If we come from love we will find refuge and strength, even as we provide it to others. This is the moment of your ministry. This is the time of teaching. What you teach at this time, through your every word and action right now, will remain as indelible lessons in the hearts and minds of those whose lives you touch, both now, and for years to come. We will set the course for tomorrow, today. At this hour. In this moment. Let us seek not to pinpoint blame, but to pinpoint cause. Unless we take this time to look at the cause of our experience, we will never remove ourselves from the experiences it creates. Instead, we will forever live in fear of retribution from those within the human family who feel aggrieved, and, likewise, seek retribution from them.

To us the reasons are clear. We have not learned the most basic human lessons. We have not remembered the most basic human truths. We have not understood the most basic spiritual wisdom. In short, we have not been listening to God, and because we have not, we watch ourselves do ungodly things.

The message we hear from all sources of truth is clear: We are all one. That is a message the human race has largely ignored. Forgetting this truth is the only cause of hatred and war, and the way to remember is simple: Love, this and every moment. If we could love even those who have attacked us, and seek to understand why they have done so, what then would be our response? Yet if we meet negativity with negativity, rage with rage, attack with attack, what then will be the outcome?

These are the questions that are placed before the human race today. They are questions that we have failed to answer for thousands of years. Failure to answer them now could eliminate the need to answer them at all. If we want the beauty of the world that we have co-created to be experienced by our children and our children’s children, we will have to become spiritual activists right here, right now, and cause that to happen. We must choose to be at cause in the matter.

So, talk with God today. Ask God for help, for counsel and advice, for insight and for strength and for inner peace and for deep wisdom. Ask God on this day to show us how to show up in the world in a way that will cause the world itself to change. And join all those people around the world who are praying right now, adding your Light to the Light that dispells all fear.

That is the challenge that is placed before every thinking person today. Today the human soul asks the question: What can I do to preserve the beauty and the wonder of our world and to eliminate the anger and hatred-and the disparity that inevitably causes it – in that part of the world which I touch? Please seek to answer that question today, with all the magnificence that is You. What can you do TODAY…this very moment?

A central teaching in most spiritual traditions is: What you wish to experience, provide for another. Look to see, now, what it is you wish to experience-in your own life, and in the world. Then see if there is another for whom you may be the source of that.If you wish to experience peace, provide peace for another. If you wish to know that you are safe, cause another to know that they are safe. If you wish to better understand seemingly incomprehensible things, help another to better understand. If you wish to heal your own sadness or anger, seek to heal the sadness or anger of another. Those others are waiting for you now. They are looking to you for guidance, for help, for courage, for strength, for understanding, and for assurance at this hour. Most of all, they are looking to you for love. – My religion is very simple. My religion is kindness. Dalai Lama

  • Unfortunately, this is a largely irrelevant wall of text -- only the last paragraph applies to the OP and there's no connection to go from that to the question of whether the rule is "childish". I think if you edit it, you could produce a good response to the OP.
    – R. Barzell
    Oct 22 '15 at 16:26

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