According to the IEP, the golden rule:

The most familiar version of the Golden Rule says, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” Moral philosophy has barely taken notice of the golden rule in its own terms despite the rule’s prominence in commonsense ethics.

This rule has a simple structure and akin to mathematical axiom in its simplicity. This, at least to me, remind me of another simple ethical axiom:

Act only according to that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law

From Kants perspective, what are the limitations of the golden rule? If as a rule it cannot work, it can only be that it can't be universalisable.

4 Answers 4


Kant did directly address the Golden Rule at least one point in his philosophy.

If I remember the gist correctly, he's highly critical for one reason: the golden rule depends largely on how you would feel about what was done to you. For Kant, what's lacking is a truly universal perspective. This is where the categorical imperative differs, it does not matter if I particularly don't matter, it matters whether the rule can be universalized for all rational agents.


The trouble with the golden rule is not the rule itself, but it is our own points of view and interpretations of what our actions and the actions of others are.

People often misinterpret each other and misjudge each other's actions (for any number of reasons). Given this, it becomes very difficult to follow the golden rule accurately.

Suppose of a culture where it is customary for a guest who stays the night to sleep in the masters bed and enjoy the company of his wife. Suppose the guest is strongly against adultery. How are these two supposed to follow the golden rule when they are so incompatible?

It is in each persons point of view and interpretation where it becomes difficult to follow the golden rule. It's not impossible, but as you can imagine, there are many examples where two people who have different views can disagree on how the golden rule applies.


People are complex enough so that most of them probably would like something done unto them that is not generally desired, and would not like done unto them something that most people would like. (For instance, some people love surprises and others hate them.)

Kant's more general formulation as you stated above falls victim to the same problem (albeit at a somewhat more general level), but the problem goes away with the second formulation (people are ends, so you have to pay attention to what they want).

  • Ok; that leads to the question why would the GR avoid thinking of others as ends. 'I like to be treated as an end thus I should treat others as ends'. Commented Sep 18, 2014 at 21:05
  • @MoziburUllah - That might be true for a philosopher, but I don't think it's going to occur to the typical follower of the Golden Rule. There's no reason the GR compels you to generalize.
    – Rex Kerr
    Commented Sep 19, 2014 at 2:02

The imperative directs somebody to the universal moral system. The GR keeps her within her individual feelings, desires, fears, perceptions, stereotypes. GR looks as something general but it is empty - these are its applications that matter, and they are mostly subjective.

This is just my answer - I am not sure that Kant's reasoning is similar.

  • 1
    Did Kant tackle this question in his works? I was looking for something that argued against adopting GR by way of the imperative. Commented Sep 15, 2014 at 9:22

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .