"Do unto others as you would have them do unto you."

Jesus, Plato... I don't care who said that, this is not a history question, I mean philosophy.

So, my questions:

Should one do good with someone who doesn't deserve it?

If yes, for how long, until when?

And why wouldn't they deserve it, what criterias...?

Related questions:



  • 2
    Golden Rule isn't Plato's. Even in Greece it goes back to Homer and Herodotus, and Plato was ironic about it, see Plato's Brush with the Golden Rule by Wattles. Perhaps you are referring to something else, but then it is best to give a reference.
    – Conifold
    Commented Feb 4, 2019 at 7:34
  • 1
    And beyond the little details, what's your answer?
    – user36970
    Commented Feb 4, 2019 at 7:45
  • I do not know which rules you are referring to, "Should do good with someone who doesn't deserve it" does not sound like Plato.
    – Conifold
    Commented Feb 4, 2019 at 7:47
  • I will think about saying it in other words, give me a few minutes...
    – user36970
    Commented Feb 4, 2019 at 8:22
  • 2
    It's unfortunate that you don't care who said it because different speakers may have intended different meanings.
    – jpmc26
    Commented Feb 5, 2019 at 0:53

5 Answers 5


The Golden rule goes back long before Greek philosophy, we find it in ancient traditions and religions, albeit in different formulations.

Should one do good with someone who doesn't deserve it?

To answer this question, we should change it to something that is more conceivable.

Should one let a toddler play with scissors if he wants to play with scissors?

Of course, the literal application of the Golden Rule would say : Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

You can formulate it this way : If you want x done unto you, then do x unto others.

It is obvious here that the toddler wants to play with scissors, and you (if you were the toddler), you would also like your parents to let you play with scissors.

So, here ... the literal application of the Golden Rule seems wrong. But there is something in us (i.e common sense), that makes us believe that the Golden Rule is reliable in most situations.

What's wrong here is our understanding of the statement you want x . Does it mean You want x given you are the other person, or you want x given you are you, were you in the same situation as the other person.

That is, the toddler says : I want my parent to let me play with scissors. But if the toddler were you (an adult), he would want you to not let them play with scissors.

So, you think of the Golden Rule with your current mental faculties, and you do not put yourself in the shoes of the toddler to think of what they want.

Golden Rule: If I want my parents to let me play with scissors when I was a toddler (given my current mental faculties and reasoning), then I ought to let my child play with scissors

The same applies for cases where someone wants you to help them commit suicide. If you were that person (with your current reasoning), you would not want them to let you commit suicide.

And it is a fact that the more mature and wise we become, the more we wish friends and parents to have treated us differently : we wished if our teachers have treated us more strictly, our parents to have woken us up early, our friends to have prevented us from smoking or taking drugs...etc.

Now back to your question, this is how I can formulate the Golden Rule:

If I want others to do me good even when I do not deserve it, then I ought to do good to others when they do not deserve it

The antecedent here seems very subjective and relative, It all depends on the person and how mature they are.

Suppose Bob killed an innocent man and I am the judge. And I were to decide, according to our definition of the Golden Rule, whether we ought to do good to Bob and clear him of all charges (even though he does not deserve it).

When I think : if I want the judge to clear me of all charges in a similar situation , I have to think of it using my current moral, ethical, logical and factual reasoning, and not that of Bob.

So my question would be : If I were Bob, using my current reasoning and ethics, would I want to be cleared of all charges?

Given the judge is mature enough, it would be obvious for him that he would not want to be forgiven, rational and moral people always want to be punished : Regret is a virtue, and if you were to think whether you want to reason according to the Golden Rule, you have to be a man of virtue : That is, You have to be virtuous enough to want to be punished if you murdered an innocent man.

And since you are willing to use the Golden Rule (and you are virtuous), you ought to suppose that you are Bob, and that you are using your current morals, reasoning and general wisdom, and try Bob accordingly.


Of course you may think that is very subjective, what if I (the judge) have the same moral and rational level as Bob, what if I reason just like Bob?

In this case, there are two options :

  • Either Bob is virtuous (i.e knows about and abides by the Golden Rule), then I would not want to be cleared of all charges (and Bob does not want to be cleared of all the charges, since he abides by the Golden Rule, which states that if I were murdered by someone, I would not want my murderer to be cleared of all charges. Therefore, Bob does not want to be clear of all charges. Therefore, I do not want to be cleared of all charges (since I reason just like Bob).
  • Or, Bob is not virtuous, and since I have the same rational and ethical level as Bob, then the Golden Rule is not of much significance to me to begin with.
  • 1
    Thank you. I am going to read that again later and think about it. I am still new, I can't vote, so +1 to your post.
    – user36970
    Commented Feb 4, 2019 at 10:01
  • I added an edit to the answer
    – SmootQ
    Commented Feb 4, 2019 at 11:21
  • 1
    I will add two related questions for more clarity in a few minutes as well...
    – user36970
    Commented Feb 4, 2019 at 11:33
  • Virtue, in the sense of the pre-socratic philosophers who were quite strong on the subject, does not mesh well with the golden rule.
    – Tom
    Commented Feb 4, 2019 at 16:31
  • @Tom , I don't mean "virtue" in the pre-socratic or stoic sense. I just mean the non-philosophical term. Virtue, as in : I will abide by the Golden Rule. You can remove the word "virtue" and use something like : willing to abide by the Golden Rule, I just don't find a better word.
    – SmootQ
    Commented Feb 4, 2019 at 17:21

This is one of the oldest questions of philosophy and probably every philosopher of the past 2000 years has weighed in on that.

So I'll focus on the different interpretations of it and what they mean for your answer:

There is an active version, which you quoted. That version is narcissistic. It assumes that everyone else wants the same things I want. Obviously, if you have some... err... deviant taste, that rule turns into something evil. But, the answer to your question is: In this version, you do it as long as you'd want it done to yourself.

There is also a passive version, which says basically "don't do to others what you wouldn't want done to yourself". This avoids the problem of forcing a specific view or taste on unwilling others, but has the problem of allowing you to be in compliance when you are not rendering help to someone who is in need. Something most of us consider something you should be doing. In this version, there is no conflict, because it does not prescribe action. It only prohibits certain actions.

Finally, there's the Kant version, essentially "act so that your actions could be the basis of a general law". This is an attempt to conciliate both versions. By making your actions a general law, you avoid the problem of deviant tastes. And since laws can be both prohibitive and prescribing, you avoid the problem of inaction. Of course, Kants version has its own problems, namely the fact that general laws in practice always require interpretation, because they are general and ignore the specific details of the individual event.

All of those interpretations have one thing in common: They are rules of thumb rather than natural laws. So my final answer is: Your conflict does not exist, because the rule is not absolute. It provides a general direction, but not turn-by-turn navigation. It always needs to be applied and interpreted. It is a rule for humans, not for computers.

  • Masochism is irrelevant---- unless your relationship with everybody else happens to be sexual. Commented Feb 4, 2019 at 17:50
  • 1
    It doesn't have to be sexual. Religion is another topic that most people don't want to have forced upon themselves, even if those doing it are strongly convinced they are doing the right thing. In fact, the more convinced they are, the more we typically want to stay away from them.
    – Tom
    Commented Feb 4, 2019 at 20:33


"Do unto others as you would have them do unto you." In other words, we are to do to others as we would be willing to have them do to us. This could produce a welter of divergent results, not all them tolerable, depending on what we are willing to have others do to us. On this basis it could be a thoroughly unethical command.

The same applies to Popper's preferred amendment: 'do unto others, wherever possible, as they want to be done by'. Since Popper places no limits one what they might want, just think how bad the outcome of following that rule could be.

Conditions of ethical acceptability

Do we always know what we desire and hence what we would be willing to have others do to us?

As an ethical command the Golden Rule seems to need hedging with at least three conditions : (1) we know what we want; (2) what we want is identical with what we ought to want; and (3) what is good for us is also good for others.

Desert irrelevant to the rule

The other's desert does not enter the picture. The Golden Rule is not a principle of quid pro quo. Whether X reciprocates, shows no gratitude, mocks my moral naivety or acts vindictively against me makes no difference. The Golden Rule is not the ethics of reciprocity. It guides (or is intended to guide) my conduct whatever the other person's conduct.


K.R. Popper, The Open Society and its Enemies, 5th ed. (rev.), London : Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1966, II: 386.

Paul Weiss, 'The Golden Rule', The Journal of Philosophy, Vol. 38, No. 16 (Jul. 31, 1941), pp. 421-430.

Endnote - history of the rule

Christian versions of the Golden Rule occur in Matthew 7:12, Luke 6:31, Acts 15:28 ff. (This is not to deny prefigurations and probable origins in the Jewish scriptures.) I am not persuaded that Plato defines any form of the rule, except on a tortuous interpretation of Republic, IV.443. Diogenes Laertius (V.21) reports Aristotle as saying, when asked how one should treat a friend, 'Exactly as we would they should behave to us' but Diogenes' quotations do not have rock-solid reliability, to put it mildly. The relevant text in Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, IX, supports nothing like this exact view. But we are on safer ground with Isocrates : 'Do not do to others that at which you would be angry if you suffered it from others' (Niocles, 61b). The rule is also formulated in ancient Confucianism and Buddhism.


The Golden Rule is simply reciprocal altruism. Which is an evolutionary trait which enabled us to move from small hunter/gatherer groups to larger groups (and thence tribes and villages etc). Because that in turn gave benefits in the sharing of food and labour and hence increased the chances of survival of any given member of that group.

Can you cheat and not share food and/or the workload and work the sytem to your own benefit? Naturally. But the more people who do this, the less the benefits of the larger group become, so the chances are that the group will fail as a unit.

Consequently, we have developed an antipathy to those who do cheat. We ostracise them. They suffer embarrasment and shame. We banish them from the group. So the system effectively becomes self correcting.

So should you do good to someone who doesn't deserve it? Yes, up to a point. You should do it as a means to change their behaviour. If it doesn't work...then they're out. It makes no sense to keep buying a beer for someone who doesn't shout their round.

  • Although I agree with your answer, if you added relevant references to reciprocal altruism or group influences on evolution this would support your answer making it stronger and give the reader a place to go for more information. Welcome to Philosophy. Commented Feb 5, 2019 at 11:37
  • Thanks for your input, Frank. I would suggest reading up on anything by Tooby and/or Cosmides on the subject, such as: scholar.google.co.uk/scholar_url?url=https://www.britac.ac.uk/…. Not sure if clicking that link takes tou directly o the pdf or you need to cut and paste.
    – Wozza
    Commented Feb 5, 2019 at 13:14

In Christian thinking, guidance about the Golden Rule can be traced to the words of Jesus. He explicitly addresses the thorny issue of whether to apply this to somebody you don't like:

[Jesus] went down with [the 12 apostles] and stood on a level place. A large crowd of his disciples was there and a great number of people from all over [the Roman province of] Judea, from Jerusalem, and from the coast of Tyre and Sidon, who had come to hear him and to be healed of their diseases. Those troubled by evil spirits were cured, and the people all tried to touch him, because power was coming from him and healing them all.

Looking at his disciples, he said:

"Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are you who hunger now, for you will be satisfied. Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh. Blessed are you when men hate you, when they exclude you and insult you and reject your name as evil, because of the Son of Man.

"Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, because great is your reward in heaven. For that is how their fathers treated the prophets.

"But woe to you who are rich, for you have already received your comfort. Woe to you who are well fed now, for you will go hungry. Woe to you who laugh now, for you will mourn and weep. Woe to you when all men speak well of you, for that is how their fathers treated the false prophets.

"But I tell you who hear me: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you. If someone strikes you on one cheek, turn to him the other also. If someone takes your cloak, do not stop him from taking your tunic. Give to everyone who asks you, and if anyone takes what belongs to you, do not demand it back. Do to others as you would have them do to you.

If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even 'sinners' love those who love them. And if you do good to those who are good to you, what credit is that to you? Even 'sinners' do that. And if you lend to those from whom you expect repayment, what credit is that to you? Even 'sinners' lend to 'sinners,' expecting to be repaid in full. But love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back. Then your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High, because he is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.

Do not judge, and you will not be judged. Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven. Give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over, will be poured into your lap. For with the measure you use, it will be measured to you."

He also told them this parable: "Can a blind man lead a blind man? Will they not both fall into a pit? A student is not above his teacher, but everyone who is fully trained will be like his teacher.

Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother's eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, 'Brother, let me take the speck out of your eye,' when you yourself fail to see the plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother's eye."

The Gospel according to Luke, Chapter 6, verses 17-42 (New International Version) [bracketed words and bolding by Elliot]

As it relates to your question, generally, I would say that Jesus is teaching people that the supernatural consequences of people's actions are more important than the visible consequences of their actions. And it comes with a warning: if you think you're better than somebody, there are several good reasons not to act on that thought.

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