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Is it Healthy to Follow the Golden Rule?

Golden Rule photo The Golden Rule can be found in religions and philosophies all over the world.

It was first written down in ancient Egypt. It is also found in the Bible and the Koran; it can be found in Confucianism and Daoism; and it can be read in Greek and Roman literature. Numerous writers have stated it in various words. It is one of the core sayings of human culture.

The Bible puts it this way: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”

It sounds nice, but does it really work? Does it bring contentment? Emotional health? Peace? People today don’t seem to think so, for it doesn’t seem to be practiced very much anymore.

For most people today, the rule seems to be, “Treat others the way they deserve to be treated.” Let’s call it the “New Golden Rule.” What this implies is that we should judge others to assess what kind of treatment they deserve, and then treat them accordingly. If we decide people are good, we treat them well. If we decide people are bad, we treat them poorly. If they are a member of the “in group,” we treat them well. If they are a member of the “out group,” we treat them badly.

If people are a member of our religion, our institution, our political group or our country, we treat them well; if not, we treat them badly. If they are a member of our race we treat them well, if not, we may not treat them as well. If they are a member of our sex, we treat them well, if not, maybe not so well.

We decide if they are naughty or nice and dish out the pleasure or pain. There is no middle ground, no ability to make fine distinctions. The New Golden Rule is absolute.

The Golden Rule differs from the New Golden rule in one particular and distinct way: the Golden Rule is associated with empathy, while the New Golden Rule is not.

Empathy is considered to be one of the main building blocks of civilized society. If we are able to put ourselves into other people’s shoes and thereby be compassionate toward them, we are more likely to treat them the way we want to be treated. If we have a “we’re all in this together” attitude toward all people who inhabit the earth, we will have a less-conflicted world. If all people had empathy toward one another, nobody would act superior; judge or behave in a hostile manner. Empathy leads to love, respect and reciprocity. Instead, we are divided into groups and our group looks down on and often abuses those outside of our group.

The New Golden Rule, which allows followers to judge others to be inferior and thereby justifies abusive behavior toward them, leads to counter judgments by those who are being judged. For every action, there is a counter reaction, to state a law of physics that also applies to human nature. So if one group decides that another group deserves to be treated badly because it disagrees with the first group, then the second group will view the first group negatively and will treat the first group badly in kind. This is, of course, how all conflicts begin and flourish, from the smallest argument to international wars.

Psychologically, empathy is a sign of health. If you view others with compassion (and yourself with compassion) this is a sign of good emotional health. Treating others the way you want to be treated requires empathy. But so does treating yourself the way you want others to treat you. Some people are not able to empathize with themselves, and are therefore not able to be empathic to others. So even if we want to follow the Golden Rule, we may not be emotionally or psychologically healthy enough to do so.

However, there is no doubt that to the extent that we can follow the Golden Rule, it will lead to psychological health as well as to peace and contentment.

When we treat others the way we want to be treated ourselves, we usually invoke the same treatment from others—if they are able to do it. Hence our relationships with ourselves and with others will improve and we will have more peace and contentment.

This is not to say that there may not be many occasions that require us to defend ourselves against those who would treat us badly. If someone tries to push us off a cliff, we will need to oppose such behavior. If someone is robbing our house, we will need to stop the robber.

The sticking point is—are we emotionally able to be empathetic? Are we psychologically able to treat others in a nonjudgmental way? If we are not, we won’t be able to live a healthy life, love another person, or function smoothly in any area. Those who lack this ability can either find contentment by working on themselves in therapy (the hard way) or find a temporary kind of contentment by exerting power over others (the easy way)

Another question that arises is, does treating others the way we want to be treated mean that we have to be nice to serial killers and hire them for our company? Of course, it doesn’t. Even though we should be compassionate toward everybody (because it is all a matter of luck whether we are born or raised to be a serial killer or not), that doesn’t mean we should choose a serial killer for our job or as a friend.

In the Indian tradition of Tamil, it is written, “The punishment to those who have done evil to you, is to put them to shame by showing them kindness in return, and thereby to forget both the evil and the good done on both sides.

Is it Healthy to Follow the Golden Rule?

Gerald Schoenewolf, Ph.D.

Gerald Schoenewolf, Ph.D. is a licensed psychoanalyst in New York and has been practicing for over 37 years. He works with adults, couples, families, adolescents, and children. He has graduated from three psychotherapy institutes and received a Certificate in Psychoanalysis from the Washington Square Institute in 1981. He has been an Adjunct Assistant Professor of psychology at the Borough of Manhattan Community College since 2002 and has authored thirteen books on psychotherapy and psychoanalysis as well as four novels and a book of poems and drawings. More recently he wrote 20 screenplays (winning four first-place awards at festivals) and produced and directed two feature films.

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APA Reference
Schoenewolf, G. (2017). Is it Healthy to Follow the Golden Rule?. Psych Central. Retrieved on July 7, 2020, from


Last updated: 14 May 2017
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