The True Meaning of the Golden Rule: Love Your Bullies
The scientific psychological meaning of the Golden Rule.
Posted Feb 20, 2010
The Golden Rule: It's the ultimate, all-encompassing rule of morality, promoted by every religion and ethical system. Today, many anti-bullying organizations are touting the Golden Rule as the solution to bullying. However, as I will be explaining, very few people actually understand what it comes to teach us.
While the term the Golden Rule (I will refer to it as GR for the rest of the article) was coined only a couple of hundred years ago, the rule has been recognized for thousands of years. Its most familiar formulations are: Love your fellow/neighbor as yourself; Do unto others as you would have them do unto you; Whatever is hateful to yourself, do not do to others.
2400 years ago Aristotle made a logical proof that the best way to live our lives is the GR. He explained that if everyone lived by the GR, we wouldn't need government–we would all get along nicely without any human authority over us (according to Mortimer Adler in the book, Aristotle for Everyone). Two thousand years ago, the Jewish sage Hillel, when asked "to explain the Torah [the Jewish body of rules for life based on the Bible] while standing on one leg," said, "Whatever is hateful to yourself, do not do to others–all the rest is commentary."
It's obvious that if people lived by the Golden Rule life would be terrific. Relationships would be ideal. Bullying would cease to be a problem. If the entire world lived by the Golden Rule, there would be Peace on Earth. It's also obvious that it's impossible to be living ethically if we are violating the GR. So why don't the social sciences and the mental health professions teach the practice of the GR? Why is bullying an escalating problem? Why are we still afraid of World War III? Why has the GR failed to accomplish its purpose?
I believe it's because of two general reasons.
One reason the social sciences and mental health professions don't teach the practice of the GR is that the GR has become associated with religion, but psychology is science, and science is divorced from religion. So we don't even consider the GR.
But the GR is not a religious rule. It says absolutely nothing about a god or a higher power. You can be an atheist and still cherish the GR. As I will be explaining shortly, the GR is actually a scientific psychological rule. It is a simple formula for defusing aggression and creating harmony.
The other reason is that very few people understand what the GR is really about. Some people, including intelligent, educated ones, believe it means that we have to do to others exactly what we want for ourselves. For example, let's say I'm going to buy you a necktie as a gift. If I like red neckties, I should give you a red necktie even though you may prefer blue, because I like red. That is an infantile interpretation of the GR.
Many people believe the GR means that it is important to be nice to people.
But that's not its purpose. We do not need the GR to inform us that it is important to be nice to people. It is obvious that it is important to be nice. The problem is, What do we do when people aren't nice to us? Our entire lives we are being taught how important it is to be nice. So when someone is mean to us, how do we respond? My God! They're not allowed to treat me that way! I am always nice to everyone! How dare they be mean to me?! So we get angry. We want to get them punished. We want revenge.
What the GR really means is, We should be nice to people even when they are mean to us. Read the Sermon on the Mount, the compendium of Jesus' moral instructions for people. (When I refer to Jesus in this article, I am not talking about him religiously. It is up to you whether you believe he is divine or mortal or even existed. I am strictly talking about his wisdom, his philosophy, as presented in the teachings attributed to him.) He talks about the GR. He says it is not about being nice to people who are nice to us. Anyone can do that. That comes naturally to us. Jesus says that even the tax collectors can do that–and Jesus was not particularly fond of tax collectors. Jesus says it's about being nice to people even when they are mean to us, and he gives us many examples. He says, love your enemy; turn the other cheek; if someone asks you to carry something for a mile, carry it for two miles; if someone wants your coat, give them your jacket, too. He says, don't get angry. This means, of course, don't get angry at people when they are mean to us. (We don't get angry at people when they are nice to us.) Jesus understood this perfectly, but very few others do.
(The truth is that there are entire cultures that understand the true meaning of the GR, and they live in incredible harmony. One such people are the Ladakhis, who I wrote about in a recent blog entry. The book about them, Ancient Futures, never even mentions the words the Golden Rule, but the description of their way of life matches the GR precisely).
Allow me to explain how the GR works scientifically/psychologically.
We are biologically programmed for what I refer to as the Rule of Nature, or what many social scientists refer to as the Law of Reciprocity. This means that I will treat you the way you treat me. If you're nice to me, I'll be nice back, and if you're mean to me, I will be mean back.
In nature, if you are nice to me, you are probably my friend, so it is safe for me to be nice in return, and it will benefit both of us. If you are mean to me in nature, you are probably a real enemy trying to injure me or kill me. I had better not be nice to you when you are trying to injure or kill me or I'll make it even easier for you. In fact, I had better be even meaner to you than you are to me or I'm going to be a big loser!
If you think about it, you'll realize that we are all biologically programmed for reciprocity. When someone is being genuinely nice to you, do you feel like being mean back? Of course not. You feel like being nice back. And when someone is being mean to you, do you feel like being nice back? No. You feel like being mean back. We can control our responses, but this is what our guts tell us: to be nice to those who are nice to us and mean to those who are mean to us. With the exception of some people who have serious neurological or emotional disturbances, we are all like this. No one had to teach it to us or we wouldn't all be like this.
But even the Rule of Nature/Law of Reciprocity creates a fair amount of harmony. If you observe creatures living in nature–including humans–you will notice that they spend far more time being nice to members of their own group than they do being mean. That's because we discover that when we are nice to others, they tend to be nice back, and when we're mean to others, they tend to be mean back. So we figure out by ourselves that in general it pays to be nice to others.
The GR makes a higher level of harmony possible. It actually takes advantage of our programming for reciprocity. And this is how it works.
If I live by reciprocity, I have very little control of my relationships. If you are nice to me, I will be nice in return and we will be friends. However, if you are mean to me, I will be mean in return and we will be enemies. The GR puts me in control. I will be nice to you even when you are mean to me. Why? Because how long can you continue being mean to me when I am always nice to you? Before long, you are going to start being nice to me because you are biologically programmed to treat me the way I treat you.
The GR is the therefore the ultimate empowerment. It is the solution to being a victim. A victim reacts. A victim's behavior is therefore controlled by the bully. But in order to not be a victim, we must act independently of the bully's actions. we treat them like friends even when they treat us like enemies. And that way we end up controlling them.
Treating people like friends does not mean that we must give them everything they want. We can be hurting people by giving them everything they want. We can be spoiling them, enabling them or helping them become bad people. The GR requires us to say "no" to people sometimes, but we are to do it nicely, without anger. Nor does the GR mean that we must let people abuse us, injure us or kill us. We are required to protect ourselves and to stop others from hurting us. The GR even requires us to kill people if there is no other way to stop them from being murderous. But it is not because we hate them. It is because we love them and they give us no choice.
Anti-bully activists have been trying to promote the GR. They have adopted the GR as their motto, and they gets kids to wear rubber bracelets engraved with the GR. However, the activists don't truly understand the GR. They believe it means, Don't act like a bully. They are really promoting reciprocity: We will be nice to you if you are nice to us, but if you bully us, we will have no tolerance for you and we will get you punished ("administered consequences," in current jargon). What the anti-bully activists don't realize is that the GR really means, Don't act like a victim!
Someone once showed me a letter written by a school principal to the students of the school. It explained how important it is to live by the GR. The concluding paragraph said (the following are not the exact words, but they're pretty close): "So you have to live by the GR in school, and if you don't, we will have no choice but to punish you." Sorry, Mr. Principal, but that is a violation of the GR. How would you like it if some authority figure went around punishing you whenever they decided you didn't treat someone the way s/he wanted to be treated?
In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus says outright that the GR is a rejection of reciprocity:
You have heard that it has been said, You shall love your neighbor, and hate your enemy. But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for those who despitefully use you, and persecute you. (Matthew 5:43-44)
Loving our enemies is the true purpose of the GR.
We don't need to be instructed to love our friends because that comes naturally to us. When it comes to enemies, though, our natural instinct is to hate them. However, that only escalates their hatred for us in return. Now, how would you like it if your enemies loved you? Wouldn't it be terrific? They wouldn't be your enemies anymore! So just as we would like our enemies to love us, we need to love our enemies.
If we were to replace our zero-tolerance-for-bullying policies with this simple expression of the GR–Love your enemy (bully); be nice to people even when they are mean to you–bullying would disappear. And if we were to teach it on an international level, we might achieve peace on earth.
No other way is possible. We can't practice intolerance of bullying, hoping that it will lead to a society in which intolerance no longer exists. We can't conduct war against other countries hoping that it will lead to a world without war. The only way to lead to a world that lives by the GR is by living by the GR now.
Disclaimer: While I teach the meaning of the GR, I don't claim to be a model of it. There are people who live by the GR much better than I do without ever having been taught the rule. I often forget to apply it, and people who know me can attest to it. So if you wish to accuse me of being a hypocrite, I will be the first to agree!