Can the so-called Golden Rule be considered a universal, stand-alone ethical code or is morality rather more complicated? This well-known maxim crops us again and again in the writings of different religious traditions: in Confucianism, “what you do not wish for yourself, do not do to others”; in Judaism, “what is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow man”; in Christianity, “do unto others as you would have them do unto you”; in Islam, “no one of you is a believer until he desires for his brother that which he desires for himself”; and so on. At face value, the Golden Rule seems eminently intuitive; one does not need to be a theologian or moral philosopher in order to grasp this principle, and to be liable to judgment according to their enactment of it. Whilst many aspects of morality are still up for debate and may vary across cultures, belief in mutuality seems to be more or less universal.

But can it indeed be applied to everyone? Immanuel Kant’s famous Categorical Imperative states, “act only in accordance with that maxim through which you can at the same time will that it become a universal law.” Whilst this seems very similar to the Golden Rule, Kant claimed that it was in fact superior, partly because the Golden Rule remained hypothetical rather than categorical- “If you want X done to you, then do X to others.” Kant claimed that “if you want X done to you” remains open to subjectivity and dispute. For example, you may well be willing to reject the help of others if it means you don’t have a duty to help them. On the other hand, because of its strict, universalising nature, Kant’s Categorical Imperative cuts through some of the subtleties of moral decision-making—sometimes an option seems to us to be the most ethical and loving in that scenario even though we would not command it in every case.

Some contemporary thinkers argue that the Golden Rule is less useful in our modern age, because easy access to information as well as globalisation and immigration make us increasingly aware of the differences between cultures in terms of ethics and lifestyle. Diverse societies means a diversity of values, which we cannot do justice to by a universal ethical maxim.

Applicants for Philosophy or Theology may wish to scrutinise the Golden Rule, so often taken for granted, and consider whether it can or should be applied universally. Do you think morality is objective? If you had to come up with one ethical rule that everyone had to live by, what would it be?

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