Decision-Making Models: The Golden Rule

This most basic and useful ethical theory, sometimes called the “Rule of Reciprocity,” has a long history:

  • Confucius (500 B.C.): “What you do not want done to yourself, do not do to others.”
  • Aristotle (325 B.C.): “We should behave to others as we wish them to behave to us.”
  • From the Mahabharata (200 B.C.): “Do nothing to thy neighbor which thou wouldst not have him do to thee thereafter.”
  • Jesus (30 A.D.): “As ye would that men should do to you, do ye also to them likewise.”

The Golden Rule is valid for a great range of decisions, personal or professional.  Even in the most difficult situation, application of the “do unto others” standard often reveals what actions are ethical and which are not.  If you don’t want to be deceived, don’t deceive others.  If you want others to keep their commitments to you, keep your commitments to them.

Treating others Better Than They Treat You

Cynics claim that the Rule will not work in the “real world.”  They suggest that to survive one must “do unto others before they do unto you.” This, of course, becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy fueling an anti-ethical, everyone-for-himself ethos.  Of course, many people do not live by the Golden Rule; they do not treat others fairly, honestly or with compassion.  The challenge to an ethically committed person is to overcome this fact of life and do what is right in spite of, even because of, the failure of others to do so.


The Golden Rule, however, falters in situations that involve a complex network of stakeholders with conflicting interests.  It provides no guidance on how to choose among them.