This is a positive version of “The Golden Rule.”
Don’t be surprised if someone seems to resent being told to “be good.” But the resentment may not come at all at the idea of “being good”: it may be because the person factually has a misunderstanding of what it means.
One can get into a lot of conflicting opinions and confusions about what “good behavior” might be. One might never have grasped—even if the teacher did—why he or she was given the grade received for “conduct.” One might even have been given or assumed false data concerning it: “children should be seen and not heard,” “being good means being inactive.”
However, there is a way to clear it all up to one’s complete satisfaction.
In all times and in most places, Mankind has looked up to and revered certain values. They are called the virtues.1 They have been attributed to wise men, holy men, saints and gods. They have made the difference between a barbarian and a cultured person, the difference between chaos and a decent society.
It doesn’t absolutely require a heavenly mandate nor a tedious search through the thick tomes of the philosophers to discover what “good” is. A self-revelation can occur on the subject.
It can be worked out by almost any person.
If one were to think over how he or she would like to be treated by others, one would evolve the human virtues. Just figure out how you would want people to treat you.
You would possibly, first of all, want to be treated justly: you wouldn’t want people lying about you or falsely or harshly condemning you. Right?
You would probably want your friends and companions to be loyal: you would not want them to betray you.
You could want to be treated with good sportsmanship, not hoodwinked nor tricked.
You would want people to be fair in their dealings with you. You would want them to be honest with you and not cheat you. Correct?
You might want to be treated kindly and without cruelty.
You would possibly want people to be considerate of your rights and feelings.
When you were down, you might like others to be compassionate.
Instead of blasting you, you would probably want others to exhibit self-control. Right?
If you had any defects or shortcomings, if you made a mistake, you might want people to be tolerant, not critical.
Rather than concentrating on censure and punishment, you would prefer people were forgiving. Correct?
You might want people to be benevolent toward you, not mean nor stingy.
Your possible desire would be for others to believe in you, not doubt you at every hand.
You would probably prefer to be given respect, not insulted.
Possibly you would want others to be polite to you and also treat you with dignity. Right?
You might like people to admire you.
When you did something for them you would possibly like people to appreciate you. Correct?
You would probably like others to be friendly toward you.
From some you might want love.
And above all, you wouldn’t want these people just pretending these things, you would want them to be quite real in their attitudes and to be acting with integrity.
You could possibly think of others. And there are the precepts contained in this book. But above you would have worked out the summary of what are called the virtues.
It requires no great stretch of imagination for one to recognize that if he were to be treated that way regularly by others around him, his life would exist on a pleasant level. And it is doubtful if one would build up much animosity toward those who treated him in this fashion.
Now there is an interesting phenomenon2 at work in human relations. When one person yells at another, the other has an impulse to yell back. One is treated pretty much the way he treats others: one actually sets an example of how he should be treated. A is mean to B so B is mean to A. A is friendly to B so B is friendly to A. I am sure you have seen this at work continually. George hates all women so women tend to hate George. Carlos acts tough to everyone so others tend to act tough toward Carlos—and if they don’t dare out in the open, they privately may nurse a hidden impulse to act very tough indeed toward Carlos if they ever get a chance.
In the unreal world of fiction and the motion pictures, one sees polite villains with unbelievably efficient gangs and lone heroes who are outright boors.3 Life really isn’t like that: real villains are usually pretty crude people and their henchmen cruder; Napoleon and Hitler were betrayed right and left by their own people. Real heroes are the quietest-talking fellows you ever met and they are very polite to their friends.
When one is lucky enough to get to meet and talk to the men and women who are at the top of their professions, one is struck by an observation often made that they are just about the nicest people you ever met. That is one of the reasons they are at the top: they try, most of them, to treat others well. And those around them respond and tend to treat them well and even forgive their few shortcomings.
All right: one can work out for himself the human virtues just by recognizing how he himself would like to be treated. And from that, I think you will agree, one has settled any confusions as to what “good conduct” really is. It’s a far cry from being inactive, sitting still with your hands in your lap and saying nothing. “Being good” can be a very active and powerful force.
There is little joy to be found in gloomy, restrained solemnity. When some of old made it seem that to practice virtue required a grim and dismal sort of life, they tended to infer that all pleasure came from being wicked: nothing could be further from the facts. Joy and pleasure do not come from immorality! Quite the reverse! Joy and pleasure arise only in honest hearts: the immoral lead unbelievably tragic lives filled with suffering and pain. The human virtues have little to do with gloominess. They are the bright face of life itself.
Now what do you suppose would happen if one were to try to treat those around him with
and did it with integrity?
It might take a while but don’t you suppose that many others would then begin to try to treat one the same way?
Even allowing for the occasional lapses—the news that startles one half out of his wits, the burglar one has to bop on the head, the nut who is driving slow in the fast lane when one is late for work—it should be fairly visible that one would lift oneself to a new plane of human relations. One’s survival potential would be considerably raised. And certainly one’s life would be a happier one.
One can influence the conduct of others around him. If one is not like that already, it can be made much easier by just picking one virtue a day and specializing in it for that day. Doing that, they would all eventually be in.
Aside from personal benefit, one can take a hand, no matter how small, in beginning a new era for human relations.
The pebble, dropped in a pool, can make ripples to the furthest shore.
The way to happiness
is made much brighter by
applying the precept, “Try to treat
others as you would want them
to treat you.”
- 1. virtues: the ideal qualities in good human conduct.
- 2. phenomenon: an observable fact or event.
- 3. boor: a person with rude, clumsy manners and little refinement.
(The wooden bowl)
We need to imagine our actions being done to us (switching places)
There once was a grandpa who lived with his family. As Grandpa grew older, he began to slobber and spill his food. So the family had him eat alone. When he dropped his bowl and broke it, they scolded him and got him a cheap wooden bowl. Grandpa was so unhappy. Now one day the young grandson was working with wood. "What are you doing?" Mom and Dad asked. "I'm making a wooden bowl," he said, "for when you two get old and must eat alone." Mom and Dad then looked sad and realized how they were mistreating Grandpa. So they decided to keep quiet when he spills his food and to let him eat with the family.A golden-rule story should have an easily expressed moral. Since my book uses this story to introduce the golden rule, I give the moral as "We need to imagine our actions being done to us (switching places)." Others might give the moral as "Different generations can respect and learn from each other" or perhaps "How we can unthinkingly hurt those we love." In a recent homily using this story, Pope Francis gave the moral as "Grandparents are a treasure." When you tell a golden-rule story, you might ask people what they think the moral is. Often people may come up with different answers that are equally insightful.
I adapted this story from the Grimm Brothers' "The old man and his grandson" (1812), which is popular on the Web. The story is sometimes called "The wooden bowl"; under this name, the story is also popular and is a delightful book for children. Dean Fansler's Filipino Popular Tales (New York: American Folk-Lore Society, 1921, pp. 271-5 - see Amazon or Gutenberg) tells how this story exists in many countries, including India, Mexico, the Philippines, and across Europe. In these stories, Father is about to mistreat the aging Grandpa in some way (e.g., Grandpa will be made to eat alone or sent off to the woods to die). Then Grandson shows his intention to treat Father the same way (and he does this using a wooden bowl, cloth, rope, or hole). Finally Father, seeing that he'd hate to be treated as he treats the old man, has a change of heart. There's also a Chinese version. An ancient Buddhist version (India) of the story has Father about to kill and bury Grandpa; but Grandson digs a second hole for when, following family custom, he has to kill Father.
My Chapter 1 uses several stories to explain how NOT to apply the golden rule. My first story has two parts:
(The monkey and the fish)
People differ and the golden rule needs to respect this; so ask: "Am I now
willing that if I were in the same situation then this be done to me?"
There once lived a monkey and a fish. The monkey followed the golden rule, always trying to treat others as he wanted to be treated. But he sometimes applied the golden rule foolishly. Now one day a big flood came. As the threatening waters rose, the foolish monkey climbed a tree to safety. Then he looked down and saw a fish struggling in the water. He thought, "I wanted to be lifted from the water." So he reached down and grabbed the fish from the water, lifting him to safety on a high branch. Of course that didn't work. The fish died.The foolish monkey applied the golden rule literally: treat others as you want to be treated. He wanted to be taken from the water, so he took the fish from the water. He didn't consider how fish and monkeys differ. Being taken from the water saves a monkey but kills a fish.
Kita, who lived on the same island, was a wise golden-rule monkey. She learned that fish die when taken from water. When the flood came, she considered taking a fish from the water. But she imagined herself in his situation. She asked, "Am I now willing that if I were in the same situation as the fish, then I be taken from the water?" She answered, "Gosh no: this would kill me!" So she left the fish in the water.
Kita was much wiser. When Kita considered taking the fish from the water, she tried to know the situation of the fish (who had different likes, dislikes, and needs). She imagined being in the fish's exact place and having this same thing done to her. She tested her consistency by asking: "Am I now willing that if I were in the same situation as the fish, then I be taken from the water?" Finally, she acted on the golden rule (leaving the fish in the water).
"Kita" is also an acronym for some main elements in using the golden rule wisely:
- Know: "How would my action affect others?"
- Imagine: "What would it be like to have this done to me in the same situation?"
- Test for consistency: "Am I now willing that if I were in the same situation then this be done to me?"
- Act toward others only as you're willing to be treated in the same situation.
"The monkey and the fish" is a popular story from Africa (Tanzania). I added the second monkey and the Kita acronym.
Chapter 1 has other stories that illustrate points about golden-rule reasoning. A story about squirrels teaches that we sometimes need to act against what others want; the golden rule lets us discipline baby squirrel (for his own good) as long as we're willing that we be disciplined in a like situation. Frazzled Frannie teaches that we needn't ignore our own interests; the golden rule lets us say no to unreasonable requests of others, so long as we're willing that others say no to us in a like situation. Pre-law Lucy teaches that the golden rule needs to be applied to third parties too. And two further stories teach that, for the golden rule to lead reliably to right action, it has to be combined with knowledge and imagination; Electra applies the golden rule foolishly because she gets her facts wrong, and Rich must work hard at knowledge and imagination to apply the golden rule adequately to his complex coal-mine business. (The last three stories on this Web page likewise are about how to answer tricky objections to the golden rule.)
Further chapters also have pedagogically useful stories. In the world-religions chapter, for example, Hillel (Jewish) teaches that life's complexities shouldn't blind us to what's most important, the Good Samaritan (Christian) teaches us to apply the golden rule even to those we've been taught to hate, and Queen Mallika (Buddhist) teaches that another's suffering is as important to that person as our own suffering is to us.
Chapter 6 is about moral education - how to teach morality (including the golden rule) to the next generation. Stories are an important tool of moral education. As I wrote this chapter, I envisioned that a "Golden Rule Stories" Web page might be useful to many people, especially teachers. That's how this Web page came to be.