The Golden Rule: An Adaptation
Treat others as you would like to be treated if you were them.
Aug. 23, 2020
We all know the Golden Rule: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” Colloquially, it is: “Treat others as you would like to be treated.” The Golden Rule is concise, morally useful, and universally applicable. For those reasons, I’m a fan.
But there’s a fault in its delivery. The Golden Rule is about compelling empathy, yet the way its verbiage doesn’t convey that. As it stands, Golden Rule starts and ends with you.
I propose an adaptation to the Golden Rule: Treat others as you would like to be treated if you were them.
It’s easy to treat someone how you would like to be treated, compared with the difficulty of knowing how they’d like to be treated. The age-old Golden Rule doesn’t communicate what it means to advocate for: empathizing — considering how it would be if you were someone else.
The difference between these two versions of the Golden Rule isn’t just semantics. These two rules would result in fundamentally different approaches to many interactions.
Imagine you respond well to a bit of tough love or blunt criticism every once in a while — when you slack at work, for example. If a coworker of yours slacks off, are you going to automatically respond with tough love, just because it’s how you would want to be treated?
Hopefully, you’d consider what the most effective form of communication would be and take that route, not just the route that’s most familiar.
This is what the original Golden Rule lacks; it doesn’t require you to tune into someone else’s frequency, only that you echo your own. There is a difference between knowing how you would feel in a certain situation and how someone else would feel. The former is you stepping into their shoes. The latter is you wearing their shoes and tuning into their mind.
Empathy requires effort and awareness and is more conducive to positive, enriching interactions.
By revising the Golden Rule, my aim isn’t to change its meaning but to reinforce its underlying message. That involves getting in the if-you-were-them headspace, rather than merely stepping into someone else’s shoes.
Another way to conceptualize this is through the idea that we construct a narrative for ourselves: everyone is the protagonist of their own story. A good first step toward empathy is acknowledging that you aren’t the protagonist of any story but your own. To further the metaphor, abiding by the adapted Golden Rule would be to read the script of another person’s narrative as their character and do your best to play the part. It’s not enough to read their part as yourself.
Empathy won’t make you lose yourself. But if you care about someone and want to treat them well, that means you must step out of your own mind. Empathy helps you expand yourself.
The original Golden Rule only calls for self-awareness — knowing how you want to be treated. This adaptation requires an awareness of yourself and of others.
Surely, your estimate of how someone would like to be treated won’t be perfect. That’s why it’s more difficult to follow the adapted Golden Rule. But the more you consider other’s perspectives, the more you hone your empathy, and the more accurate your estimates become. The more empathetic, the better equipped you are to treat others well.
The best way to improve the skill of empathy is to widen the breath of your own experience. Empathy is about understanding someone else’s situation by relating to their personal experience. Sympathy, for instance, is just a hopeful offering of emotion. The broader your personal experience, the more experiences you’re able to empathize with.
Hone empathy by widening your range of your personal experience, and be an exemplar of empathy to others by adhering to the adapted Golden Rule. If our age-old ethical doctrine read “treat others how you would like to be treated if you were them,” it would be harder to follow, but it would compel us to understand each other better.
What do you think of my proposed revision to the Golden Rule? Is it a misinterpretation of its meaning? Is it the right interpretation but a worse phrasing of it? Do you agree with my adaptation? Let me know!