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No, We Don’t Need to Update the Golden Rule
From “do unto others” to “do what others tell you”
It is a testament to the modern age that we think we know better than an ethical precept that has stood the test of time:
Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.
The Golden Rule, as it is commonly known, was famously proclaimed by Jesus during his Sermon on The Mount.
However, the sentiments behind it have a long history in the world’s religions. Among the most well-known variations is the Confucian precept to not do to others what you do not want them to do to you. It is also found in various forms in Buddhism, Hinduism, Jainism, Judaism, Daoism, Zoroastrianism, and other traditions.
But today, we know better than 2,500 years of wisdom that resonated with generations. Today, we have the Platinum Rule: treat others how they want to be treated.
I’ve heard of this before, but it more recently came to my attention when my friend Chanel Pfahl tweeted about the Platinum Rule being taught at an Ontario public school.
I did some more digging and, sure enough, the Platinum Rule has become a theme among self-help books, in healthcare, and in business, among other domains.
In its rush to keep up a façade of care and compassion, the diversity, equity, and inclusion cult has eaten up the Platinum Rule and loves to pat itself on the back about its hip new moral discovery.
But it is a new discovery, and is it actually a better idea? In his book, The Abolition of Man, C.S. Lewis makes a distinction between a moral advance and a moral innovation, and I think the Platinum Rule is mere innovation, if even that.
There is a difference between a real moral advance and a mere innovation. From the Confucian 'Do not do to others what you would not like them to do to you' to the Christian 'Do as you would be done by' is a real advance… no one who did not admit the validity of the old maxim could see reason for accepting the new one, and anyone who accepted the old would at once recognize the new as an extension of the same principle.
Those who champion the Platinum Rule think they have found something new because they claim the Golden Rule doesn’t account for the fact that everyone is different, with their own unique wants and needs.
Consider this quote from the author of The Art of People, a book that helped popularize the Platinum Rule and that is often referenced in self-help and business articles on the topic:
We all grow up learning about the simplicity and power of the Golden Rule: Do unto others as you would want done to you. It’s a splendid concept except for one thing: Everyone is different, and the truth is that in many cases what you’d want done to you is different from what your partner, employee, customer, investor, wife, or child would want done to him or her.
Motivational speaker Tim Crowley echoes this sentiment in an article titled “The Platinum Rule for Creating a Culture of Diversity and Inclusion.”
To truly honor your team’s diverse culture, and forge an inclusive workplace environment, you must set aside the Golden Rule, and adopt, instead, the Platinum Rule-“Treat others as they wish to be treated”. When you take the time to understand where your team member, coworker, or customer is coming from, and relate to him or her from that place, you are demonstrating the highest respect and the most authentic form of inclusion in the workplace.
There was even an article titled “The Platinum Rule: A New Standard for Person-Centered Care” published in the Journal of Palliative Medicine in 2022 that follows this line of thinking.
How decisions are made and patients cared for are often guided by the Golden Rule, which would have us treat patients as we would want to be treated in similar circumstances. But when patients' lived experiences and outlooks deviate substantively from our own, we stop being a reliable barometer of their needs, values, and goals… In those instances, The Platinum Rule, which would have us consider doing unto patients as they would want done unto themselves, may be a more appropriate standard for achieving optimal person-centered care.
I have to laugh a little at these attempts to critique the Golden Rule. It takes a great deal of hubris to accuse our ancestors of being so naïve they never possibly considered that everyone is different. They knew this very well, and there are very good reasons they didn’t opt for an ethic that essentially says, “do what you are told.”
One reason is that it is simply terrible advice in a very practical sense. How is it a grand moral insight to just… give people what they want?
Twice in the last month, I've been in meetings at which somebody suggested that the solution to some ongoing dilemma was to use “the platinum rule.”
It's a spectacularly bad idea. It's so deeply wrong that I have to wonder if I'm missing something, since no intelligent person who gave it a minute would knowingly endorse an idea of such colossal wrongitude. Yet it persists.
Some wants are simply inappropriate. They're selfish, or unrealistic... Prima donnas want exemptions to general rules, on the grounds of their own inherent specialness. The platinum rule suggests indulging them.
Wants are not fixed. They're contextual, often relative (or 'positional'), and somewhat malleable. Sometimes they're even internally contradictory.
Besides, how do you judge one person's wants against another's? Assuming finite resources, what basis would you have for judging competing claims? Whose wants count?
No. This is nonsense on stilts. Appeasement is not an ethic.
At the beginning of his post, Reed also explains that the Platinum Rule is presented as “something like empathy” in contrast to the reciprocal nature of the Golden Rule. I think this is why it captures so many people who are so eager to signal their virtue. But how does simply giving someone what they want foster empathy? It doesn’t. This is the second problem with the Platinum Rule.
In reality, it is the Golden Rule that is fundamentally empathetic. This becomes even more apparent when you consider that, in the context of the Bible, the Golden Rule is found in the same sermon in which Jesus encourages his followers to “love your enemies,” “turn the other cheek,” “be merciful,” and “judge not.”
To pretend that the Golden Rule, at least in the Christian context (but, I would argue, in all other contexts as well) is merely about self-centered reciprocity is, quite frankly, insulting.
The Golden Rule asks us to put ourselves in the shoes of another. To think about how you might want to be treated if you were another person requires and presupposes that you try, as best as you can, to imagine their situation from their point of view.
This is never going to be something that we, as individual human beings, can achieve perfectly, and that’s okay. The Golden Rule recognizes that we can never completely get away from our own subjective experience. Still, it asks us to try. At the same time, it doesn’t ask us to forget ourselves entirely and be completely subsumed by the wants of the other person.
For example, I don’t want healthcare providers to ask me how I want to be treated—I want them to use their skills and knowledge to treat me according to their expert opinions! Yes, they should take a sensitive and empathetic approach, which would mean following the Golden Rule. But, at the end of the day, I want them to express what they think is best, despite what my wants and preferences may be.
To bring this to another topic I care about, one which also happens to be healthcare related: kids who believe they are transgender may strongly desire to access medical treatments like puberty blockers, cross-sex hormones, and surgeries. The Platinum Rule says to give the child what they want. The Golden Rule says to empathize with them without losing yourself in the process. If I was in the place of such a child, I would want the adults in my life to think about my overall and future well-being rather than to simply appease my immediate demands.
In a failed effort to make a real moral advance, we’ve settled on mere innovation that relies on nothing more than a puffed-up sense of self-importance. Confucius and Jesus didn’t realize that everyone is different, but *I* know better.
Rest assured—those who came before us knew that everyone is different. The heart of the Golden Rule is that, despite our differences, we have a shared humanity that allows for empathy. And no, we didn’t suddenly become so clever that we have thought of a better way of relating to one another. In fact, in our floundering attempts to fashion a new morality, we’ve left ourselves vulnerable to those who don’t have a morality at all.
Empathy requires a strong sense of self; a moral core. The Platinum Rule, conversely, requires an abdication of the self, and I have written before about how self-hatred is no virtue. Narcissists and psychopaths lack empathy, and they also carry around a fragile self-image that is easily shattered. They don’t understand—much less practice—the Golden Rule, but they benefit greatly from others choosing to value the Platinum Rule instead.
I understand that the Platinum Rule can appear caring and kind on the surface and that it can be appealing to many people at first glance—people who don’t have character disorders and who don’t seek to take advantage of others. Unfortunately, it is also very appealing to those with a dark psychology who will eagerly take advantage of the open door before them.
I am cautious of people, groups, and entire movements that are thrilled at a moral precept which essentially says, “to be a good person, you have to give me what I want.” This is the tactic of the modern trans rights movements, as well as other victimhood movements throughout history which, by their nature, always devolve into violence.
Even if we don’t quite go this extreme—the Platinum Rule simply asks too much of people. We don’t always know exactly what someone else wants or how all their various identities intersect, and it isn’t always our job to know or find out.
Consider the parable of the good Samaritan. The Samaritan knew nothing else about the Jewish traveler who had been beaten and left for dead along the side of the road. In fact, part of the message of the parable is that identities were put aside entirely, as Samaritans and Jews were involved in an ongoing historical feud.
What we owe to others on a basic moral level is the willingness to extend the empathy we would want for ourselves. Anyone who asks more than this from you while demanding that you meet their needs is taking advantage of you.
You don’t have to acquiesce to someone who claims to have discovered a new and better ethical idea than one which has persisted for millennia among some of the most beloved and lauded thinkers in human history just because it falls in line with trendy diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives.
Maybe, just maybe, there was a reason the Golden Rule has persisted, and maybe those that think they know better are the ones we should listen to least of all.
Once again, in the words of C.S. Lewis:
The human mind has no more power of inventing a new value than of imagining a new primary colour, or, indeed, of creating a new sun and a new sky for it to move in.
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