Golden Rule Stories
This Web page presents some stories about the golden rule ("Treat others as you want to be treated"), especially stories that may be useful for teaching purposes. Some of the stories are taken from my book.
My Ethics and the Golden Rule (Routledge Press, 2013) is a fairly comprehensive treatment of the golden rule. This is a golden-rule book for everyone, from students to general readers to specialists. Click here for a video overview or here to preview the first 30 pages. Click here to order (or click here for the Kindle version, which I fine-tuned to fit the e-book format).
My book uses this story to introduce the golden rule:
The old man and his grandson
(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 two monkeys
(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.
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.
Li-li and the mother-in-law
Gold can transform relationships
A Chinese girl named Li-li got married and lived with her mother-in-law. Since the mother-in-law was obnoxious, Li-li decided to kill her. Li-li went to her doctor to get slow-acting poison. The doctor said, "Just so that people don't suspect you, treat your mother-in-law very nice, as you'd like to be treated." So Li-li was nice to her mother-in-law as she slipped a little poison into her food each day. Now a funny thing happened: the two started getting along much better and became best friends. So Li-li went back to the doctor and said, "I now love my mother-in-law and don't want to kill her; please give me something to counteract the poison." The doctor replied, "I gave you ordinary vitamins; the only poison was in your attitude."This Li-li story occurs in many places on the Web. Izzy Kalman's Web site, which is about how to deal with bullies, has much more about how to use the golden rule to turn enemies into friends.
Gold can deepen our lives
A taxi driver picked up an elderly lady in the middle of the night. He loaded her baggage and held her hand as she limped into the taxi. "Why are you so kind?" she asked. He replied, "It's nothing; I just try to treat my passengers as I'd want my mother to be treated." The lady was alone, sick, and going to a hospice to spend her last days; but she had great memories of where she used to live with her husband and where she used to work. The driver offered to take her by these places on the way to the hospice, which made her very happy. As they arrived at the hospice, the lady tried to pay; but the driver said, "No charge - it was my pleasure." The driver always remembered that day, which was a high point of his life.This event really happened (search for: "Kent Nerburn" "cab ride"). If you need empirical evidence about how following the golden rule can promote our own happiness, see Steven Post's Altruism and Health, New York: Oxford University Press, 2007.
Hell, heaven, and long spoons
Gold can transform society
A woman died and was taken to heaven. The angel wanted her to see hell, so they stopped there first. Hell had a lake of nutritious stew, but the people had only 12-foot spoons and so were frustrated when they tried to feed themselves. So the people were miserable and hungry. Then the woman was taken to heaven. Amazingly, heaven was exactly the same, with the same stew and 12-foot spoons; but here the people were happy and well-fed. The woman asked, "Why are these people so different?" The angel replied, "They feed each other; these people have learned the way of love."I adapted this from a Benjamin Franklin story that's popular on the Web (search for "Benjamin Franklin" "spoons to eat the stew"). Kirin Narayan's Storytellers, Saints, and Scoundrels: Folk Narrative in Hindu Religious Teaching (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1989, pp. 192-200 - see Amazon or Google Books) says that stories that are similar, but may instead have long chopsticks or locked elbows, exist among Hindus, Chinese, Japanese, Jews, and others.
The gift of the magi
Gold intention can outweigh material results
Jim and Della were newlyweds. Jim's prized possession was a gold pocket watch, which he had inherited from his grandfather. Della's prized possession was her long beautiful hair. Now Christmas was approaching and each wanted to buy a special gift for the other. But they were very poor. So Della cut her hair and sold it, to buy a gold watch chain for Jim. When Jim returned home, Della, now with short hair, gave him the gold watch chain. With a shocked look, Jim gave Della a pair of gold hair combs, which he got by selling his watch. Both smiled and realized how much they loved each other.I adapted this from a classic short story by O. Henry (search for "gift of the magi"). An old Jewish folktale makes much the same point. Here two brother are struggling farmers, and each takes grain from his own barn to give secretly to the other. One day they meet on the road, each carrying grain for the other; they realize what they are doing and embrace each other. And God then says, "This is where I want my temple built"; and so that is how the great temple in Jerusalem came to be where it is. (See Joseph Telushkin's A Code of Jewish Ethics, 2 vols, New York: Bell Tower, 2006-9, 2:2-3.)
Cutting a pie
Gold can minimize complaints about unfair treatment
Ryan and Tyler were twins. When the family had pie for desert, each boy complained that the other got a bigger piece. So Mom decided on this policy. She would first cut a double-size piece; then one boy would cut this into two equal pieces and the other boy would choose one of the pieces. The twins appreciated the fairness of this policy and got very good at cutting a piece of pie into two precisely equal pieces.I made up this story, but the "I cut, you choose" strategy has been around for a long time. I proposed this strategy once in a dispute between philosophy and another equal-size department, about how to assign office space between departments in a new building. We (philosophy) proposed: "We've divided the office space into two parts, A and B, which we see as equal in value; please choose one - or give us your own division between two parts and we will have our choice." Both departments agreed to this, and neither could complain about the result.
Later the boys asked, "Mom, is there any way to bring such fairness to other choices?" Mom answered: "There are bound to be disputes; but we can minimize these by applying the golden rule: 'Treat another only in ways that you're willing that you'd be treated in the same situation.' If people followed this, there'd be few complaints about unfair treatment."
The Karate Kid
(A Lesson From Mr. Miyagi)
In hurting others, we hurt ourselves
Seeking revenge is one way a person might react to being hurt. It might be a very natural reaction, at that. In this regard, we can learn a lot from going to the movies: A young man approaches a karate master and asks him to teach him karate. The master asks him why he wishes to learn this art. The young man answers, "To seek revenge." The master responds with this caution: "If you wish to learn the art of karate to seek revenge, you will then be digging two graves, one for your enemy and one for yourself."This is a forgiveness story from the Bukala Forgiveness Initiative of a fellow Jesuit and friend, Casey Bukala.
We might recall the "Golden Rule" here: Do unto others as you would have others do unto you.
The lion and the mouse
People will often treat you as you treat them
A mouse woke up the big lion. As the lion was about to eat him, the mouse protested: "Please forgive me and let me go, and I may some day help you." The lion agreed to this, although he laughed at the idea that a little mouse could help him.This is one of Aesop's Fables, which go back to ancient Greece and often teach that following the golden rule is in our self-interest, since the good (or harm) that we do to another will often come back to us in some way.
Now one day the lion was caught in a hunter's net, from which he could not free himself. The mouse climbed into the trap and gnawed away the rope with his sharp teeth, thus allowing the lion to escape. The mouse then said, "As you helped me, so I also helped you."
The Smothers Brothers' Aesop's Fables is an instructive but hilarious CD or set of mp3 music files; one of their songs goes: "Aesop told a great fable, told a great story, how we should all be treating each other. He told people stories that had a moral, Aesop knew that the world would be, a better place for you and me, if we all lived by the Golden Rule, and do unto others."
A cruel king
Our mistreatment of another can return to hurt us
There once was an evil Arab king who was notorious for his injustice and cruelty. The king, for example, thought nothing of breaking the five fingers of a poor man out of sheer meanness, for no apparent reason at all. But later the king would fall from power and receive even crueler treatment himself.This story is from the Galistan (Chapter 1, Story 10) of the important Persian poet Sa'di (about 1213-92). Many of Sa'di's stories involve the idea that the good or evil that we do to others will somehow come back to us (sometimes through divine action); so the good or evil that we do to another, we really are doing to ourselves. The verses here, which accord with the spirit of the golden rule, are now displayed at the entrance of the United Nations Hall of Nations.
The wise poet commented in verse:
Human beings are members of a whole,
In creation of one essence and soul.
If one member is afflicted with pain,
Other members uneasy will remain.
If you have no sympathy for human pain,
The name of human you cannot retain.
Organicmd.org has somewhat similar verses: "I'm not well, If you are sick; I'm not rich, If you are poor; I can't live, If you're not free; I depend on you, And you can depend on me; A brother is no bother, We all have the same Father."
The shopkeeper and the robber
A random act of kindness can change someone's life
Mohammad owned a small convenience store in New York. One day a robber came and demanded money. Mohammad took out his rifle (which he never loads). The robber pleaded for mercy, explaining that he had no money and that his family was hungry. The shopkeeper, considering what it would be like if his own family were hungry, felt bad for the man; after making him promise never to rob again, he gave him $40 and some food for his family -- and said a prayer of thanksgiving when he left.This event really happened. I mentioned it once at a homily at Mass (I'm a Catholic priest) and asked the congregation, "Doesn't it seem strange to tell a story about the compassion of someone of another faith?" I reminded them that that's what Jesus did in the story of the good Samaritan, where a Samaritan helps a Jew.
Six months later, Mohammad got a letter from the robber, with $50 and a note about how the event changed his life; the robber now has an honest job and supports his family well.
The color-switching bacillus
To counter prejudices, imagine the groups switching places
Many racists over the years have insisted that having white skin makes you of superior rank - and that having black skin makes you of inferior rank, suited only to serve those of white skin. The International Institute of Race Relations had tried to talk sense into white racists, but without success. Finally, they took a more creative approach. They bred a new kind of bacillus germ, which they spread to areas of racial conflict. The bacillus was catching, and the symptom of the disease it induced was that, if the patient's skin was white, it turned permanently black, and vice versa. This was part of an experiment to see if white racists would keep to their views after the color-switching. (They didn't.)This delightful story is from R.M. Hare's Freedom and Reason (Section 11.7). Hare used the story to dramatize the imaginative role-reversal that's essential to moral thinking. Hare's brilliant book was what first got me interested in the golden rule.
How wretched you are when you treat others as you'd hate to be treated
John Newton, an Englishman of the 1700s, was a successful businessman. His business was the slave trade - taking people from Africa, transporting them across the Atlantic Ocean, and selling them as slaves on America. This made good money.The Amazing Grace movie (2006), a joint Nigerian-American effort, shows how the slave trade impacted both sides; my favorite section is when the Africans capture Newton and debate whether a people so morally debased as the British could be considered "human."
Through a storm at sea and an illness, Newton came to rethink his life. He became an Anglican priest and an advocate against slavery. He wrote a book, Thoughts upon the African Slave Trade (1788), which began with the golden rule and condemned the slave trade. He wrote the most famous hymn of all time, Amazing Grace, which begins "Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me!" His hymn suggests the question: "Which is the greater wretch - one who is enslaved or one who enslaves others?"
The golden rule became a central part of the pre-Civil War debate over slavery in the United States (see Section 8.5 of my book).
Stories about tricky objections (technical)
The broccoli-hating waiter
Gold needs to be sensitive to another's situation (including likes and dislikes)
The restaurant had a sign that said, "We treat others as we want to be treated." Albert, who hated broccoli, was a waiter. Now one day Becky came in and ordered broccoli (which she liked). Albert refused to serve it to her, appealing to the golden rule: "If I want Becky not to serve me broccoli, then by the golden rule I shouldn't serve it to her." Becky complained to the owner.To avoid the literal golden rule fallacy, use a same-situation qualifier and ask: "Am I now willing that if I were in the same situation then this be done to me?" This broccoli story shows how to deal with a common golden-rule objection.
The owner told Albert about the literal golden rule fallacy: "In applying the golden rule, we need to know the other's situation, which may differ from ours: the other may have different likes, dislikes, and needs. We need to imagine ourselves in the other's situation. And we need to ask, 'How do I desire that I be treated if I were in that situation?'" Albert understood and said, "I'm willing that if I were in Becky's situation (and thus loved broccoli) then I be served it; so the golden rule doesn't prevent me from serving her broccoli." The owner replied, "Exactly!"
The Königsberg criminal
Gold doesn't force us to follow another's flawed desires
Manfred was the most dangerous criminal in Königsberg. One day he was arrested. The courtroom where he was to be sentenced had a sign that said, "Treat others as you want to be treated." So Manfred appealed to the judge: "If you were in my place, you'd want not to be sent to jail; so by the golden rule you can't send me to jail."The criminal commits what I call the soft golden rule fallacy, which in effect tells us never to act against what others want. But, on the contrary, we often need to act against what others want. We may need to stop a baby who wants to put fingers into electrical outlets, refuse a salesperson who wants to sell us overpriced products, fail a student who doesn't work, forcibly defend ourselves against an attacker, or jail a dangerous criminal. And yes, we're now willing that if we were in their situation then we be treated that way. The golden rule lets us act against what others want, as long as we're now willing that if we were in their situation then we be treated similarly.
The judge replied: "You misunderstand the golden rule. I can send you to jail, because I'm now willing that if I were in your place (as a dangerous criminal) then I be sent to jail. I hereby publicly tell everyone: 'If I do such criminal acts, then please send me to jail too!'"
Immanuel Kant, the famous philosopher of Königsberg, used this criminal example against the golden rule. To avoid Kant's criticism, say "willing that if" and ask: "Am I now willing that if I were in the same situation then this be done to me?" The judge should be able to say yes.
The misinformed Electra
To lead reliable to right action, golden-rule consistency must
be combined with things like knowledge and imagination
Electra wanted to follow the golden rule, but she got her facts wrong. She thought severe electrical shocks were pleasant. So she shocked others and, yes, she was willing that she be shocked in their place. She followed the golden rule but acted wrongly.The golden rule, to resist objections, needs to be expressed more clearly (my book has more information):
Athena, the goddess of wisdom, appeared and gave Electra a small electrical shock. Electra then learned that shocks were painful and that her willingness to be given such shocks had come from ignorance. Athena spoke: "Applying the golden rule wisely requires more than just setting down in ignorance and asking how we want to be treated. To lead reliably to right action, golden-rule consistency needs to build on things like knowledge and imagination."
Athena continued: "Desiring that we be treated in a given way doesn't show that we ought to treat another that way in the same situation. Our desires may be flawed. Maybe we're misinformed and want others to give us severe electrical shocks (which we think are pleasurable). Or maybe we have mental problems and want everyone to hurt us. Or maybe we have immoral desires and want others to cooperate with us in hurting others. Since our desires about how we are to be treated may be flawed, they aren't a reliable guide on how to treat others. To think otherwise is to misunderstand the golden rule."
Electra looked confused and asked, "What does the golden rule mean then?" Athena answered: "The golden rule is about consistency. It tells us not to combine two things: acting in a given way toward another and being unwilling that this be done to us in the same situation. The golden rule doesn't command specific actions (and so doesn't command specific wrong actions, even if we have flawed desires); instead, it forbids inconsistent combinations. To lead reliably to right action, golden-rule consistency needs to build on things like knowledge, imagination, creativity, rationalized desires, and a healthy self-love."
Am I willing that if I were in the same
situation then this be done to me?
Treat others only as you consent to
being treated in the same situation.
• I do A to another.
• Im unwilling that if I were in the same
situation then A be done to me.