Virtually everyone is familiar with the Golden Rule, which
most of us learned in the form “Do unto others as you would have them do unto
you.” By obliging us to treat others as well as we would treat ourselves, this
maxim seems to offer the foundation for a civil society in which everyone would
behave with consideration.
Some ethicists have pointed out that the Golden Rule doesn’t
work well in situations where others don’t want to be treated the same way you
would. You may like to blast hip-hop music at top volume at 3 a.m., but appeals
to the Golden Rule probably won’t placate your neighbors who don’t share your
musical tastes or late-night hours. Likewise, just because you enjoy teasing
banter, you aren’t entitled to banter with others who might find this type of
humor offensive or hurtful.
The Golden Rule presents special problems in cases of
intercultural contacts, where norms for what is desirable vary dramatically.
For example, most speakers from low-context cultures where English is the first
language value honesty and explicit communication, but this level of candor
would be offensive in the high-context cultures of Asia or the Middle East. A
naive communicator following the Golden Rule might justify social blunders by
claiming, “I was just communicating the way I’d like to be treated.” This sort
of ethnocentrism is a recipe for unsuccessful communication and perhaps for
very unpleasant consequences
In response to the challenge of differing wants, Milton
Bennett proposed a “Platinum Rule”: “Do unto others as they themselves would
have done unto them.” Unlike the Golden Rule, this rule requires us to
understand how others think and what they want before we can determine how to
act ethically.a Put differently, the Platinum Rule implies that empathy is a
prerequisite for moral sensitivity
Despite its initial appeal, the Platinum Rule poses its own
problems. There are certainly cases where doing unto others what they want
might compromise our own needs or even our ethical principles. It is easy to
imagine cases in which the Platinum Rule would oblige us to cheat, steal, or
lie on others’ behalf.
Even if acting on the Platinum Rule is problematic, the
benefit of thinking about it seems clear. An essential requirement for benign
behavior is the ability to empathize, helping us recognize that what others
want may be different than what we would want under the same circumstances.
Select one of your most important interpersonal
relationships and consider the effects of applying the Golden Rule and the
1 Do you have enough information to apply the Golden Rule?
What about the Platinum Rule? What communication might be necessary before you
could put each rule into practice?
2 Which rule seems to be preferable?