The Golden Rule in Confucian Thought

The Golden Rule is viewed by Integral Deep Listening as a yogic tool for awakening. It functions by expanding and thinning one’s sense of self by generating increasing varieties of empathy, or the ability to practice multiperspectivalism through looking at the world, interests, preferences and oneself from the perspective of others.

Formulations of the Golden Rule

The Golden Rule is a unilateral moral commitment to the well-being of the other without the expectation of anything in return.

The positive or directive form of the Golden Rule: “One should treat others as one would like others to treat oneself.”

The negative or prohibitive form of the Golden Rule: “One should not treat others in ways that one would not like to be treated.”

The Golden Rule differs from the maxim of reciprocity captured in do ut des – “I give so that you will give in return.”

The Golden Rule needs to be differentiated from Kant’s categorical imperative: “Act only according to that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law.”

First introduced in Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals which is often confused with the Golden Rule.  The categorical imperative is an attempt to identify a purely formal and necessarily universally binding rule on all rational agents. The Golden Rule is neither.


Why is the Golden Rule important? The near universality of various versions of the Golden Rule point to its enduring importance.


“Scientific progress makes moral progress a necessity; for if man’s power is increased, the checks that restrain him from abusing it must be strengthened” –  Madame de Stael  (French woman of letters, political propagandist, 1766-1817)

What is the function of science? Is it to promote human progress? If so, what is the relationship between progress and the Golden Rule?


Existentialism:“…What we choose is always the better; and nothing can be better for us unless it is better for all.” Jean Paul Sartre, Existentialism is a Humanism, p. 292

The Golden Rule involves a person perceiving their neighbor also as “I” or “self.” Is this rational? Logical?

In terms of axiology, is the “good” to be defined by the Golden Rule? Does it promote happiness? If so, what is the relationship between happiness and the Golden Rule?

Is the Golden Rule the same as altruism?

How does the Golden Rule relate to other branches of philosophy:

(epistemology, metaphysics, ontology, philosophy of science, aesthetics and logic?)


Psychologically, the Golden Rule involves a person empathizing with others.

Or superficially, it involves getting others to think you are empathizing with them (politicians – Donald Trump – narcissistic character disorders, predatory ministers)

What are the psychological benefits of the golden rule?

(internalization of conscience)

What are the reasons we do not use or follow the Golden Rule?

We don’t have to (nobody makes us)

We are punished when we do (financially, excluded at work or from our groups)


Economist Richard Swift, referring to ideas from David Graber, suggests that “without some kind of reciprocity society would no longer be able to exist.”

What is the relationship between the principle of reciprocity, as seen in contracts and fairness in business transactions and the Golden Rule?

If capitalist economics is basically about maximizing your gain, not maximizing the gain of your competitors, then you want your competitors to play by the rules while you bend the rules to your advantage. What does this have to do with the Golden Rule?


What are the sociological benefits of the Golden Rule?

How important is the Golden Rule for the socialization of children?

(encouraging self-control, cooperation, sharing, dialogue, non-aggression)

How important is the Golden Rule for social stability?

(through the maintenance of the principle of reciprocity by citizens)


“Life’s most persistent and urgent question is, ‘What are you doing for others?’” ML King

Is the Golden Rule a good basis for relationships? If so, why? If not, why not?”

Three types of relationships:

1) contractual: “treat me the way I want/expect to be treated” or

2) “fulfill your contractual obligations” (“I will make money, you will provide sex and raise the children.”)

3)providing the other with the same respect that you expect/desire for yourself.

Aren’t most relationships of the first or second type?


Is the Golden Rule a good basis for parenting? If so, why? If not, why not?”

“I should follow the golden rule” (“Because my parents/religion tell me so.”)

“I follow it because I am treated better when I do.”

“I follow it because it is how I want others to treat me.”
“I follow it because I know what it is like to be abused.” (empathy)

“I follow the golden rule because how I treat others is how I am treating the parts of myself that they represent; as I do to others I am doing to myself.”


What is the relationship between the right use/expression of power and the Golden Rule?

What are its implications for:

Authoritarianism, rule by elites such as Plato’s elders? Socialism, Democracy, communism?

What is the relationship between the political assumption of national exceptionalism and the Golden Rule?

What is the relationship between the Golden Rule, war and nuclear weapons?

Art history:

Should art’s function be ethical and moral or not? (teaching)

How is the Golden Rule presented in art?

the portrayal of the parable of the Good Samaritan (bring picture)


All religions claim to follow and demonstrate the Golden Rule. Do they? If so, when and how? If not, when and how?

What is the relationship between mysticism, or natural, devotional and formless direct experiences of oneness and the Golden Rule?


What is the relationship between justice and the Golden Rule?

Does the Golden Rule have any role to play in an adversarial legal system?


Does the Golden Rule have any relevance to the causes and solutions to global warming? If so, what are they?

Does the Golden Rule extend to our relationship with nature, plants and animals? If so, why? If not, why not?

Chinese culture, Confucius and the Golden Rule

The Golden Rule existed among all the major philosophical schools of Ancient China.

Examples of the concept include:

Zi gong (a disciple of Confucius) asked: “Is there any one word that could guide a person throughout life?”

The Master replied: “How about ‘shu’ [reciprocity]: never impose on others what you would not choose for yourself?”

–Confucius, Analects XV.24 (c. 500 BC)

“If people regarded other people’s families in the same way that they regard their own, who then would incite their own family to attack that of another? For one would do for others as one would do for oneself.” — Mozi (c. 400 BC) (immigrants in Germany…)

“Regard your neighbor’s gain as your own gain, and your neighbor’s loss as your own loss.” —  Lao Tze (c. 500 BC)

There are four varieties of traditional Chinese culture: folk traditions (shamanism and Buddhism), Confucianism, Taoism and Buddhism.

The principle of treating others as you want to be treated is seen in Chinese folk religion in the tradition of making offerings to spirits in hopes of receiving blessings from beneficent ones and mollifying malicious ones. Since we like to have gifts and can be won over by them, why wouldn’t spirits? Are we not treating spirits as we would want to be treated?

The Golden Rule thereby was used to maintain harmony with a world full of chaos (earthquakes) and catastrophies (floods, diseases, invasions). The principle of reciprocity between humans was projected onto a humanized, anthropomorphic natural world.

The concept of karma, introduced into China in about 200 AD by northern Indian Buddhism, reinforced the Golden Rule by not only saying, “You get what you give,” but “What you have, who you are, your social status and your prosperity is a reflection of what you have given.” “Your life after you die will be determined by how well you have followed the Golden Rule, both toward other humans and the Gods.”

Chance or fate can be manipulated if you do the right things and avoid the wrong things, and the Golden Rule is a guide to that.[/leezen_vc_section_title][leezen_vc_section_title heading_type=”h3″ title=”Confucius and Confucianism” title_transform=”capitalize” title_weight=”600″ alignment=”left” title_size=”20px”]Master K’ung, (551-479 BC) commonly called “Confucius,” was interested in the development of character. Foundational to that was the concept of reciprocity, “never impose on others what you would not choose for yourself.”

Although this statement is normative, it conflicts with broad “same size for all” normative principles, in that it does not declare that you should treat others as they want to be treated or as some universal code would require, but as you would want to be treated. Since different people want to be treated in different ways, this honors the normative code of the individual by placing it above that of society. For example, one person may advocate for sex within marriage while another for polyamory, or multiple sexual relationships. Who is right? Generally ethical laws regarding sex are regulated by society for its own ends; the application of Master Kung’s principle would produce different results for different individuals and different relationships, independent of the values of others or society.

How does one define character?

Is character the values that you hold, the principles that you teach, the virtuous nature of what you do, or does it lie in the consideration and respect you show in your relationships? Is it all of these things or is it something entirely different? Master K’ung recognized that character involved all of these. He not only emphasized values and the teaching of the nature of character, but virtuous individual behavior and interpersonal conduct as well. While for Master K’ung character involves what you profess and do as well as how you treat others, character precipitates or arises from virtues. Here are the some of the virtues that were important to Master K’ung: self-cultivation, emulation of moral exemplars, study, learning, the attainment of skilled judgment rather than knowledge of rules, personal and governmental morality, understanding of others, justice, sincerity, loyalty, trust, worthiness, modesty, frugality, incorruptibility and courtesy.

The Centrality of Family Values

Family relationships were the core of social, cultural, and ethical life for China, and the moral views of the Confucian tradition were essentially an amplification of familial virtues. Master K’ung encouraged strong familial loyalty, ancestor worship, respect of elders by their children, and the family as a basis for an ideal government. He emphasized study to learn what virtue is, personal and governmental morality, correctness of social relationships, justice, and sincerity, so that individuals could properly serve both family and the nation.

Jen, Li and Yi

Jen (wren), Li (lee) and yi (yee) are three virtues that are fundamental to Confucianism. Jen is “moral perfection,” the core virtue that is the source of all others. Acting according to jen is the first principle of Confucianism. It is to put respect and respect for the goodness and benevolence within others and yourself first. We have a responsibility to extend that goodness to others. Master K’ung’s version of the golden rule is an obvious consequence of jen.

The second core virtue for Confucianism is Li (lee). Master K’ung believed you need a well-ordered society for human goodness, benevolence, and humanity to be expressed. Li therefore provides the structure to relationships, and that structure makes possible the expression of jen. This structure expresses the respect basic to jen in relationships by the proper use of language, expressing a balanced position or middle way between extremes, and the appropriate ways to express humanity, benevolence, and respect in particular human relationships.

For example, Master K’ung thought love and reverence were the appropriate guiding virtues for father and son relationships, gentleness and respectfulness for brothers, goodness and listening for husband and wife, consideration and deference were central for interactions between older and younger friends, and benevolence and loyalty to the relationship between ruler and subject. Master K’ung also taught respect for age, because he assumed that age reflected experience and wisdom, and that out of respect for these qualities older individuals, objects, and institutions deserved li. Master K’ung taught that the practice of altruism necessary for social cohesion could be mastered only by those who have learned self-discipline. A concern for propriety should inform everything that one says and does. Li provides a concrete guide to human actions that embody jen by supplying order and intention in the form of some benefit. Li provides the principle of social order and the structuring of relationships.

In addition to structuring relationships, li structures society, ritual, and life. This is necessary since there are limits to individuality, because every action affects someone else. Therefore, respect demands that we take these effects into account in what we do and say. Li involves not only ritual, but the etiquette, propriety, and morality with which you perform customary acts in the home or in your relationships. As such, it is much broader than our use of the word “ritual,” in that it adds sanctity to any action. Li is much broader than religious observance because it attempts to sanctify all of life. If you can imagine doing whatever you do with a constant awareness of its sacred nature, you are approaching Master K’ung’s understanding of li. As such, it is a transformative idea, because it is an attempt to bring the sacred into the routine actions and relationships of daily life. This sacred consecration of daily behavior is expressed in tea drinking and mourning, as well as social and political institutions, such as in teaching, titles, and governing, and the honoring of both the deceased and those spiritual forces that govern the world.

A third important concept for Confucianism is yi (yee), the intention to do good or act righteously. Based on reciprocity, yi refers to doing what is ethically best, and is often translated as righteousness. It is reaching for personal and social perfection, as personified by the “Superior Man.” Yi is empathy and harmony with other people, produced through a growing merging of the interests of self and other. Master K’ung believed in the superiority of personal exemplification of good character over explicit codes of behavior, such as divinely given rules. He was interested in promoting action that supported the greatest good, which he saw as the outcome of yì. This is doing the right thing for the right reason.

Master K’ung believed that some actions should be performed because they are expressions of yi, that is, they are the right thing to do, rather than for pragmatic reasons, such as their consequences, effectiveness, or workability.  Yi is similar to Kant’s ethics of duty in that actions are done because they are in themselves good, not as a means to an end. When you act for the sake of jen, because respect for humanity implies the right human way to act, you are acting from yi. When you do so until it becomes second-nature, then right action, or yi is an expression of jen.

Microcosm Creates Macrocosm

Is the microcosm, or interior world of thoughts and feelings, an internalization of the macrocosm, or the exterior world of places, objects and society, as it is in the Tao Te Ching and mysticism, or is the macrocosm an externalization of the microcosm, following psychological geocentrism and the Ptolemaic world view and following Freud and his defense mechanism of projection? Does consciousness create reality or does reality create consciousness? Confucius emphasizes the former: how consciousness creates reality. It also focuses on waking up within the dream of waking life, which is very different from most other approaches, which associate waking up with accessing altered states of consciousness, heaven, or power from the accessing of sources of energy such as status or wealth. While the nature of virtue flows downward, in imitation of the Way of Heaven, character for the Superior Man flows upward from allegiance to these virtues in his own life.

Master K’ung’ genius was in creating a microcosmic form of self-governance by which to correctly govern the macrocosm of family and society. His code of right relationships and moral excellence describes first the “superior man,” then the family, and then the nation. His core formulation of this code stands the test of time:

If there be righteousness

in the heart,

there will be beauty

in the character.

If there be beauty

in the character,

there will be harmony

in the home.

If there be harmony in the home,

there will be order

in the nation.

For Confucius, the Golden Rule both demonstrates and generates righteousness. Righteousness, or goodness in the heart, meaning an allegiance to virtue, generates beauty in the character, or in the actions of men. This excellence of character, creates harmony in the home. When the homes of a nation are full of happiness, peace, and prosperity, then there will be social order. The government will be a reflection of harmonious families and beautiful character. It all begins with goodness in the heart of each individual, expressed in following the Golden Rule.

For Confucianism the microcosm or the interior life of each individual, is the birthplace of virtue. Man creates relationships and governmental forms based on his model of his interior reality. The character of the Superior Man is determined by the virtues that he follows and upholds. For Master K’ung, the order of the State mirrors the order of the character of its citizens. Therefore, it is imperative that the Superior Man be cultivated so that society can be governed by justice. Similarly, the order of the family mirrors the character of the Superior Man. The macrocosm mirrors the microcosm as the interior world of values is outpictured as the character of the Superior Man and his character is demonstrated first in a harmonious family and then in a well-run state. Man projects his interior reality onto others and onto his understanding of the world. The psychological microcosm creates the social macrocosm and supports the harmony of nature.

What is revolutionary about this formulation is that no longer does microcosm merely manifest macrocosm: humans are not merely the products of heredity and cultural scripting; now the social macrocosm is made to mirror the psychological interiors of humans. Man no longer has to be the victim of natural disasters, invasions, or despotic leaders, all of which manifest the Way of Heaven in unacceptable, irrational ways. Now it becomes possible for man, by the choices he makes in his heart, to create social order. This was not only a profoundly new idea in Chinese culture; it was a necessary and beneficial conception that answered a very genuine societal need. That is why the influence of Master K’ung has remained so strong throughout the vast majority of Chinese history.

In our lives today, does the absence of application of something resembling Master K’ung’s analysis of the priority of relationship for the ordering of social, personal, and intrapersonal government keep an unhealthy macrocosm mirroring an unhealthy microcosm?

Why the West ignores Confucianism

Confucianism is often overlooked and minimized by the philosophical, psychological, and spiritual traditions of the West. Why?

Master K’ung’s fundamental interest was how humans can harmoniously function within the context of collective realities, whether they be familial, cultural, social, governmental, or natural. This emphasis is very different from that of the West. Where Master K’ung emphasizes order, stability, honor, respect, obedience, humility, and relationship, Western culture tends to emphasize progress, innovation, flexibility, individuality, power, control, doubt and questioning.

The externalization of Confucian values created a socio-cultural context that modeled, maintained, advocated, and probably strengthened autocracy in both children and adults, making it very difficult to generate creativity and create societal permissions for individuality. While this was very much not the intention of Master K’ung, these consequences are entirely understandable. Those who are individualistic or creative in a value system that emphasizes the unity of the self are likely to find themselves under immense pressure to conform for reasons of safety and the validation of powerful cultural norms. This is the psychological structure that has oppressed humanity from the dawn of society; it is hardly unique to China.


The teachings of Master K’ung emphasize taking personal responsibility, believing that men are responsible for their actions and in particular for their treatment of others. Instead of blaming Heaven, deities, the State, rulers, ghosts, invaders, bad luck, or fate, Master K’ung asks his students to take responsibility for aligning their character with that of the Superior Man and then to become leaders in family, work, and government.

Master K’ung’s ideas and observations, while often brilliant and highly influential in Chinese society for almost twenty-five hundred years, clearly were insufficient to either save China from itself or from conquest by the Mongols and by the West. Chinese government, steeped in the Confucian ethic, was, by the arrival of the British, mostly a corrupt and sclerotic despotism, devoid of human rights or the ability to defend itself or its cultural values. Confucian principles were used to justify and maintain the presence of ossified mandarin bureaucracies that mostly served the function of self-perpetuation. Confucianism ended up valuing stability over growth and authority over innovation. Why? Was this a failure of the teachings of Master K’ung? Was it a failure in the application of his teachings?

Instead of taking Master K’ung’s virtues and ethical injunctions, such as his version of the Golden Rule, seriously, Chinese society followed the fundamental ethical principle that governs most parents and governmental institutions: “Do as I say, not as I do.” The result was a two-tiered ethical system; the rules that govern the people do not apply to those who govern; because the responsibilities of the ruling class are exceptional, their freedoms are exceptional. Therefore, they are both given and take license to lie, cheat, steal, murder, and destroy the greater good for their own short-term benefit, which is always done in the name of the people and the greater good. In this regard, little has changed since the time of Confucius. How and why does this continue to happen in an age when there has never been more information available to as many people, as much access to health care and education, or respect for the basic human rights of citizens?

Starter questions for the various interest groups


Should science be guided by a moral compass or be ethically and morally neutral?

If not, how do we keep the crimes of eugenic experimentation as seen in the Third Reich and various medical experiments on minorities by the US from happening?

What are we to conclude about the amoral nature of science, for example someone like Werner Von Braun, who worked with equal zeal and brilliance at creating Third Reich V2s to bomb England as he did to create the Apollo program for the United States?

Will adherence to the Golden Rule cause human suffering by preventing necessary life-saving developments from seeing the light of day?

(GMO strands of grains that are drought resistant or much more nutrient rich.)

How are human and animal experimental subjects to be treated? Is applying the Golden Rule realistic?


Karl Popper wrote: “The golden rule is a good standard which is further improved by doing unto others, wherever reasonable, as they want to be done by” (The Open Society and Its Enemies,  Vol. 2). This concept has recently been called “The Platinum Rule.” Is this “Platinum Rule” superior to the Golden Rule? If so, why?

Philosophers, such as Immanuel Kant and Friedrich Nietzsche have objected to the rule on a variety of grounds. The most serious among these is its application. How does one know how others want to be treated? The obvious way is to ask them, but this cannot be done if one assumes they have not reached a particular and relevant understanding. (young children and animals)


The Golden Rule emphasizes taking responsibility for the interests of others. Is it possible to take too much responsibility? When? How?

Playwright George Bernard Shaw once said that “the golden rule is that there are no golden rules”. Shaw suggested an alternative rule: “Do not do unto others as you would that they should do unto you. Their tastes may not be the same” (Maxims for Revolutionists; 1903)

Is the internalization of societal norms as conscience intended by the Golden Rule a good thing?

When is it helpful or important not to follow the Golden Rule?

Can’t a narcissistically disordered individual follow the Golden Rule for self-interest?


Prosperity and the improvement of humanity has largely been funded by capitalism, which is based on maximization of profit and the externalization of costs, not reciprocity.

How do you reconcile the Golden Rule and the profit motive? Does the maximization of profit inherently undercut the Golden Rule?


What is the role of the Golden Rule in maintaining a stable, functioning society?

Is the Golden Rule a form of imposed groupthink (“Do as I say, not as I do”) to generate compliance in citizens by ruling classes that don’t believe in it or follow it?


If someone, like our partner, isn’t treating us the way we want to be treated, doesn’t treating them the way they want to be treated just reinforce their bad behavior?

Who is to say that treating us the way we want to be treated is good or helpful? What if I am killing myself and you supply my habit, as I did when I bought Claudia cigarettes at the airport duty free shop?

But if I treat her the way I would want to be treated I wouldn’t tolerate behaviors I don’t like. How accepting is that?


How can a parent follow the Golden Rule in raising a child? Do they only enforce those rules that they would want enforced if they were a child? And how do they know what those are, since they are now an adult and can only imagine what they as a child would want or not want? Is it loving to treat a child the way you would want to be treated?


Does the Golden Rule apply to the political arena at all or is it simply pablum for the masses to get politicians elected and pacify citizens?

What are the reasons governments do not follow the Golden Rule?

Political realism is based on national self-interest, exemplified by Machiavelli. Can political realism be reconciled with the Golden Rule?

according to philosopher Iain King, because “some fanatics have no aversion to death the Golden Rule might inspire them to kill others in suicide missions.”

Socialism – (the common good. Is it a myth? Is George Orwell’s character Snowball the pig from Animal Farm correct: “Some animals are more equal than others?”)

Art history

Is art’s function primarily ethical and moral?

Are there examples that challenge this idea?

How is the Golden Rule depicted in art, particularly Renaissance art?

Are there examples that show conflict between this principle and others?

  the portrayal of the parable of the Good Samaritan

…Jesus whipping the moneylenders in the temple courtyard

…God casting sinners into Hell…


Does the Golden Rule function as a way to create group cohesion and a sense of moral superiority as sociologists of religion believe? Or is it a way to elevate what is sacred, good and right within humanity?


Is it ever just to not treat others as you would want to be treated?

Immanuel Kant famously criticized the golden rule for not being sensitive to differences of situation, noting that a prisoner duly convicted of a crime could appeal to the Golden Rule while asking the judge to release him, pointing out that the judge would not want anyone else to send him to prison, so he should not do so to others


Does the Golden Rule have any relevance to the causes and solutions to global warming? If so, what are they?

Animals do not have or use the Golden Rule (although within species you see reciprocity)

The Golden Rule may actually be bad for the non-human world: (wolves and tropic cascades)

For those who are interested in my work, IDL, and its relationship to Taoism, Buddhism, Confucianism and Shamanism, this the link to the book chapter from which this material has been taken.

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