Unthinkable: Which ‘golden rule’ of ethics is best, the Christian or Confucian?

The rule of reciprocity can be found in all major religions, but with a different emphasis

Fri, Jan 31, 2014, 08:27

In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus summarises the whole of the Old Testament in a single phrase: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”

This maxim, known as “the golden rule” of ethics, is sometimes portrayed as an exclusively Christian concept. But it can be found in different guises in all world religions, as well as in secular teaching.

It is particularly pronounced in Chinese philosophy, albeit more commonly in its negative form: “Never impose on others what you would not choose for yourself.” The significance of this wording, typically identified as the “silver rule”, is discussed with Dr Yinya Liu, a lecturer in philosophy at NUI Maynooth who also works for the International Strategic Collaboration Programme, a project funded by Science Foundation Ireland to establish research links between China and Ireland. Arguing that the golden rule in its different guises is universally applicable, she provides today’s idea:

Audio: Linya Liu on the golden rule in Confucianism

Different cultures can find more common ground in a negative formulation of the golden rule than a positive one.


What are the sources of the silver rule in Chinese philosophy?
Yinya Liu: “The most famous is from Confucianism. In the Analects, there is a dialogue between Confucius and his disciple Zi gong, who asks: ‘Is there any one word that could guide a person throughout life?’ The Master replied: ‘How about shu: never impose on others what you would not choose for yourself?’

“In many versions, shu here is translated as reciprocity but there are many meanings behind this character. It also means empathy and forgiveness. So in the Confucian tradition you would prioritise the other rather than the self; you would look at the other person’s needs first.

“In Daoism, you can also find support for the silver rule. The ‘dao’ has several meanings, including the road, the way, ‘the moral conduct’ and the mysterious natural order of the universe. The metaphysical dao itself exists in a state of inactivity, or non-action. This inactivity does not mean ‘do nothing’ but it means to do things properly, peacefully, appropriately, naturally and without force.”


In practical terms, what’s the difference between silver and golden rule?
“In either case, it is about human desires and human wants. The positive way – the golden rule – will emphasise what kind of person we are. But the problem is each individual is different. For example, if I am a greedy person I want more from the others. So this is the problem with the golden rule, or the positive way.

“The negative formulation commands us not to do onto others what we ourselves do not desire. There is not the same subjective imposition of preferences so we can find more common ground in the negative rather than the positive.”


In Christianity, the “golden rule” could be seen as the word of God; what authority backs up the “silver rule” in Confucianism?
“We need to look at the book, the Analects; it’s like a diary, or a record of the dialogues between Confucius and his disciples. The style of the Analects, it’s not like Western academic writing where you have a definition, an argument and a conclusion. We can find in different situations even Confucius will have the same questions as the student, and will provide different answers.

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