The Golden Rule is the ultimate, all-encompassing principle for moral behavior. There is a story about the great Jewish sage Hillel who lived two thousand years ago. A man came to ask him to teach him all of the Torah (the Jewish body of law) while standing on one foot (meaning, in an instant). Hillel said, “Whatever is hateful to yourself, do not do to others. All the rest is commentary.”
To determine if our actions are moral, we should ask ourselves if we would like to be treated the way we are treating the other person if we were in their situation. Unfortunately, most of what we do to kids once we label them bullies we would not want done to us if we were in their situation. What we are doing to them is immoral.
Twenty-four hundred years ago, Aristotle made a logical poof that if everyone lived by the Golden Rule, we wouldn’t need government. We would all get along nicely, without any human authority over us, if we all lived by the Golden Rule.
While such a society may sound like an impossible fantasy, there are, in fact, societies in which there is virtually no crime or bullying. The book, Ancient Futures: Learning from Ladakh, by Helena Norberg-Hodge, describes the Ladakhi people of the Himalayas, who live in incredible harmony while having no police or formal government. While the book never uses the term the Golden Rule, it is obvious from the description of their way of life that they live by this rule. The book Utopia, written five hundred years ago by Sir Thomas More, also describes a society that lives in remarkable harmony. The government of Utopia is small and they have few laws. They live in harmony not because they fear the power of the law enforcement system but because they live by moral principles–principles that are in accordance with the Golden Rule.
If schools functioned by the Golden Rule, they would be the Utopian environments that we are hoping to create with our anti-bullying laws. The problem of bullying would be essentially non-existent. Why, then, don’t the social sciences teach the practice of the Golden Rule? It’s for two reasons. One reason is that very few people understand what it means. Many people believe it means that if I am buying you a gift, I have to buy for you what I would want to get for myself. So if I like red ties, I should buy you a red tie even though you may prefer blue. This is an infantile understanding of the Golden Rule. Many people believe the Golden Rule means that we need to be nice to people–that we shouldn’t be bullies. However, we don’t need the Golden Rule for such an obvious message. It’s obvious that it’s wrong to be mean to people.
The problem is, “What do we do when people are not nice to us–when they bully us?” Throughout our lives we’re being taught how important it is to be nice to people. More recently we’re being taught to have no tolerance for bullying. So when people are mean to us, how do we respond? We become outraged, thinking, “How dare they treat me that way?! They’re supposed to be nice to me! I’m nice to everyone! How dare they bully me!” What happens is we get angry…we want revenge…we want to get them punished.
So the Golden Rule really comes to answer the question of what to do when people are mean to us. And the answer is: “Don’t do to them what you don’t like them doing to you; Treat them the way you want to be treated,” i.e., be nice to them. The Golden Rule is not really about how not to be a bully, but how not to be a victim!
The second reason the social sciences don’t teach the practice of the Golden Rule is that it has become associated with religion, and science is divorced from religion, so we don’t even consider the Golden Rule.
But the Golden Rule is not necessarily a religious rule. It says absolutely nothing about a deity or a higher power. You can be an atheist and still love the Golden Rule. It is a actually a scientific psychological rule. It is a formula for harmony. It is the way to turn enemies into friends–bullies into buddies.
This is how the Golden Rule works scientifically. Social creatures are biologically programmed for what social scientists call the law of reciprocity: treat others the way they treat us. That is why when people are nice to us, we feel like being nice back, and when people are mean to us, we feel like being mean back. We are all like this. It is our instinctive biological programming from our prehistoric lives in nature, where might made right, and we had real enemies looking to eat us for dinner or kill us for a variety of other reasons. There were no laws against violence and we had to do our own fighting and protection. In most cases, we needed to be even meaner to our enemies than they were to us, or they’d kill us in a second.
However, we no longer live in nature. We don’t need to be afraid of each other the way we did in nature because of the rule of law and because we don’t have to fight each other physically to get our basic needs met. In civilization we can all potentially be friends.
Today if I live by the rule of nature–reciprocity–I have little control over my relationships. If you are nice to me, I will be nice back and we will be friends. If you are mean to me, I will be mean back and we will be enemies.
The Golden Rule puts me in charge. I am going to turn you into my friend even if you treat me like an enemy. How? By consistently treating you like a friend even when you are treating me like an enemy. Before long, you will start treating me like a friend because you are biologically programmed for reciprocity–to treat me the way I am treating you. So the Golden Rule is the ultimate empowerment. People who truly live by the Golden Rule rarely have relationship problems and do not become victims of bullying.
Governments throughout the world have been instituting anti-bullying laws in the attempt to turn the Golden Rule into the Golden Law: You must be nice to others or you will be punished. However, this is not the Golden Rule but simple Reciprocity: being mean to people who are mean. The very act of forcing children to act according to the Golden Rule is contrary to the Golden Rule. Would you like to get punished by the authorities whenever someone doesn’t like the way you are treating them? Of course not! Furthermore, being nice to people in order to avoid punishment is not moral behavior but mere self-interest.
Disciplining children by the Golden Rule does not mean that we let them do whatever they want. We must do our best to prevent them from causing harm to themselves and to others. But it does require us to treat them with dignity and friendship. We need to ask ourselves: If I were the child I am disciplining, how would I want to be disciplined so that the chances that I become a better person are maximized?
If you are a parent, you may feel indignant that bullies must get punished. If so, this is because few of us think of our own children as bullies. We are much more likely to think of others’ children as bullies and our own as victims.
You must realize that for every victim there is a bully, and your child is as likely to be deemed a bully by the school as a victim. To live by the Golden Rule, you must ask yourself how you would like your children to be treated if the school authorities decide they are bullies? Would you want the school to treat them like criminals or like human beings who deserve respect and love?
The goal of our school is to raise moral children, and we can only do this by basing our disciplinary policies on the Golden Rule. If you feel that our policies violate the Golden Rule, please let us know. We will happily discuss it with you, and if we discover we can make our policies more moral, we will be extremely grateful to you.
Read Previous Installments to this series:
We have also created a proposal for a moral, effective school bullying policy based on the Golden Rule. We welcome you to use it, and if you like it, recommend it to your school administration: