Sunday, July 3, 2011

Do You Always Apply ‘the Golden Rule’ in Business?

The Golden Rule, or the Ethic of Reciprocity, states that we should treat other people as we would wish to be treated ourselves. As a concept, the Golden Rule has a history that long predates the term itself, as the ethic of reciprocity was present in certain forms in the philosophies of ancient Babylon, Egypt, Persia, India, Greece, Judea, and China.

Harry Gensler mentions that “the golden rule is best interpreted as saying: ‘Treat others only as you would consent to being treated in the same situation.’ To apply it, you'd imagine yourself on the receiving end of the action in the exact place of the other person (which includes having the other person's likes and dislikes). If you act in a given way toward another, and yet are unwilling to be treated that way in the same circumstances, then you violate the rule.”

The Golden Rule has received a lot of criticism as we don’t all have the same likes and dislikes and questions the basic assumption that others would want to be treated like we would, in the first place.

George Bernard Shaw commented that if your values are not shared with others, the way you want to be treated will not be the way they want to be treated; stating that the sadist is just a masochist who follows the golden rule. An example of an inconsistency of the Golden Rule would be a man walking into a bar looking for a fight.

Further, the philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) famously criticised 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.

Gensler states “that to apply the golden rule adequately, we need knowledge and imagination. We need to know what effect our actions have on the lives of others. And we need to be able to imagine ourselves, vividly and accurately, in the other person's place on the receiving end of the action. With knowledge, imagination, and the golden rule, we can progress far in our moral thinking.”

In US history, President John F. Kennedy appealed to the Golden Rule in a 1963 anti-segregation speech at the time of the first black enrolment at the University of Alabama. He asked white members of the audience to consider what it would be like to be treated as second class citizens because of the colour of their skin. He asked whites to imagine themselves being black and being told that they could not participate in voting, or go to the better public schools or eat at public restaurants or sit at the front of the bus. Would whites be content to be treated that way? He was sure that they wouldn’t and yet he noted that this is what that particular demonstration was all about. He further said that the “heart of the question is whether we are going to treat our fellow Americans as we want to be treated.”

Marilyn Lustgarten makes a great point when she states “treat people like assets and they’ll create wealth,” which might be a play on the golden rule, but is surely worth remembering in the business environment.

But how often in business do we take the time to think about the Golden Rule and treating people like we would want to be treated. Does an effective leader need to apply the Golden Rule consistently or is there a time and a place when the Golden Rule doesn’t apply?

Gensler concludes by mentioning that “the golden rule is best seen as a consistency principle. It doesn't replace regular moral norms. It only prescribes that our actions (toward another) aren’t out of harmony with our desires (toward a reversed situation action). It tests our moral coherence. If we violate the golden rule, then we're violating the spirit of fairness and concern that lie at the heart of morality.”


Gensler, H. [On-line] philosophy/ gensler/ goldrule.htm [last updated: unknown] Reviewed 3rd July, 2011.

Lustgarten, M [On-line] artman/ publish/ article 12.shtml [last updated: unknown] Reviewed 3rd July, 2011.

The Golden Rule [On-line] pubs/ golden.pdf [last updated: unknown] Reviewed 3rd July 2011.

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