Why do we follow the Golden Rule?

I’m way out of my league writing about the Golden Rule.
That said, here’s my two cents.  (Permanently posted here.)


The Golden Rule is the first rule of social behavior that
we were supposed to have learned as children: Behave toward others as
you would like them to behave toward you (or something like that).
Don’t hit people if you don’t want to be hit; don’t steal if you don’t
want your stuff stolen; respect people if you want to be respected.
By and large, people seem to follow this rule. After all, most people
don’t want to be hit and robbed, and most people don’t hit and steal.

The Golden Rule can be seen to extend to morality beyond
person-to-person interactions. Although cows don’t have the
opportunity to behave a certain way toward people, vegetarians
nonetheless treat them with respect — the same respect they
would expect to be treated with.

My goal here is to explain why people treat others with respect.
It’s one thing to say why a philosopher might think up a Golden Rule
and something else to explain why people unconsciously follow it. But
in fact the two explanations may be the same. Just as a philosopher
is trying to explain the world around him, so are our minds. Where
a philosopher could see the Golden Rule, our minds might see a means
to be treated the way we want. Philosophers, like our minds, witness
events and generalize rules to explain the events. Our minds go
on to put those rules into effect.

It’s Best for Society, So It’s Best for Me

The utilitarian philosopher would probably say that following the
Golden Rule maximizes everyone’s welfare, and that is why people follow
the rule. If we all follow the Golden Rule, there won’t be any stealing
or hitting, and we’ll all be happier than if there were. But in an
imperfect world where not everyone has the same Golden ideal, following
the Golden Rule won’t always maximize one’s welfare. In a world where
everyone cheats on taxes, it doesn’t help to be any more honest than the
next man. Utilitarianism doesn’t explain why anyone in an imperfect
world should follow the Golden Rule.


One interpretation of the Golden Rule is a phenomenon of society:
people are likely to treat you with respect if you do the same to
them. Even if there was no such thing called the Golden Rule
in our culture, even if no one had ever invented the phrase do
unto others
, this phenomenon would still be a fact of
humanity. My being nice to you is highly correlated with your
being nice to me, independent of the existence of the expression
the Golden Rule.

The social phenomenon is readily observable in society, and we should
expect people to take advantage of this fact. Knowing one will be
treated with respect in return for respecting others, people will learn
to treat others with respect. The Golden Rule is one way to express
this social strategy: If you want to be treated well, behave toward
others nicely so that they treat you the same way back.

In this light, the Golden Rule seems motivated merely by selfish
desires. If this were the reason people follow the Golden Rule,
then we would expect there to be no people that follow the Golden Rule
but don’t care how people treat them in return. Without a desire to be
treated better, there would be no reason to follow the rule. So, there
would be no genuine altruism; there would be no reason to show any
respect to others that we don’t expect to see again in the future;
and the Golden Rule would not apply to person-animal interactions.
This is not how our society generally works, and this is not why we follow
the rule.


Unconsciously, people like to make generalizations about the world
around them. We base our behavior on the generalizations we’ve made.
The selfish explanation for the Golden Rule is a generalization in the
following way. There is some particular event E in which I treated
someone else with respect, and that person treated me with the same
respect. I deem this event “good” because I benefited from reciprocity,
and so I generalize over E to maximize goodness. For all events, I
treat someone else with the same respect that I appreciated being

There are many possible reasons for following the Golden Rule.
The reasons above are one explanation: We each treat the other a certain way
because we want that person to treat us that way back. But that explanation
fails to apply in many situtions in which people treat others with
respect but no reciprocity is expected.

There is another way to generalize the reciprocity we observe. There
is some particular event E in which some particular person P treated
someone else with respect. In this event, that other person happened to
be me. I deem this event “good” because I appreciated the respect, and
so I generalize over E and P. All people in all events should treat the
other person with respect because this is “good”. All people includes
me, so I should treat others with respect, in all events, too.

This new generalization might be said if I want you to treat me a
certain way, then I want everyone, me included, to treat everything that
. This doesn’t depend on actual reciprocity as the selfish
generalization did, only on an innate desire to generalize events. The
things we treat with respect don’t need to be able to return the
respect. We only need to consider ourselves actors in the world like
those that treat us with respect. If this is the rule our minds have
generalized, it explains why we strive to treat others with respect
universally, irrespective of what we might get in return.


The Golden Rule is an observation of a social phenomenon,
but it is not clear why people often follow the Golden Rule
when there is no apparent benefit to doing so. For instance,
why do people give respect to people and things that will
not respect us back? The explanation may be found in how people
generalize over events they see. When we are treated with
respect and appreciate the treatment, we may generalize
the event as one in which a person treated something else with
respect. Because we considered the specific event good,
we consider the generalization good and strive to repeat it.

Mail Lists, Diffs, XPD

For anyone potentially reading, I’ve set up new mail lists for GovTrack and my Thunderbird SPF Extension. If you have an interest in either thing, please visit the site and join the list.

I’ve also posted a library for diffing/merging/patching written in C#, based on the Perl module Algorithm::Diff. And I posted the source for XPD, the XML pipline document generation engine that I wrote to power GovTrack. These things have helped me; I hope they help you.

GovTrack is now set up on a new server, and it’s much much more responsive than it used to be. In fact, you can’t tell anymore that it’s doing lots of XSLT transformations on each request.