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20 February 2007updated 27 Sep 2015 2:33am

The Golden Rule

Humanist ethics - a foundation for secular morality

By Andrew Copson

‘Someone going to take a pointed stick to pinch a baby bird should first try it on himself to feel how it hurts’ – that’s a traditional saying from the religious tradition of the Yoruba people of Nigeria. I know this because each day I see it written out on a poster, designed for classrooms, which I have on the wall of my office. I’m looking at it right now.

The poster displays, in a rainbow of differently coloured text, the many various versions of the ‘Golden Rule’, the moral principle of treating others as you would wish to be treated in their situation (the Yoruba version is my favourite). They range in time from the bang up-to-date UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights, through the philosophy of Cicero in ancient Rome and of Mill and Sartre in modern Europe, to the earliest recorded versions of the rule, more than two and a half millennia ago, in the teachings of Confucius and Buddha. They span the globe from the sayings of the Guru Granth Sahib in the East, through Africa, Europe and the Middle East, to the native ethical tradition of North America. They come from traditions that are commonly described as secular, and from those that are commonly described as religious.

In a society where religion and virtue are often portrayed as correlating, those seeking to live good lives without religion can sometimes be made to feel that they are somehow deficient in their morality or ethics. But, for humanists, the widespread appearance of the golden rule, determined for themselves by human communities around the globe and across time, provides a foundation of secular morality.

History is a laboratory of human nature and when we see how communities of people in all parts of the world and in all times have discovered for themselves this principle of shared living, it should give those who live humanist lives great encouragement. Part of the humanist approach to ethics is that humanity doesn’t need gods or their prophets to deliver the precepts of good living to us.

This is a part of the rational approach to ethics, morality, and human relationships that people living humanist lives take as their ethical bedrock. Not handed down by a god or the prophet of a god, the golden rule is not an inflexible commandment but determined through trial and error, and the experiments in community living that were made by our earliest ancestors. It is a rule necessary for the survival of communities, which speaks of the long cooperative history of our species. Whether its origins are biological – our closest relatives, chimpanzees, also live in communities – or cultural, it is a principle that all people of good will, humanist and religious, can aspire to embody in our own lives. If it is liberated from doctrine, and allowed to become a living rule, refreshing itself with its application to each new ethical problem, it can resolve most of the dilemmas that we face.

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The trick is to make it applicable to all situations – to divorce it from scripture and commandments – and to apply it universally, not just to those we consider like us, in appearance, or beliefs. The far-flung and ancient existence of the golden rule gives secular ethics its foundation stone, and is a constant reminder of the shared adventure of life that all people alive today are so lucky to be experiencing.