Image: Friends Playing, 1600. Retrieved from here.
During the third century, the Roman Emperor Alexander Severus placed a placard with the Golden Rule on his palace wall. The placard read, “Quod tibi fieri non vis, alteri ne feceris” (What you do not wish to be done to yourself, do not do to others). In the West, the oldest reference to the Rule can be found in the writings of Isocrates, an ancient Greek rhetorician and critic of Plato. Isocrates points out that the self and the other are comparable. As he writes in Speeches (19.49), “give a just verdict, and prove yourselves to be for me such judges as you would want to have for yourselves.” To put it simply, one should use power moderately and reasonably, aiming to achieve a fair and balanced exchange with others. It is only by treating others as one would want to be treated that a system can be created that does not result in favouritism or discrimination. As some theorists argue, humans are self-interested beings that only do tasks because of the benefits that they expect to obtain, either directly or indirectly. By treating others fairly, one should expect to receive the same kind of treatment. Thus, if fair treatment is not provided, one should also expect an unfair repayment of some sort, whether this occurs in the long-term or short-term. Different religious systems have different ways of explaining how this return takes place. For Buddhism and Hinduism, cosmic justice or karma results in good or bad future consequences depending on one’s intent and behaviour. Islamic thought explains this through the ‘right of God’, who determines whether one will be punished for treating others’ unfairly. In Confucianism, proper behaviour is what leads to social harmony and effective governance, while unfairness results in moral chaos and political struggle.
The Confucian version of the Gold Rule is found in many passages in the Analects. For example, in 5.12 it is stated that when Zigong said, “What I do not wish others to do to me, I do not wish to do to others”, the Master replied that Zigong had not yet reached this level of moral development. In other words, it takes time and effort to learn reciprocity: “that which you do not desire, do not do to others.” (15.24). Others have translated the word ‘reciprocity’ in the Analects as ‘consideration’, which means to care or keep in mind someone or something over a period of time. The Latin term considerationem comes from the past participle of considerare, which from the mid-15th century referred to taking something into account (Harper, 2017). However, consideration alone does not cover the Golden Rule. While you might take something or someone into account, it does not necessarily follow that you will act on that consideration. For instance, while I might consider the neighbour’s interests in my decision to plant a tree near the neighbour’s gate, I might go through with my decision for planting the tree near the gate as this spot is ultimately better than the spot near the door, even if the neighbour may not like my decision. In that case, an element of reciprocity is important as without considering the mutual exchange of benefits or returning something the same way as it was given, the Golden Rule would not work. It involves reversibility, exchange, and consistency as we consider how to treat others as we would like to be treated. Because the Confucian idea of this exchange involves an aspect of care: treating others as honoured guests, and acting towards subordinates as though conducting a ritual (Analects, 12.2), the Golden Rule in the Confucian sense can be understood as ‘reciprocal consideration’.
There are many aspects to reciprocal consideration. For one, there are two formulations to the rule. The first describes reciprocity positively as you “do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” In the Bible, Luke 6:13 and Matthew 7:12 both express the rule this way and describe it as the ‘Law and the Prophets’. To know and act towards others as you would want others to act towards you is what leads to moral righteousness and mutual consideration. However, as Zecha (2011) points out, a standard objection to this version of the Rule is that many people have strange desires that others may not want to reciprocate. For example, someone who enjoys experiencing pain might wish to harm others so that others will harm them in return. To escape this problem, the negative version of “not doing to others as you would not want done to you” supposedly discourages harmful behaviour and includes an element of restraint or ‘action within appropriate limits’ when considering how to interact with others. In practice, this requires a person to become empathetic by imagining oneself as the other, or as Confucians put it, ‘compassionate’: to feel with or together with someone. Mengzi 4A9 indicates the political relevance of this exchange as it notes that “there is a way to get the people: get their hearts, and the people are got. There is a way to get their hearts: it is simple to collect for them what they like, and not to lay on them what they dislike” (Legge, 1991, p. 300). So, according to the rule, political leaders or those in authority have a duty to appeal to and feel with subordinates. Although on an individual basis, reciprocal consideration is based on the protection of the self, when applied to a larger scale, those in less powerful positions should feel that the powerful have an ultimate allegiance to the human community, rather than an interest to preserve their power. When the stakes are higher and more lives are affected by how society is organised, ruler attempts to engage in reciprocal consideration needs to be done with right intention and integrity, otherwise subordinates may question the ruler’s legitimacy. Examples of this can be seen in American or Chinese foreign politics. When actions are interpreted as one-sided, deceptive, and unfair, fear and suspicion ensue. Any attempts to explain or justify these actions by rhetoric are dismissed as empty speech, where words no longer have substance or value. As the Book of Poetry states, when “Tian (or in this case, trust and reciprocity) is poised to topple, No more of this babble!” (ode 254).
It is interesting to note the meaning of ‘empty speech’. In Confucianism, the concept of empty ritual is often discussed. Rituals are learnt ways of proper behaviour. They are actions that necessitate social harmony. While the purpose of these actions are to perform for and with others, rituals should not be morally empty. Singerland’s (2003) translation of the Analects notes that sparse ritual is better than empty excess ritual (p. 18). In other words, the point of performing public actions is that they should express inward morality. By practising ritual, one is taught to cultivate internal ethical attitudes and channel one’s emotions, improving social harmony. On the other side of this spectrum is empty speech. That is, what Moncayo (2016) calls “parrot’s empty or idle speech” (p. 23). Usually when we hear someone talk, the content of their words has meaning. The words are full and convey expression and imagery to the listener. Often, words can have double-meanings and these meanings are understood in the context of the conversation. So, to have empty speech means to speak without meaning. No information is being signified, or what is said has little substance. It becomes a case of either uttering words without saying anything, or saying something while meaning or doing something else. Talk becomes disjointed rather than connected to listeners, which ultimately leads to empty noise.
Thus, when we think of ‘reciprocal consideration’, it is not just about putting oneself in the other’s shoes. Reciprocity is about joining speech with action, with the expectation that others will do the same. Without this expectation, mutual trust and empathy become difficult to maintain and one would struggle to exist in a social community. As Confucius says, whether through human-to-human gift giving or sacrificial rites for the ancestors, it is important to be present, as it is important “for the spirits to be present” (3.17). Relationships begin to form when there is a balanced reciprocity between the ‘givers’ and ‘receivers’ of any exchange.