Do Unto Others or Not

Jesus says, Do to others as you would have them do to you.

Confucius says, Don't do to others as you would not have them do to you.

Which wise man is right?

I think Jesus is right. We each need positive good will in order to cope with other people. Simply avoiding harm isn't enough. It's human nature to exaggerate others' offenses against us and to downplay our offenses against others. Without a positive motive to do good to others, we won't overcome our natural tendency to take more and share less.

Jesus' teaching that we are to "do unto others" contributes to the equality enjoyed by members of European nations and nations descended from Europe.

The Golden Rule also contributes to the subjectivism of postmodern morality. The Rule says that one can let one's own good intentions determine what is right rather than referring to the law.

The Golden Rule works by asking questions rather than answering them. Law is designed to answer questions, such as "What is required of me as a member of the community?" The Golden Rule instead asks, "What could you contribute as a member of the community?" It works by encouraging the moral imagination. The laws of Jesus' time are now outdated, such as those that established slavery and prohibited lending money at interest. But his Golden Rule is timeless.

As near as I can tell, the Golden Rule is original to Jesus. Many of Jesus' famous sayings are quotes from the Old Testament. For example, the teaching to do good to one's enemies and thereby heap coals on their heads is from Proverbs 25:21-22. But the Old Testament admonition was not to return evil with evil. The gospel admonition is not just to eschew vengeance but actively to do good.

Then again, maybe Confucius is right. Maybe we can't be trusted to understand what our neighbors want. Maybe we should take care of ourselves and let our neighbors take care of themselves. That's the Libertarian angle. "Live and let live" is better than "Go involve yourself in your neighbor's business."

Tough call.

December 2001, December 2004, April 2005


PS: I'm chagrined to point out that my juxtaposing Confucius and Jesus was narrow and ignorant. It should have been Jesus and Hillel. Hillel's version also refers specifically to how one is to treat one's fellow Jews. Jesus' Golden Rule stands in contrast not only to Confucius' teaching and to Hillel's, but to many "golden rules" from around the globe. The negative version of the Golden Rule ("Do not") is more common than the positive version ("Do"). Jesus also seems to be the first to have articulated the Golden Rule in its positive version. Here's a web site where you can see more: I'm also chagrined at the anemic "golden rule" credited to us Unitarian Universalists, but then UU's anemia is part of its charm.


—JoT, January 2006


PPS: The fellows of the Jesus Seminar gave the golden rule a "gray" rating, which means they don't see it as particularly likely that Jesus actually said it, or at least originated it. Many of the fellows treat the golden rule as essentially the same as the negative version that preceeded Jesus and therefore conclude that early Christians simply attributed it to Jesus. I don't agree that it's essentially the same and am more inclined to think that Jesus really said it.


—JoT, November 2006







For more about Jesus and his effect on Western civilization, click here.