the writing and photography of Neil Kramer

The Silver Rule

I’m sure Martin Luther King Day is going to inspire many posts today, and each one will be different, and reflect the writer’s own interests, whether it be race relations, politics, or religion.

Martin Luther King makes me think of morality.  The civil rights movement of the 1960s was  all about morality, a clear case of right vs. wrong.

Unfortunately, not issue in life is as clear-cut.  Morality is a complicated subject.

I’m not a particularly religious person, but that doesn’t mean I don’t think about religious issues such as morality.  When I write about Jewish subjects, I tend to go for the cultural items — the bagels, the Yiddish words, the mother jokes — but I’m actually quite interested in Jewish religious thought.  I mean I like to mock it, too, because I figure God wouldn’t have given us a sense of humor if he didn’t want us to make fun of Him.

The Golden Rule is considered the basis for most moral thought.

“Do unto others as you want them to do unto you.”

The Golden Rule is as ancient as it is cross-cultural.  The ethic of reciprocity was present in ancient Babylon, Egypt, Persia, India, Greece, Judea, and China.

The Golden Rule is certainly a major part of the Torah.

However, there are two competing version of the Golden Rule, or more accurately, there is a Golden Rule and a Silver Rule.

The Golden Rule is frequently attributed to Jesus, even though it was around for centuries before his birth.

“Therefore all things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them” (Matthew 7:12).

Christianity adopted the Golden Rule from two passages in Leviticus in the Old Testament.

Leviticus 19:18 —

“Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against one of your people, but love your neighbor as yourself”

and Leviticus 19:34

“But the stranger that dwelleth with you shall be unto you as one born among you, and thou shalt love him as thyself; for ye were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the LORD your God.”

Of course, the Golden Rule is older than both the New Testament AND the Hebrew Bible.  It first appears in Ancient Egypt (c. 2040-1650 BCE) and is even spoken about by Confucius (551-479 B.C.)

Early Christianity was eager to distinguish itself from the Judaism of Jesus, so much of the traditional commandments were seen as unnecessary, including the kosher and circumcision laws.  This was partly to attract new converts.   In order to separate the new religion from the old one, Judaism gets a pretty bad rap in the New Testament, where they are portrayed as a priestly people obsessed with outdated laws and corruption (like a Washington D.C. of the time!), preparing the way for centuries of anti-Semitism.

Since Christianity was presented as a religion of good deeds, it is no surprise that “Do unto others…” became so central to Western culture.

Unfortunately, early Christian leaders, focusing on positive stories like “the Good Samaritan” gave little emphasis to the flip side of the Golden Rule — “The Silver Rule.”

The Silver Rule was already an established part of the teachings of the great rabbis at the time of Jesus.  Hillel, an elder contemporary of Jesus, is have said to have written this famous line in the Talmud, Shabbat 31a, when asked to sum up the entire Torah concisely, as if it were a Twitter update:

“That which is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow. That is the whole Torah; the rest is the explanation; go and learn.”
—Talmud, Shabbat 31a

In effect, don’t do unto others that you wouldn’t want them to do to you.

This Silver Rule was not unique to the rabbis.  It was central to the teachings of Confucius.

“Never impose on others what you would not choose for yourself” (己所不欲,勿施于人)
—Confucius, Analects XV.24

I think I personally follow the Silver Rule more than the Golden Rule.  I’m not sure if this has anything to do with years of Hebrew school or just my personal makeup.  The Golden Rule doesn’t energize my brain.

For example:

If I am walking out of my apartment building, and I see an old woman shuffling behind me, I would hold the door for her.  Why?  Out of instinct.  I don’t need to ponder the Golden Rule.

But let me change the situation:

I am rushing to catch the bus.  I open the door to head out when I see the old woman shuffling behind me.

“Hurry up,” I say to myself as she walks, as slow as molasses.

If I keep holding the door for her, I might miss my bus.

NOW is when I need a internal barometer, a belief statement to help me make this split second decision.

“Do Unto Others…” doesn’t help me.  I’m not being asked to do something positive.  I am wondering if the situation allows me to do something negative.   I need to think about the Silver Rule.

“Don’t Do Unto Others…”

Should I slam the door in this old woman’s face because I want to get to the bus?  Is it worth it?  Would I want this to happen to me, if the situation was reversed?  Won’t she think I’m an asshole?  What if I tell her that I am in a rush, so then she will understand?  Or should I just wait for the next bus?”

A little neurotic?  Maybe?  But if I were living in the South during the 1960’s, many moral questions would be presented to me every day, almost none of them about “doing unto others.”  They would be about “don’t do unto others.”

Why shouldn’t my fellow citizens have the same rights as I do?

The “negative” Silver Rule appeals to me.  It seems to me to have a concreteness necessary to make moral  decisions in the real world where NOT DOING SOMETHING WRONG comes up as frequently as doing something right.   We need to give everyone adequate health care not because I believe you would be kind enough to help me, because knowing you, you’d probably be too busy on Farmville to care, but because I would be outraged if I was in your shoes and couldn’t care for MY family.

Dr. Martin Luther King, like Gandhi, was a big advocate of the Silver Rule.


  1. james myers

    most MLK day posts are pretty much the same; letter from a birmingham jail/ something re an event. because I grew up in TX, & worked on th Death Penalty (at least un part) I was blessed with much access in Atlanta to wizened SCLC vets.
    They always emphasized a pragmatic morality. Balance the ideal & the possible: while expecting a job might be lost, car or house burned for your beliefs. They were giving yet defensive. I believe many or most would have chosen action over morality as their legacy. They would ignore the larger debate, focus on a an attainable goal, and win. Then move on, & try again. ( rights of sanitation workers was his last project )

    • The Honourable Husband

      My memory may be fuzzy on this one. But I recall that MLK was in Memphis to support sanitation workers when he was murdered.

  2. V-Grrrl @ Compost Studios

    The Christian “golden rule” is not about doing, but about loving. Love the Lord thy God with all your heart and all your soul and all your mind and love your neighbor as yourself.

    That commandment makes the “do unto others” bit seem easy.

    • Neil

      I don’t think the Christian (or any) golden rule is about loving. It is all about do unto others… about ethics. I’m not even sure God is the main part of the equation. What makes the Golden Rule so effective is that it can be followed even without belief.

      • The Honourable Husband

        Right on, Neil. Too many Christians talk the love, but walk the hate.

        * * * * *

        I have to disagree with you, V-Grrl. Love doesn’t always make things easy. Sometimes, love makes your moral choices incredibly difficult. And makes moral lapses difficult to ignore. It’s tough to live up to love.

        I’d make the point the other way ’round. The “love” part is the easy bit. That’s because we can agree with the abstract idea of love easily, in our heads.

        In my experience of Christianity, that’s as far as it ever goes: an abstract idea. Everything else condemns the sinner in ways that are uncharitable, and fraught with moral double binds. The Golden Rule is one of the few bits of practical spiritual guidance we find in the Bible, and it ain’t even a Christian idea.

        Love is easy to say, but hard to do. I’m glad we have rules of gold and silver, to instruct us how to do love.

  3. Anna

    Am glad to have read such a thoughtful reflection on MLK day. On Friday by accident I found out Dorothy Parker left her estate to MLK and since then have been obsessed with finding out why (in case you’re wondering to – there’s no scandal – the two never even met, she admired him and what he was doing)

  4. Tom G.

    Awesome post. I just spent 3 hours discussing this same issue with a class tonight, in the framework of moral freedom.

    I like your differentiation between and golden rule, and the silver rule. And as a Christian from the Catholic tradition, I agree that “love” does not really enter into either. In fact, reading the new testament passage where Jesus discusses this in context, you get the sense that he almost blurts out the golden rule as an act of desperation to his thick headed disciples. He says “Look! The sum of the law, is this, do unto others…” as if he’s saying, “you’re never going to understand, so let me give you this simple little rule to follow instead.

    One can live a moral life according to the golden, or silver rules. But that is not what the gospel example of Jesus is calling Christians too, nor is it what any of us are truly satisfied with. What we really need is to take that extra step. Go beyond reciprocity. Love your enemy. Do some random act of love that makes no sense whatsoever.

    stay with me please.

    This is the crux of it. Sacrificial love. The love of a parent for a child, or a husband for a wife. The love that seems paradoxical. This is where I struggle with Adam Smith, and Charles Darwin. It is not in the self interest of the individual to make such a sacrifice. And yet we do. Against all reason, every day people everywhere, from every faith tradition, get out of bed in the morning, and put the interests of others before themselves.

    We have a marvelous God, who managed to hard wire us to do this, despite our inability to comprehend it. I am sure of it.

    • subWOW

      I am in love with this discussion between two great minds and writers.

      • Tom G.

        You left out the part about “two stunningly handsome studmuffins”

        Sigh…when will women start loving me for my body, and not my brain…

    • Jeigh Neither

      I enjoy the sentiment, but I have to disagree with one assertion. Sacrificial love is not paradoxical or outside of our self interests. The more we learn about the truth of life, as we boldly look towards modern genetics and even molecular biology and Quantum mechanics/physics, we learn that unequivocally; All is one. You and I are basically star dust. The atoms that make us, “Us” once constructed others things and organisms. Its a continual cycle of energy transference. Those same atoms once constructed terrestrial beings, planets, stars, moons, even animals and other humans on earth.

      It’s a reoccurring theme of this Universe. We trace our genetics back to their beginnings, and we find that we all share one greatest grandfather; that there is no such thing as race, and that our ego’s are more learning tools than hindrances The idea of “only the individual” had it’s purpose in our survival. I believe this is the “Darwin” issue you struggle with.. survival of the fittest. That era is coming to an end as more of man kind reaches for enlightenment… much of it coming thru the discoveries of the sciences

      Over coming the myth that we are separate things; is to me, the same as what Christian’s describe as accepting God. When we accept that we have our individuality to learn about each other, and ourselves, but that we are truly part of something much bigger; we learn to love unconditionally, because we are truly one in each other. It’s hard to describe without sounding a bit “hippy dippy”, but if we rely on the science of genetics to put people to death… surely we can look towards the same science to learn how to live.

  5. subWOW

    Finally! Somebody quoted Confucius and it was done correctly! Kudos and I thank you for that. That doctrine has been pounded into our heads since we were young, and not as part of any religious upbringing (so no rewards of heavens or seven virgins) but because it is the right thing to follow.

    When I told my kids about the Golden Rule, the way I explained it has always been more akin to the Silver Rule because, I figure, children understand pains and suffering more instinctively, and by telling them, “Would you like it if your brother beats you up? Well, then do not beat your brother up!” the lesson would be absorbed more viscerally.

  6. unmitigated me

    I’m not sure I see the need for a differentiation, even one as beautifully written as this. Though if it makes it easier for some to grasp, then I am all for it. As far as Tom G’s argument is concerned, I would say that humans took Darwin out of the equation for the most part a long time ago.

  7. The Bombshell

    The way I see it, you’ve simply embraced the lower of the two standards.

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