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The Tarnished Golden Rule

BERLIN – “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” What a simple and logical concept – a straightforward way to resolve knotty moral dilemmas. Yet, at a time when distinguishing right from wrong seems to be more difficult than ever, this classic postulate – the “Golden Rule” – seems to be going out of fashion.

The ethical norm of reciprocity pervades human history, beginning with the ancient civilizations in Egypt, Greece, India, and China. It is among the only intellectual threads that connect the teachings of virtually every major religion and those of philosophers through the ages, from classical Rome’s Seneca the Younger to Jean-Jacques Rousseau and John Locke, and on to Jean-Paul Sartre and John Rawls.

The Golden Rule is the backbone of our modern understanding of universal human rights and forms the core of the modern social contract. It is the starting point of our interactions with one another within our communities and on a global basis. It underpins the rise of today’s sharing economy, exemplified by Uber and Airbnb. It even guides our personal relationships.

But the Golden Rule is under assault, and those with the most influence are leading the charge. Politicians, even in the world’s supposedly enlightened democracies, are refusing to provide refuge to desperate people fleeing brutal war; making little, if any, effort to address high and rising economic inequality; and are all but ignoring the factors driving civil-rights movements like America’s Black Lives Matter.