Universalism in ethics

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-L108-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved June 15, 2024, from

4. Fundamental principles: ‘golden rules’

Other conceptions of universalism in ethics combine views of the form, scope and sameness of content of principles with ambitious claims that a single fundamental universal principle provides the basis for all derivative ethical principles and ultimately for ethical judgment of particular cases.

Often the proposed fundamental principle is a version of a ‘golden rule’. Variously formulated golden rules are found in Hindu and Confucian sacred texts, and in many other traditions, including natural law and popular ethical debate. One well known golden rule is Christian with Jewish antecedents: ‘Do unto others as you would that they should do unto you’ (for specific formulations see Matthew 7:12, Luke 6:31; for antecedents Tobias 4:15). Others are prohibitions rather than injunctions, such as ‘Do not do unto others what you would not have them do unto you’.

These would-be foundational principles have been criticized for linking ethics too closely to agents’ desires or consent. Why should willingness to be on the receiving end of like action make it permissible? If masochists are willing to suffer others’ sadism, would that make sadism right? More generally, can acceptance of being on the receiving end of like action legitimate anything?

This problem can be overcome only by building additional constraints or complexities into the idea of considering what one would desire or consent to when putting oneself into another’s shoes. This has been attempted in various principles, which are first cousin to golden rules, that have been influential in secular work in ethics. Most famously J.S. Mill asserted, in Utilitarianism (1861), that ‘in the golden rule of Jesus of Nazareth, we read the complete spirit of the ethics of utility’. The link Mill draws between utilitarianism and golden rules arises only if agents consider not what they as individuals would want if on the receiving end, but what they if taking account of all others’ desires would want if on the receiving end. Only then can a golden rule reflect everybody’s desires, and so be thought of as aiming at the greatest happiness (see Utilitarianism; Mill, J.S. §10).

Other approaches of this sort have recently been advocated by P. Singer (1972), R.M. Hare (1975) and A. Gewirth (1987), each of whom recognizes affinities as well as differences between his proposal for the foundations of ethics and traditional golden rules. For example, Gewirth suggests that a rational golden rule would read ‘Do unto others as you have a right that they do unto you’, while Hare advocates a universal prescriptivism by which the fundamental criterion for ethical judgment is that agents be willing to universalize their judgments, that is extend them to all situations identical in their universal properties (see Prescriptivism; Hare, R.M. §§1–2). There has been much discussion of the plausibility of these proposals, which generally reject the emphasis traditional golden rules give to what one would have if the particular victim reciprocated, and introduce some reference to what one would want if one’s own principle were to be universally adopted or if one’s desires took account of others’ desires. These writers advocate a strong form of ethical universalism: not merely do they defend a single fundamental ethical principle, but they insist that it refer to the desires that all hold, or ought if rational to hold.

Citing this article:
O'Neill, Onora. Fundamental principles: ‘golden rules’. Universalism in ethics, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-L108-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2024 Routledge.

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