Digest of terms
Expressed informally, the Golden Rule is simply the precept: Do as you would be done by. The label 'golden' became attached because it is widely regarded as a specially valuable moral teaching.
It is best known in the Christian world from the Sermon on the Mount: 'Whatever you wish that men would do to you, do so to them' (Matthew 7:12, cf. Luke 6:32), but it is found in virtually all major religions and cultures. At times it is formulated positively, as by Jesus, at others negatively, as by Confucius: 'Do not impose on others those things that you yourself do not desire (Analects 12:2, 15:24). Some people regard this difference as important, the positive version being superior to the negative one; others argue that, in practical terms, there is little difference between them, a view perhaps supported by the fact that in some cultures they coexist interchangeably anyway.
A further distinction may be drawn between a general interpretation of the rule and a particular one. Clearly people differ from each other in many and often important ways, therefore in terms of particular actions and attitudes one would not necessarily wish to be treated in just the same way in which others would want to be treated. Critics have seen this as a fatal flaw - a point made humorously by George Bernard Shaw: 'Do not do unto others as you would that they should do unto you. Their tastes may not be the same'. Yet arguably the force of the principle, which has led to its epithet 'golden', derives from a more general interpretation, along the lines of having one's basic interests and desires respected. Admittedly this leaves much scope for further interpretation and application.
Still, the virtually universal occurrence of the Golden Rule in religions, philosophies and cultures, which is not readily explicable in terms of historical diffusion from one or two original sources, makes it plausible to think that it may indeed reflect a very general moral insight or truth. Indeed it has been argued recently, in the light of Darwinian theory, that such an insight may be hard-wired into our brains through the evolutionary mechanism of reciprocal altruism, with associated dispositions to trust and to feel gratitude, and to experience senses of obligation and of fairness, being built into human nature in consequence.