Alternative Formulations of the Golden Rule

My friend Frank recently pointed out to me that the Jewish formulation of the “golden rule” is phrased in the negative, in contrast to the Christian formulation. Whereas Jesus says in Matthew, “Do unto others whatever you would have them do to you. This is the law and the prophets,” the Jewish formulation (via Hillel) is, “That which is despicable to you, do not do to your fellow. This is the whole Torah and the rest is commentary; go and learn it.”

I spent some time contemplating the two lines in order to determine what difference, if any, it made to phrase the rule affirmatively, as Jesus does in Matthew, or negatively, as Hillel does.

It didn’t take too long for me to conclude that there is an enormous difference in the two phrasings. If one visualizes a scale from negative 100 to 100, with negative 100 representing hate/bad/sin and 100 representing love/good/virtue, it seems to me that the negative formulation of the golden rule doesn’t do much more than get one to zero; effectively, it says, don’t be bad. The positive formulation, however, is much more likely to move one along the positive side of the scale. That makes the negative formulation a lot easier to live up to.

The reason for that seemed clear to me as I reflected on each statement, especially when I made the reflection personal, by asking in the negative formulation: what do I not want others to do to me; what in the behavior of others towards me make me unhappy; and in the positive formulation: how do I like others to treat me; what in the behavior of others towards me makes me happy?

Asking the negative versions of those questions doesn’t yield much that encourages positive behavior on my part. The negative version seems to me to function more as a check on a particular potential (bad) act than anything else.

However, asking the question in the positive sense has a much different effect in term so encouraging virtuous behavior. If my reflection leads me to identify (as it did during my reflection) that “I’m really touched when someone does something unexpectedly kind for me,” that has the potential to impel me to affirmatively look for some opportunity to do some gratuitous unexpectedly nice act for another that I might not otherwise have thought to do.

Having said all that, what also seemed clear from my reflection was that looking at the two formulations of the golden rule together gave me a much richer sense than looking at either one alone. I’m not entirely sure that I would feel so strongly about the broadly positive nature of the affirmative formulation of the rule had I not been looking at it alongside the negative formulation.