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A refugee, like me: why the Golden Rule matters in an era of mass migration

By Rivka Witenberg - posted Thursday, 4 August 2016

As the refugee crisis worsens, various “destination” countries, including Australia, are engaging in internal debates around multiculturalism, integration and tolerance. People are worried about cultural cohesion, racial divides and religious differences.

As we approach these debates, psychological research can remind us that tolerance of differences, including racial and cultural divides, is a function of moral reasoning and behaviour. The archetypal example of tolerance – the Golden Rule – is based on perspective-taking, reciprocity, altruism, care and empathy.

The Golden Rule is most familiar in the Western world as “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you”, but it has reflections in every major world religion. Confucius provided the first written examples, but Judaism, Hinduism, Islam, and Buddhism all prescribe some form of “ethic of reciprocity”.


Intuitively, there is some form of understanding about the inherent meaning of this rule since it appears to be used across cultures, religions and the secular world.

lden Rule is a moral obligation to treat others well. Understanding the Golden Rule – in whatever form it takes – is one of the important aspects for creating racial tolerance in young people, and society more broadly.

My own research about tolerance to human diversity, using dilemmas about colour, creed and culture, found that empathy, fairness and justice were motivators for tolerance.

In one study I undertook, 112 students, aged between six and 17, were presented with dilemmas concerning racial bias. In this case, the Golden Rule was used to justify a tolerant stance almost a quarter of the time.

Empathy, which was was a strong predictor with students over 15 years of age, was very often expressed through the Golden Rule. But children from the age of 12 would also justify tolerant attitudes by referring to some form of the Golden Rule.

In a subsequent study the results showed that empathy is a significant factor for tolerance to human diversity. Empathy, indeed, is a prerequisite for the Golden Rule and persepective-taking.


Perspective taking and imagination

In response to dilemmas concerning exclusion, for example of young Asians from a nightclub because they did not “belong” in Australia, respondents in my research evoked the Golden Rule by replying, “Put yourself in his shoes” or, “Imagine how it would be/ feel to be in her shoes or her place".

Putting oneself in another’s shoes requires a degree of imagination and a sense of perspective-taking and reciprocity. These require an understanding of the mental states of others, their thoughts, feelings and desires.

Likewise, imagining how it would feel to be rejected or discriminated against requires creativity and a degree of empathy. Those are essential aspects of morality and are paramount for the understanding of both the Golden Rule and tolerance.

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This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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About the Author

Rivka T Witenberg is an academic, researcher and author. Her book Tolerance: The glue that binds us was recently published in NY.

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