The Platinum Rule

by Alisa

“Do not do unto others as you would expect they should do unto you. Their tastes may not be the same.” – George Bernard Shaw

“The golden rule is a good standard which is further improved by doing unto others, wherever reasonable, as they want to be done by.” – Karl Popper

“If the cat were you, and you were the cat, would you like that to be smashed flat, flat as a mat by a great big cat? The Golden Rule says no!” – Carol Lynn Pearson, My Turn on Earth

Ever since I was a little girl singing along to the My Turn on Earth records, I’ve loved the Golden Rule. But recently I’ve been thinking about how the Golden Rule alone can be misguided and produce less-than-desirable results. Two recent experiences illustrate this.

1. My visiting teaching companion loves to be challenged. She wakes up every morning and runs a couple of miles through rain, snow, or below-freezing temperatures. She eats up General Conference addresses and is always refining her list of goals. At one visit to a sister who is married to a member of the Catholic faith, my companion surprised me by challenging the sister to go to the temple and get her endowment. She then proceeded to ask this sister if she hadn’t done so before because her husband might not like the garment. This sister seemed caught off guard by the challenge and didn’t want to discuss the underwear issue. She was always much more guarded with us on subsequent visits.

2. This same companion later challenged another one of our sisters to pay a generous fast offering, telling her that there really is no sufficient tithe that is not accompanied by a substantial sacrifice in fast offerings. This might be an OK message for many members of the Church, but this sister had previously confided to us that she earned less that $15,000 a year and was the sole provider for her family of six. The sister quietly responded to my companion that she wasn’t ready to pay a generous fast offering yet, and that her goal was to eventually stop taking fast offering funds to support her family and to be able to pay tithing so she could regain her temple recommend. This sister replied with much more confidence than the first sister and seemed to forgive us right away, but I still ached that she was put in the situation to explain such private needs to us in her defense of rejecting the initial misplaced but well-meaning challenge.

I don’t bring these up to criticize my companion (and therefore thwart the Golden Rule as I write this). She is an amazing woman and good friend. I believe both of these instances occurred because she was following the Golden Rule and treating our sisters how she would want to be treated, challenging them how she would want to be challenged. These instances are just examples of something I observe from time to time in the Church, where the standards we set for ourselves might not be right at the time for someone else.

People are different. They are in different places in their lives and they have different circumstances. Treating them like ourselves without adding in the element of empathy and accounting for personality differences can take something that started with good intentions but eventually ends up causing awkwardness, pain, or offense. What’s that they say about good intentions anyway? To an extrovert, being asked to skooch in and sit closer to everyone else in the room may help her feel like part of a group, but to an introvert who likes to take the back row in Relief Society, the physical proximity to so many others can be, ironically, more alienating than allowing her to sit where she chooses.

Some non-extensive research on Wikipedia introduced me to the Platinum Rule, which is essentially taking the Golden Rule but instead of treating others how you want to be treated, you treat others how they want to be treated.

I have seen many Church members acting in accordance with the Platinum Rule. For example, my father has been involved in missionary-related callings for almost as long as I can remember. When I was younger, he was involved in huge reactivation efforts that were very stats driven, and I remember him making a difference in the lives of several people our Utah ward. Now he’s serving as ward mission leader again, but I was surprised to see that his approach has changed over the years. He recently showed me his current ward mission plan. The first item read, “Reach out in friendship to all those living within our ward boundaries with no other agenda.” I think he’s on to something. Living in Utah can sometimes be a socially isolating experience for those who are not LDS, and he wants to focus on letting all of his neighbors have a positive experience with the Mormons they live with. His second point was also amazing: “Allow those of other faiths to teach us about their beliefs. Be humble and willing to learn from their beliefs.”

Don’t mistake my dad’s testimony. If he were to strictly do unto others as he would have done unto him, he’d definitely be more forceful in sharing the gospel that he treasures and believes is the only road to salvation, exaltation, and eternal families. But that kind of zealousness from “knowing the truth” and wanting everyone else to see it your way can be off-putting, and I respect his willingness to pause and listen to his friends of other faiths. Remember that scripture in Alma 38:12 on bridling one’s passions? I find it interesting that it pertains to not being too overbearing with one’s own certainty of the truth.

So, here’s my case for adding empathy to the Golden Rule. While we’re at it, a dash of personal revelation might help us meditate on what others want. Personal revelation and discernment allow us to find what’s best for a given situation, and sometimes what is right for your situation is not right for others. Giving them that right to be different from you might be the most ethical treatment of all.


Alisa is a professional adult educator and corporate manager who enjoys spending time with her husband and son.

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17 Responses

  1. Sterling Fluharty says:

    Thanks for the thought-provoking post. I love it when people produce posts that are exactly what I want to read. 😉

    It looks like a similar topic came up a few years ago:

    I would be interested in hearing how empathy can counteract the potential paternalism in deciding for other people how they want to be treated. And where do we draw the line between treating others as they want to be treated and treating others as they need to be treated?

  2. corktree says:

    I love these thoughts. I think this is something I struggle with both in receiving and giving. I wonder how it is that we know what people want or need (is the Spirit our only guide?) and whether we need to feel more free to let others know our needs. How much responsibility is ours to communicate?

    I have a RS Pres. that does many things in my view that are the OPPOSITE of what people need, but I have always tried to remind myself that I don’t have her stewardship or perspective. Except that in the interactions I have had with her myself, I feel she has completely missed the mark and made me feel worse rather than better. Is that my fault for not letting her know?

    I also have a VT that is a great friend when she visits, but seems to gloss over our relationship otherwise, and doesn’t seem to hear me when I hint at issues with depression. But how else can she know that I need support? And what can I expect from her really? I guess I’m just questioning the reciprocity of many church relationships, though these are very different from other interactions outside of church.

  3. Alisa says:

    Thanks for the compliment and the link to the old post, Sterling. I also found it last night through a search for “LDS Platinum Rule” right when I was posting this in WordPress. I only read through the first 5-6 comments, but I really liked how they pointed out how the Golden Rule was ego-centric and the Platinum Rule goes beyond the ego. I also would add more to the conversation about post-modern ethics based on my study of one of my favorite philosophers, Emanuel Levinas, but that would be an entire series of posts to do him justice. The point is, there is a place for post-modern ethics and it greatly depends on how we reach beyond the ego and vigorously defend the otherness of the other.

    I think empathy definitely helps combat paternalism, although I don’t think there’s a scientific formula for employing it 100% effectively. I think sometimes we infantalize those who are not living strictly in accordance with how we think they ought to be living (thinking that in itself tramples on the other). This might pertain to your question about treating people how they *want* and not how they *need* to be treated as well – while there are exceptions (parents need to guide and discipline, there needs to be some accommodation to intervene on occasion for the severely mentally ill or addicted), I generally think that determining that I know what is the best spiritual path for someone else is too ego-centric. If I happened to feel inspired that I needed to say something specific to help someone, I hope I’d do it in the most gentle way possible. But, like my dad’s mission plan entailed, I think humility and willingness to let the other person teach me is essential b/c that moment might actually be for our own learning.

  4. Alisa says:

    corktree, very thoughtful questions. I have an RSP who is a little like that too. You do a better job of giving this type of person credit than I do (saying you don’t see the picture they see); I tend to just think they are human and sometimes are given leadership to learn what they need to learn and are bound to make mistakes. Being in leadership can sometimes make people feel vulnerable (it’s lonely at the top), and I can see how sometimes the ego can be misplaced as they learn to navigate that space.

    I think communication is important, but just as it’s important to communicate our needs, it’s also helpful for people to ask others how they want to be treated (for instance, to ask if they want VT visits, or just a phone call or whatever – or to ask someone if they want to talk more about their depression or keep it private). While I think empathy can be learned and practiced, some seem to have more of a natural talent for it than others. The same probably goes for inspiration/personal revelation.

  5. Stella says:

    Thank you for this post Alisa. In my job, the platinum rule is absolutely imperative. It’s how my world turns. I find that the more objective we are in knowing ourselves, the more we can give other people the freedom to be themselves around us. When people feel free to be as they are (now I’m channeling Free To Be You and Me by Marlo Thomas!) then I believe the world is a happier, more creative place. I know I appreciate it when people treat me as I want to be treated, especially in regards to my religious activity, and not how they think I SHOULD be treated.

  6. corktree says:

    Wow, I forgot to mention how much I love singing the “My Turn on Earth” songs to my girls, and then a “Free to Be” reference? It’s just so funny because I also just resurrected those stories and songs from my past to share with my children. Free agency, gender misconceptions, and empowerment!? Great stuff.

  7. Caroline says:

    Great post, Alisa. I love your examples of someone following the golden rule but falling short of optimal interactions with various people. That’s a great point. I had never thought of the shortcomings of the golden rule before.

    Corktree asks a good question — how to know what the other people need, want. Like you said, Alisa, I think it’s all about asking. Asking people what they want and need. That probably makes it sound too easy — I know that it’s really hard to ask that question in real life — but I certainly imagine a lot of good resulting from people making more of an effort to do so.

  8. Alisa says:

    Caroline, it’s true that asking can be hard, and unexpected for our culture. My husband just got asked (not called) to consider how he would feel about receiving a leadership calling, which places an interesting amount of responsibility on him to answer honestly.

  9. Alisa says:

    Stella, excellent point. When we can be objective about ourselves (as much as that is possible), we can let go of the ego a bit more and tune into others much better.

  10. Alisa says:

    corktree, I just love those songs too. My Turn on Earth has so many great songs that children can understand, and pleasantly reminds me of my childhood.

  11. I think there is a difference between treating other people as we would have them treat us, and treating everyone else as if they are the same as we are. I don’t think the golden rule should be thought of as encouraging thinking that is in parallel to Husserl’s description of the way we come to know by demolishing otherness, bringing everything into the realm of the same.

    I think the golden rule should encourage an examination of difference rather than erasure of it.

    ” Emanuel Levinas, . . . .vigorously defend the otherness of the other.”

    And serve, and respect,and be open to the arrival of the otherness of the other, and

  12. Jessawhy says:

    I still think the Golden rule applies to the Platinum rule (clever idea, btw).

    By using the Golden rule, you could hypothetically ask people how they want to be helped. In the story you used, your companion could have asked the woman you visit teach, “How can we best help you, by challenging you to push yourself a little further, by helping you with housework, babysitting, or in some other way?”

    I guess that’s how I’d want to be treated, to have someone ask how best they could help me, while giving some examples that they are willing to provide.

    Nobody wants to be treated in a way that isn’t respectful of who they are as a person, and ignores their trials. I guess I kind of reject (in a very nice way of course 🙂 the notion that your VT companion was using the Golden Rule, or at least she wasn’t using it very well.

    (Here’s where I admit that I don’t use it all the time or very well either. But, I don’t know that we need to create a new rule to fix these problems, perhaps just think harder about it)

  13. Alisa says:

    Douglas and Jessawhy, you both raise valid objections to my critique of the Golden Rule. Perhaps what I am critiquing is the common misapplication of the Golden Rule (although some in that discussion Sterling linked to thought that perhaps Jesus phrased the Golden Rule in an ego-centric way to purposely appeal across cultures, but I’m not phrasing it as eloquently as they did).

    However, I’m also thinking of how often I heard seminary teachers or other leaders urge us to not listen to those who reject our missionary work b/c we knew something they didn’t and we should therefore do the kindest thing, which is to ignore their boundaries and wishes and try in every way we can to get them to see things the way we do. If not, my teachers said, they’d condemn us in the next life for not forcing our truth on them (or sharing our truth with them). That’s a more extreme example, but it happens in milder forms all the time, particularly in the treatment of those who don’t fit all the standards (the adult unendowed, the less active, etc.). I think what I’m arguing against is the paternalism Sterling mentioned, the idea that b/c I have “the truth” then I know what’s best for everyone else, and I’m treating them how they should want to be treated, should they have the truth like I do.

  14. Alisa says:

    Ah, here’s sort of an example of what I was thinking of from this GC talk:

    “He replies, “Oh, I am sorry. I was afraid you might not like orange juice, and I didn’t want to offend you by offering you something you didn’t desire.”

    Now, that sounds absurd, but it is not too different from the way we hesitate to offer up something far sweeter than orange juice. I have often worried how I would answer some friend about my hesitancy when I meet him beyond the veil.”

    This example uses the Golden Rule but at the same time makes us forget the variety of difference and otherness around us. In order to be analogous, orange juice would have to be the only true juice, and there wouldn’t be other drinks to choose from.

  15. mValiant says:

    This is a super post, thanks!

    I haven’t been familiar with this vocabulary, but I think this idea comes up in my marriage a lot. I think I’ve said before — I believe really strongly in speaking directly and not passively or passively-aggressively, etc. My husband’s family does not speak directly, and I am always sure that he would really appreciate it when I show him the better way to be and point out every instance when his communication could be more direct. I love it when people point out that I’m not being direct. Turns out he hates it. So I need to turn off the Golden Rule and upgrade to Platinum. 🙂

    It’s a trivial example to something more profound that you’re getting at.

  16. bluebell says:

    I really enjoyed this post.

    I often think about how hard it is to navigate personal relationships, as all people have different experiences, and look at life through their own lens, whether they be rose colored or dark. Many people are genuine, others put up fronts and say one thing in front of you, and another behind your back. I known someone for years, who has not wanted me to really be involved with their life, They’ll act one way and I later learn that the conversation had been interpreted differently, because they had a different view point. How do you know how you should treat someone if you don’t have an honest relationship? I would tend to look through my own experiences and try to reach out the best way I know how. (The Golden Rule) Sometimes it backfires, and hopefully you learn and can treat others better, but it takes experience, and patience and love(with the learner too!). Some days I have more love and understanding to give than others, if you meet me on an off moment, who knows what you may think of me? What if you have just met someone and don’t know anything about them and so you ask a seemingly innocent question, but it offends one person and not another? Becoming a sensitive person is a journey in and of itself and takes time.

    When you compound this with introducing the gospel into it, often people are asked to do things to help them grow that can make them uncomfortable and awkward. There are many times I’ve sat through lessons, and had I not studied the topic for myself from the actual gospel materials and general conference talks to know what the prophets have actually said, I would have been very confused. When it comes to sharing the gospel with others, I think some of the general authorities themselves have had really good talks on how to treat others of different faiths, like being sensitive and not calling people non-members anymore for starters. But sometimes you get sub par teachers, and things come out a lot different. You just have to love them anyway, and live your religion. Sometimes people who are listening to a talk/lesson totally ignore good advice and commandments and can’t even here it because the place in life they’re in.

    When you look at the context of the golden rule in the scriptures there is a lot more instruction on how to act, which hopefully will give myself and other struggling saints pause on how to REALLY act. Adding the Platinum rule is like getting more instruction.

  1. January 25, 2016

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