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The Essence of Moral Behavior... Compassion

In the beginning...

Our distant forebears survived with the idea, "You help me, I help you... and together we survive." Tribalism is how they survived, and only people with this cooperative gene managed to pass their genes on. We have deep within us instincts that demand that we cooperate.

But it goes a step further. The concept of morality of every major religion and ethical system is built on the same fundamental concept, reciprocity. The ethics of reciprocity has been articulated in many ways down through the ages... here are a few:

  • Ancient Babylonian sacred teaching from 2,000 BCE: "Do not return evil to your adversary; Requite with kindness the one who does evil to you, Maintain justice for your enemy, Be friendly to your enemy." (Akkadian Councils of Wisdom, as cited in Pritchard's Ancient Near Eastern Texts)

  • Excerpts from a pagan's prayer: "May I be the friend of that which is eternal and abides...May I love, seek, and attain only that which is good. May I wish for all men's happiness...May I reconcile friends who are wroth with one another. May I, to the extent of my power, give all needful help to all who are in want. May I never fail a friend in danger...May I know good men and follow in their footsteps." ("The Prayer of Eusebius," written by a 1st-century pagan, as quoted in Gilbert Murray, Five Stages of Greek Religion).

  • Taoist holy teaching: "Return love for hatred. Otherwise, when a great hatred is reconciled, some of it will surely remain. How can this end in goodness? Therefore the sage holds to the left hand of an agreement but does not expect what the other holder ought to do. Regard your neighbor's gain as your own and your neighbor's loss as your own loss. Whoever is self-centered cannot have the love of others."

  • The Greek poet Homer: "I will be as careful for you as I should be for myself in the same need." (Calypso, to Odysseus, in Homer, The Odyssey, bk. 5, vv. 184-91. Roughly late 8th century BCE.).

  • Confucius: "Do not impose on others what you do not desire others to impose upon you." (Confucius, The Analects. Roughly 500 BCE.

  • Buddhist sacred literature: "Hurt not others in ways that you yourself would find hurtful." (Udanavargu, 5:18, Tibetan Dhammapada, 1983)

  • Buddhist holy teaching: "Shame on him who strikes, greater shame on him who strikes back. Let us live happily, not hating those who hate us. Let us therefore overcome anger by kindness, evil by good, falsehood by truth." (written centuries before Jesus was born)

  • Buddhist holy teaching: "In this world hate never yet dispelled hate. Only love dispels hate. This is the law, ancient and inexhaustible." (The Dhammapada)

  • The Greek historian Herodotus: "If I choose I may rule over you. But what I condemn in another I will, if I may, avoid myself." (Herodotus, The Histories, bk. III, ch. 142. Roughly 430 BCE.)

  • Isocrates, the Greek orator: "What things make you angry when you suffer them at the hands of others, do not you do to other people."

  • The negative Golden Rule is found in Tobit, an apocryphal book that is included in the Catholic Bible: "What you hate, do not do to anyone." (Tobit 4: 14-15. 2nd century BCE.)

  • Philo, the great Hellenstic Jewish philosopher of Alexandria, wrote, "What you hate to suffer, do not do to anyone else."

  • Hillel, a great Jewish rabbi who lived just before Jesus' day, taught, "What is hateful to thee, do not to another. That is the whole law and all else is explanation." (b Shabbatt 31a; cf. Avot de R. Natan ii.26)

  • Jesus preached the Golden Rule, "All things therefore that you want people to DO to you, DO thus to them" (Matthew 7:12),

  • Islamic holy teaching: "That which you want for yourself, seek for mankind." (Sukhanan-i-Muhammad, 63)

  • Hindu sacred literature: "Let no man do to another that which would be repugnant to himself." (Mahabharata, bk. 5, ch. 49, v. 57)

  • "Hurt not others in ways you yourself would find hurtful." (Udana-Varga, 5.18)

  • Zoroastrian sacred literature: "Human nature is good only when it does not do unto another whatever is not good for its own self." (Dadistan-I-Dinik, 94:5; in Muller, chapter 94, vol. 18, p. 269)

We can summarize these moral precepts with one word: compassion. The essence of morality is compassion for our fellow human beings.


This page last updated February 11, 2010.

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