Try a fascinating experiment in moral development with any group of five-year-olds. First, tell them the Golden Rule. Say it in a couple of different ways, both in its traditional form (“Do unto others as you would have them do unto you”) and in a plainer English version, making sure that they understand all the words (for example, “Treat other people just the same as you’d like them to treat you”). Then ask the five-year-olds to repeat the Golden Rule and give some examples of the way it works. Unless they are prodigies, most of the children will repeat the Golden Rule as something like, “Do back to other people what they do to you,” or “Treat other people in the same way that they treat you.” Most five-year-olds will come up with the following kinds of examples: “I gave my Mom a nice birthday present because she’s always nice to me,” “Billy’s my best friend, and I share my bike with him so he’ll let me use his bike,” or “You can fight with someone who hits you first.”
Now as adults, we recognize that such sentiments are closer to the “eye for an eye” ethic of reciprocity and revenge than they are to the Golden Rule ethic of “love thy neighbor as thyself.” We recognize this because we are able to do an extra mental step that most five-year-olds cannot do: we consider what we would want if we were the other, instead of what we do want as ourselves. We are not bound by a limited, self-centered perspective that dictates how we feel when someone has done something to us (or for us), or that prescribes how we should act if we want to get someone to do something for us. We can take an extra mental step (a “what we would want if we were the other” step) by mentally placing ourselves in the shoes of another person. As this cognitive transaction is called in developmental psychology, adults can “role-take.” In this way, we can know the wishes and expectations of another person.
Most adults are capable of the perspective-taking skills needed to understand the Golden Rule. Indeed, most children by the age of eight or nine can do it. But this does not mean that most adults actually use the Golden Rule in their day-to-day relationships, especially in their business transactions. Some people, first and foremost, are out for themselves: they couldn’t care less what another person would want, so the Golden Rule never comes up. And some adults persist in applying the Golden Rule in the manner of a five-year-old—as a justification for bribery or revenge (“I treat them as they treat me”). Still others may apply the Golden Rule to their closest loved ones— their children, their spouses, their friends—but assume that the world beyond their most intimate circles is a Darwinian environment where survival depends on more cutthroat behavior.
W. Damon, The Moral Child: Nurturing Children’s Natural Moral Growth, New York: Free Press, 1990.