Golden Rule

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GOLDEN RULE . The expression Golden Rule has come into use in various modern European languages over the past few centuries as a popular reference to the dictum, "Do unto others as you would have others do unto you," best known in Western culture from its formulation in the New Testament (Matt. 7:12, Luke 6:31). Identical or similar axioms of moral behavior are nearly universal, however, appearing in a wide variety of cultural contexts from oral folk wisdom to ancient scriptural and philosophical writings. The written canonic versions most frequently cited as examples of golden-rule thinking include those found in early Jewish sources, both in the Mishnaic and Talmudic corpus (Pire-Avot 2:10, Babylonian Talmud: Shabbat 31a) and in the apocryphal and pseudepigraphic literature (e.g., Ben Sira 31:15, Tobit 4:15, Jubilees 36:8); additional passages in the New Testament (Rom. 13:8-10, Gal. 5:14, Acts 15:20 [Western recension, codex D]); Qurʾanic and post-Qurʾanic Islamic teachings (sūrah 83: "The Deceivers" [At-Tafīf, or Al-Muaffifīn ]; Al-Nawawi, Forty adith 13; Ibn Al-ʿArabi, "Instructions to a Postulant" [Risāla lʾil murīd ]); classical Greek and Latin texts (e.g., Plato, Republic 443d; Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics 9:8; Isocrates, "To Nicocles" 61b, "To Demonicus" 14, 17); sacred precepts imparted in the Udyoga and Anuasana sections of the Sanskrit epic Mahābharata (5:39:57, 13:114:8); and comparable pronouncements in the Zoroastrian Avesta (Dadestan-i denig 94:5, Shayest Na-shayest 37:51), the Buddhist Dhammapada (10:129130), the Jain Āgamas: Sūtraktānga (1:10:13, 1:11:33) and other sūtras, and the Bahā'ī scriptures (Kitāb-i Aqdas 148). There are also striking parallels in the Analects (4:15, 5:12, 15:23) and other works of the Confucian canon (Daxue 10:2, Zhongyong 13:3, Mencius 7:A:4).

Occurrences in these and other traditions can be multiplied virtually without limit, inasmuch as statements preaching a basic consideration for the feelings of othersin ideal conception if not in common practiceare all but self-evident in human culture, reflecting both the fundamental imperatives of social organization and a deeply ingrained, though regularly ignored, instinct of empathy for fellow members of the species. However, many apparently parallel statements about elementary human decency are simply too vague or sweeping to support detailed comparison, while others may have been taken out of their original contexts and put forward as equivalent teachings by apologists keen on defending the validity of one non-Western ethical system or another. In order to properly assess the cultural and religious significance of various golden-rule formulations, therefore, it is vital to scrutinize them from the perspective of a number of specific variables and issues:

  1. The place of this teaching within its given religious or philosophical context: does it simply describe a commendable mode of behavior, or is it enshrined as the central pillar of an entire moral edifice?
  2. The defense of this principle in the face of abundant evidence of its nonobservance in human conduct: Is it taken a priori as an inviolable tenet of revealed dogma, or is it proposed as a piece of utilitarian advice for the successful regulation of social life? Does it merely enjoin a correct attitude toward one's fellow humans, or does it require one to translate these feelings into the praxis of concrete acts?
  3. The manner in which the precise rhetorical structure of a given formulation reflects the specific intellectual underpinnings of its cultural milieu: Is it presented as an incontestable point of doctrine, or is it put forward as a polemical position or a defensive response within a context of moral disputation? Is its verbal form, especially its framing in either positive or negative grammatical terms, simply an aspect of literary style, or does its linguistic mode of presentation correspond to deep-seated assumptions about the moral ground of the human condition and the possibility of humankind's spiritual perfection?
  4. Claims of universal validity: is a certain culture-specific version held to be a statement of moral truth for all humans and all time, or is it understood to apply exclusively within a particular religious community or sociohistorical context?
  5. Mutual influences and borrowing: does a given citation represent an independent enunciation of the principle, or can it be traced back to a chain of inherited sources or to ur-texts shared with other traditions?
  6. Commentarial expansion: how do scriptural exegetes and textual scholiasts seek to elucidate the message of empathetic self-projection expressed in canonic teachings and to ground this in the logic of philosophical or theological discourse?

The Golden Rule as the Core of Morality

That which makes various Golden Rule formulations in different cultures not simply shining precepts of moral excellence but truly goldenin the sense of setting the highest standard of moral valueis the explicit claim that the exhortation to treat one's fellow humans by the same criteria of behavior one wishes to enjoy oneself constitutes the essential core of an entire system of belief. For example, Hillel the Elder (first century bcefirst century ce) folds all of Jewish law into one succinct replywhile his questioner "stands on one foot"as, "What is hateful to you, do not do unto your fellow man" (Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 31a). In this is heard the unmistakable echo linking it with the language of slightly later enunciations of the same message in several New Testament passages.

This may reflect no more than direct borrowing or the use of common oral and written sources drawn from the fount of Eastern Mediterranean wisdom literature. But what gives this parallel its primary significance is the manner in which both texts go on to cite these gnomic statements as encapsulations of religious truth: "the entire Torah" in Hillel's words and "the law and the prophets" in the Gospel refrain. Significantly, we observe very much the same impulse to elevate the Golden Rule to the status of an all-embracing universal principle in a wide variety of other cultural contexts, including at least two passages among the vast pool of edifying verses in the Mahābhārata identifying this teaching as the "essence" or the "summation" of the dharma (duty or morality), Al-Nawawi's (12331277) blanket pronouncement that one who fails to observe this precept cannot be called a member of the Muslim community of the faithful, and the set of linked passages in the Confucian Analects that use words virtually identical to those of Hillel ("what is not desirable to you yourself, do not do") to define the "single thread [binding all of Confucius's thought] into a consistent whole."

In all of these examples, it is noteworthy that what is claimed to be the "central thread" of the Golden Rule is reduced to a rather unexpected point of doctrine, in each case accentuated by conspicuous silence with respect to such essential tenets as the creation of the world and the acceptance God's commandments in Judaism, the unity and singularity of God in Islam, the ideals of virtuous rule and ritual order in Confucianism, or the metaphysical underpinnings of Hindu and Buddhist thought: spiritual liberation, enlightenment and nirvāa, the universal godhead. In many of these passages, therefore, one suspects that the citation of the Golden Rule as the ultimate ground of an entire body of moral teachings is pointedly intended to be provocative, its stark enunciation designed to shake listeners from complacent belief in their conventional articles of faith and to force them to contemplate the core principle of primary human empathy underlying all ethical thinking. As a result, it is not surprising that in each of these respective scriptural traditions, legions of commentators have come forward to meet this intellectual and spiritual challenge, exercising their best exegetical skills in an attempt to reconcile the sublimely simple message of the Golden Rule with finer points of doctrine.

Rhetorical Forms and Contexts

With respect to the rhetorical articulation of golden-rule statements, the most commonly debated issue revolves around the use of positive or negative terms of discourse in different occurrences. Much ink and breath has been expended to argue that these two alternative grammatical modes reflect profoundly variant perspectives on the human condition. According to a widely held view, the framing of the precept in positive terms ("Do unto others") rather than negative ones represents at once a more idealistic and a more demanding view of man's capacity for altruistic behavior, setting standards of moral perfection that, if met, would amount to an imitatio of divine compassion. By this same reasoning, the negative formulation would seem to set the bar of moral expectation far lower, at the more "realistic" level of a covenant of nonintervention, requiring of people only that they refrain from aggressive and exploitative treatment of their fellows. In some discussions, however, these assumptions are reversed, and the point is made that, in a sense, basing one's behavior toward others on what one wishes to receive in return turns the selfless empathy of the Golden Rule into a form of self-interest, at best, or that it may even give license to impose one's own values and preferences on other people. Conversely, it may be argued that the idea of mutual nonaggression, far from enjoining simple inaction or restraint, may be understood to sanction an even more open-ended commitment to the inviolability of individual rights.

Regardless of which of these views is upheld, when one surveys the full range of canonic golden-rule statements, one discovers that typically the selection of positive or negative verbal form is not set in stone as a choice between mutually exclusive approaches to the principle of reciprocity in human relations. This observation becomes immediately clear when we note the inseparable connection drawn between the Golden Rule and the command to "love thy neighbor" in both testaments of the Bible (linked in the Gospels by direct textual contiguity and in the rabbinic tradition by virtually automatic exegetical association)a point underlined by the fact that the original source text for this shared teaching at the heart of both testamental traditions, in Leviticus 19:18, presents these words as the culmination of a series of negative ethical injunctions. Moreover, even the uplifting note of positive exhortation in the Gospel versions of this teaching, often held to embody the purest expression of Christian love, did not prevent the early church fathers from transposing the words recorded in Mark and Luke into negative formulations in certain other early Christian writings (e.g., Acts [Western recension, Codex D] 15:20, Didache 1:2, and the Apologia of Aristides 15). In the same spirit, we find in such post-biblical Jewish texts as Mishna Avot (Pire-Avot ) and Ben Sira a fairly free alternation between positive and negative wording. The same is true of the terms of the Golden Rule enunciated in the Confucian Analects. The near replication here of Hillel's negative formulation may tend to lead certain Western observers to hasty conclusions regarding the practical, or this-worldly, character of traditional Chinese religious thinkinguntil one notices that this statement is conspicuously counterbalanced by a crucial passage in Mencius where a strikingly positive rhetorical exhortation is used to enjoin concerted efforts to live by the ideal of reciprocal empathy.

In weighing the significance of this point of textual analysis, therefore, it is crucial to distinguish between the purely linguistic choice of this or that mode of assertion and the deeper semantic grounding of positive and negative propositions regarding human perfectibility. Just as the negative language in certain Old Testament and Confucian versions in no way precludes a positive moral signification, so, too, the parallels cited in Hindu texts as the essence of the dharma can be construed in this term's double sense of both a set of restrictive laws and rules of behavior and also a positive evocation of the entire structure of meaning in human existence. In all of these examples, the notion that the evil inclination, sinful nature, or aggressive impulses of humans require the coercive force of moral sanction to prevent mutual injury is in no way inconsistent with a concomitant faith in the spiritual power of primary human empathy. This is particularly clear in the later Confucian development the vision of human interrelatedness set forth by Mencius (c. 371c. 289 bce), within which the all-embracing framework of prescriptive ritual observances is conceived as a modality for recovering and bringing to realization the inborn core of humanity's essential moral nature.

A second rhetorical factor conditioning expressions of the wisdom of the Golden Rule in different cultures concerns the precise positioning of a given formulation within the broader context of intellectual discourse in which it figures. Thus, where the best-known Judeo-Christian and Hindu-Buddhist versions present this precept as the foundation of universal moral law, in a number of classical Greek and Latin sources statements of more or less equivalent import tend to be uttered within the framework of discussions on the ideal fulfillment of human character, especially in connection with the classical ethical conceptions of temperance, moderation and spiritual well-being. For example, expressions of the principle of reciprocity in the Republic and Gorgias (507b), by Plato (c. 428348 or 347 bce), and the Rhetoric (11661167) and Nicomachean Ethics of Aristotle (384322 bce), are oriented more toward the perfection of the individual self than toward the reciprocal relation between person and person. In major works of Stoic philosophy such as the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius (121180 ce) (e.g., 5:20, 7:73, 9:4, 11:1), this ideal of altruistic self-transcendence is cited, in a manner reminiscent of Mencius, as the mark of an individual's fullest attainment of harmony with Nature.

In many passages, the wisdom of the Golden Rule seems to carry a markedly utilitarian message with reference to the ordering of specific sets of human relationships. This occurs, for example, in the citation of this principle in the writings of Seneca (4 bce65 ce) (Epistles 47:11) with respect to the treatment of slaves, in the context of punishment in the Buddhist Dhammapada and honest measurement in the Qurʾān, and in the preaching of kingly virtues in the "Letter to Aristeias" (207) included within the corpus of the Jewish apocrypha. Indeed, discussions of the practical implications of such teachings for the maintenance of primary social order constitute a central focus of more recent golden-rule discourse, from the classic analysis of the essential structure of power in works such as Leviathan (chapter 15), by Thomas Hobbes (15881679), to the scathing critique of humanity's hypocritical sacralization of its own self-interest in chapter 5 of Civilization and Its Discontents, by Sigmund Freud (18561939).

Within the Greek vision of the maximum fulfillment of human capacity, this issue is commonly linked to the concept of justice, in the sense of the interpersonal balancing of conflicting needs and wants. In this light, certain negative formulations of the Golden Rule may be understood as mirror images of the concept of retributive justice, prescribing a sort of proactive or reactive payment in kind for undesirable behavior. In its starkest form, this type of interpretation may even be reduced to the unforgiving terms of the lex talionis, "an eye for an eye," in apparent opposition to the doctrine of compassionate forgiveness suggested by the textual contiguity of the Golden Rule to the sermon on the mount in its Gospel manifestations. But just as the literal application of the principle of retributive justice was replaced early on in Jewish law by the concept of mutual responsibility, "requiting love for love" (gemilut-asadim ), so, too, in a famous passage in the Analects (14:34), Confucius (551479 bce) is pictured as rejecting the idea of repaying injustice with justice (literally, "requiting injury with virtue") on the grounds that this would constitute a breach of equity, preaching instead that one repay only virtuous behavior in kind and respond to injury with the "correctness" of justice.

Metaphysical and Theological Implications

In a number of important canonic enunciations of the Golden Rule, both in scriptural and in commentarial writings, thinkers go beyond the positing of its wisdom as the central pillar of their respective ethical systems espousing consideration and justice toward one's neighbor (variously construed as one's fellow Jew, fellow members of the Islamic community of the faithful, and the like, or in the broadest sense, all of one's fellow human beings) and ascribe to this precept significance of a metaphysical or theological character. Thus, for example, an authoritative rabbinic commentary on the Leviticus injunction to "Love thy neighbor" (Palestinian Talmud, Nedarim 9:4) cites this single verse as comprising the entire "book of the creation of man" (sefer tol'dot-ha'adam ).

In certain formulations (e.g., the Jain Sūtraktānga ) the scope of application of the principle of universal empathy is expanded to a cosmic level to take in all one's fellow creatures, indeed all of creation, as coterminous with one's own eternal Self. This same exegetical impulse also finds expression in the philosophical writings of a number of later Confucian thinkers, among them Wang Yangming (14721529), who see in the moral message of the Golden Rule enunciated in the Analects a metaphysical identification with the "single body" (yiti) of the entire universe. This understanding gives new meaning to Mencius's attachment of his own positive formulation of the Golden Rule to the startling proposition that "the ten-thousand things are all within myself," here not an expression of the vaunt of unbounded ego but a soaring affirmation of the innate moral core lodged within every human heart. This leap of faith from basic human interrelatedness to a spiritual identification with all creation may also help to explain the textual linkage in both Jewish and Christian scripture between the parallel commands to "love thy neighbor" and to "love thy God," as well as Ibn al-ʿArabi's mystical extrapolation from the wisdom of the Golden Rule to the submission of humans to the infinity of the divine will.

See Also

Morality and Religion.


Allinson, Robert. "On the Negative Version of the Golden Rule as Formulated by Confucius." New Asia Academic Bulletin 3 (1982): 223232.

Dihle, Albrecht. Die goldene Regel: Eine Einführung in die Geschichte der antiken und frühchristlichen Vulgärethik. Göttingen, Germany, 1962.

Erikson, Eric H. "The Golden Rule in the Light of New Insight." In his Insight and Responsibility. New York, 1964.

Fingarette, Herbert. "Following the 'One Thread' of the Analects." Journal of the American Academy of Religion 47, no. 3S (1979): 373405.

Freud, Sigmund, Civilization and Its Discontents. 1930. In Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, edited by James Strachey, vol. 21. London, 1961. See pp. 108116.

Gould, James A. "The Golden Rule." American Journal of Theology and Philosophy 4 (1983): 7379.

Harman, Gilbert. The Nature of Morality: An Introduction to Ethics. New York, 1977. See pp. 5799.

Kant, Immanuel. Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals. In Metaphysics of Morals. Translated by Mary Gregor. New York, 1996. See pp. 191197.

Nagel, Thomas. The Possibility of Altruism. Oxford, 1970.

Nivison, David S. "Golden Rule Arguments in Chinese Moral Philosophy." In The Ways of Confucianism: Investigations in Chinese Philosophy, edited by David S. Nivison and Bryan W. Van Norden. La Salle, Ill., 1996.

Phillipidis, Leonidas. Die goldene Regel: Religionsgeschichtlich Untersuch. Leipzig, Germany, 1929.

Andrew H. Plaks (2005)

Golden Rule

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One early use of the word golden in English is "most excellent, important, or precious." With reference to rules or precepts it was used to mean "of inestimable value," and the expression "the golden rule" was often specifically used with reference to the precept in Matthew: "Therefore all things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them: for this is the law and the prophets" (7:12). Thus, the principle that has come to be known as the golden rule has been so called presumably because it has been regarded as being of inestimable value or importance. This regard was not derived solely from the fact that it was set forth in the sermon on the mount. The golden rule has been widely accepted, in word if not in deed, by vast numbers of greatly differing peoples; it is a basic device of moral education; and it can be found at the core of innumerable moral, religious, and social codes. So far as can be determined from available records, it was probably first formulated by Confucius some five hundred years before Christ"What you do not like when done to yourself do not do to others"and the multitude of different formulations testify to its widespread acceptance and influence.

There is probably no principle which has been so widely accepted and remained so controversial. Nonetheless, the golden rule has been the subject of comparatively little philosophical discussion. It is usually mentioned, when it is mentioned at all, only in passing, and it has generally received more attention in theological and inspirational literature. However, there are signs of increasing philosophical interest in it.

One of its commonest formulations today is "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you." It is commonly supposed that there are significant differences between this, the positive formulation, and the negative formulation, "Do not do unto others what you would not have them do unto you," and that the positive formulation "marks a distinct advance" since it "prescribes positive services rather than mere abstinences" and "sets forth an ideal which is higher and therefore more difficult to realize." It can be argued, however, that this is an error resulting from faulty analysis and perhaps also from theological bias. In connection with a specific action or object of desire, there is a considerable difference between a positive desire, a desire to do it or have it done to oneself, and a negative desire, a desire not to do it or not to have it done to oneself. But in the abstract, so the argument runs, there is only a difference in formulation, and a want, wish, or desire formulated in negative terms can always be reformulated in positive terms. For example, there is no difference between not wanting others to lie to oneself and wanting them not to lie to oneself, wanting them to tell one the truth and wanting them not to fail to tell one the truth. In general, "A wants x to happen" is equivalent to "A does not want x not to happen," and "A does not want x to happen" is equivalent to "A wants x not to happen." Thus, according to this line of argument, every desire formulated negatively, which would come within the scope of the negative golden rule, can be reformulated positively and will then come within the scope of the positive golden rule. It would follow, then, that there is no logical or moral difference between the negative and positive formulations, only a psychological or rhetorical one.

On either account the negative formulation of the golden rule is to be distinguished from the denial of the golden rule: "Do not do unto others as you would have them do unto you." Obviously, this is not a formulation of the golden rule at all but is, rather, its total rejection. The denial of the golden rule is usually supported by the claim that the golden rule presupposes a uniformity of human nature, in the sense of a uniformity of tastes, interests, needs, and desires, and the attendant claim that there is no such uniformity. One way of meeting this objection is to deny that the golden rule involves any such presupposition. It has been argued that it is necessary to make a distinction between the particular interpretation and the general interpretation of the golden rule. The particular interpretation implies that whatever in particular one would have others do to or for him, he should do to or for them. It is in the particular interpretation that, to take some of the standard objections, the golden rule "authorizes the quarrelsome person who loves to be provoked, to go about provoking others, and the person who hates friendliness and sympathy to be cold and unsympathetic in his dealings with others" (L. J. Russell). But these consequences, it has been claimed, do not follow from the general interpretation. On this interpretation what one has to consider is not what in particular one would have others do to or for oneself but, rather, the general ways in which one would have others act in their treatment of oneself. If one abstracts his general wishes from his particular desires, what one would have others do is to take account of his interests, needs, and desires, which may be quite different from theirs, and either satisfy them or not willfully frustrate them. What the golden rule requires a person to do, then, is to take account of the wishes of others and accord them the respect and consideration he would want them to accord to his. In other words, what the golden rule requires of each of us is that we should treat others in accordance with the same principles or standards that we would have others apply in their treatment of us. Thus, the golden rule, if this argument is sound, is compatible with differences in interests, needs, tastes, wishes, and desires and does not presuppose that human nature is uniform in the sense specified.

Another principle which should be distinguished from the golden rule is what might be called its inversion: "Do unto others as they would have you do unto them." The inversion of the golden rule has received some support, and it has even been urged that it replace the golden rule as a guide to conduct, mainly as a consequence of the same sort of objection as the distinction just outlined is intended to eliminate. It has been claimed that the inversion of the golden rule has "the merit of stressing the need for an understanding of other people as a basis of our behavior toward them" and does not presuppose any uniformity or identity of nature in the beings it is intended to govern.

One counterargument to this is that the implications of the inversion of the golden rule are more absurd than the alleged implications of the golden rule itself and that it is tantamount to a rule that would require everyone always to do whatever anyone else wants him to do, a rule it is impossible to follow in a world of conflicting interests. Once it is recognized, the argument runs, that the "uniformity of human nature," in the sense of an absolute identity of interests, needs, and desires, is not a presupposition of the golden rule, any temptation to substitute the inversion of the golden rule for the golden rule itself should disappear. For in its general interpretation the golden rule does require us to take account of and accord respect to the differing needs, interests, and desires of others, and it is just this that the inversion of the golden rule is intended to bring about. However, the question remains whether the inversion of the golden rule cannot be rescued from at least some of the more obvious objections to it by means of a distinction similar to that made between the particular and the general interpretation of the golden rule.

In the course of time a number of anomalous interpretations of the golden rule have found strong support. On the one hand, it has been said that the golden rule comprehends all the requirements of morality in a single formula; on the other, it has been said that the golden rule is only a guide, that it is far from complete, that it requires rules, a sense of justice, or even a whole system of morality for its proper interpretation and application. Again, the golden rule has been said to be not only consistent with but actually to comprehend all of utilitarianism; it has also been said to provide just that element, the requirement of justice or fairness, that is alleged to be most lacking in a utilitarian theory. On this interpretation the golden rule is regarded as being the basis of justice, sometimes also the basis or equivalent of Immanuel Kant's categorical imperative. Finally, it has been claimed that the golden rule is a perfect guide to conduct and that the only thing needed to make the world perfect is for everyone to follow it; at the same time it has been claimed that the golden rule leads to paradoxes and is misleading, false, or absurd.

Each of the points and issues mentioned here is discussed, more or less adequately, in one or more of the sources listed in the bibliography. But no one has yet dealt satisfactorily with the question of why this precept should have appeared in the codes and outlooks of so many diverse peoples and sages. The golden rule, in one version or another, has a prominent place in all the major religions and most minor ones; it has been enunciated by pagan philosophers both before and after Christ and by Sophists (Isocrates) and anti-Sophists (Aristotle). There are no detectable historical traces that could explain this, and the historical diffusion theory is worthless as an explanation here. The nearly universal acceptance of the golden rule and its promulgation by persons of considerable intelligence, though otherwise of divergent outlooks, would therefore seem to provide some evidence for the claim that it is a fundamental ethical truth.

See also Aristotle; Confucius; Ethics and Morality; Sophists.


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Wheelwright, Philip. A Critical Introduction to Ethics. New York: Odyssey Press, 1949. Pp. 165, 207.

Marcus G. Singer (1967)

golden rule

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gold·en rule • n. a basic principle that should be followed to ensure success in general or in a particular activity: one of the golden rules in this class is punctuality. ∎  (often Golden Rule) the biblical rule of “do unto others as you would have them do unto you” (Matt. 7:12).

Golden Rule

views updated May 11 2018

Golden Rule. Epitome of ethical action, occurring, at least proverbially, in most religions, but associated particularly with Judaism and Christianity. In Judaism, it occurs most often in negative form: ‘Whatever is hateful to you, do not do to another’. In the New Testament, it appears, unpacking Leviticus 19. 18, in the form: ‘As you would that people should do to you, do likewise to them’ (Matthew 7. 12; Luke 6. 31).