Suppose you find out someone you know committed a crime for which they were not caught. Under the deontological "golden rule," would you report them?

What I thought: In attempting to apply the golden rule, I suppose I am in the position of the thief. Well, I would not want anyone to report me, therefore the golden rule condition implies I should not report the thief.

This seems paradoxical to me. Can anyone help sort this out?

  • It's realistically doubtful that immoral people would even worry about following the Golden rule. There's no reason for them to care one way or another. By the way, thieves do report other thieves to the authorities, often enough. – Bread Nov 1 '18 at 21:13
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    Shouldn't you put yourself into the position of those from whom he stole instead? After all, you are much more likely to end up in that position. – Conifold Nov 1 '18 at 21:17
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    @Bread I was told that in the UK, anonymous crime reporting is done in equal numbers by "concerned citizens", by "friends and family preventing someone from getting deeper into crime", and by "criminals trying to get rid of the competition". If you're a drug dealer and another drug dealer starts in your area, of course you give an anonymous tip to the police. – gnasher729 Nov 2 '18 at 1:00
  • There's no paradox. You would make one decision and the thief would make another. If we all follow the Imperative this does not mean we all make the same decisions. – user20253 Nov 6 '18 at 13:37

Perhaps taking a Kantian angle on the golden rule would help. Kant's formulation of the categorical imperative has often been likened to a formalization of the golden rule. On a Kantian deontology, your deliberation would look something like this.

I will act on the maxim that, when I know of a crime committed by a friend, I will not report that crime. Now universalize the maxim: Everyone will act on the maxim that, when he knows of a crime committed by a friend, he will not report that crime. What would the world be like if this were instituted and necessarily occurred as a law of nature?

First, we ask ourselves: is such a world logically possible? It seems that there is no internal contradiction here. What we'd get is a world where there were more criminals roaming free, but nothing seems logically contradictory about that. Indeed, there is nothing logically contradictory even the extreme case of all criminals roaming free.

However, next we need to ask ourselves if it contradicts the nature of a self-determining will to choose to be a member of a world where justice is not served whenever it should be. And it seems that here we find the contradiction. It would be irrational to choose to be a member of a world where people don't report crimes that they know of, because the self-determining will is one that seeks to live in a world of respect and dignity.

Thus, I cannot make an exception of myself. Even if I were inclined not to report a friend, this inclination would lead me astray from the moral duty to report crimes. In this sense, doing unto others as one would have done unto oneself would imply that I should report the crime.


As Conifold suggested, I think that the apparent paradox will dissolve when you evaluate that your actions toward the thief have an immediate impact on the thief's victim. You can't choose whether to report the thief without acting in some way toward the victim, too.


If I were convinced that a crime-free society is the best of all possible worlds, then I would want all crimes reported by all members of society. That circumstance would give the police and the courts the best chance of producing a crime-free society.

Any crime that I would commit would fall under the category of all crimes, so I would want my crimes reported along with all other crimes.

So, The Golden Rule holds, as I would want to report all of the crimes of others, and I would want them to report my crimes.


Express the action slightly differently. Instead of "I don't inform the police of the identity of a thief", you say "I prevent the victim of a theft from finding the perpetrator". And suddenly the situation looks very different.

Your action affects more than one person, some in positive, some in negative ways.

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