Criminal Parents


What should a person do if her parents commit a crime? Should she immediately turn them into the authorities?

Texts and Courses

Primary Texts

  • Plato's Euthyphro
  • Kongzi - Analects, 13.18
  • Mengzi, 7A35, 5A3

Secondary Texts for Instructor

  • Benson (2013). "What Should Euthyphro Do?" History of Philosophy Quarterly.
  • Huang Yong (forthcoming). "Why an Upright Son Does Not Disclose His Father Stealing a Sheep." Available at .

Suggested Courses

  • Introduction to Ethics, Ethics, Ancient Greek Philosophy, Plato


In Plato’s Euthyphro, Socrates confronts Euthyphro about the morality of Euthyphro’s decision to prosecute his father for murder. In The Analects, a duke brags to Confucius about “Upright Gong,” who testified against his own father for stealing a sheep. Confucius argues that the son was not, in fact, upright: “Fathers cover up for their sons and sons cover up for their fathers. Uprightness lies therein” (13.18). Socrates’ position on the question is unclear (Benson (2013) argues that Socrates cannot commit to saying it is right or wrong, because doing so requires knowledge of good and bad which Socrates claims to lack).

For the early Confucians, filial piety is a vital virtue (Analects 1.11, 4.20). Confucius suggests that when you disagree with your parent’s actions, you should “gently remonstrate” with them three times – and if that fails to change their behavior, you should follow them respectfully. This may seem like poor moral advice, but the idea may be something like this: in demonstrating your filial piety, obedience, and respect for your parents even when they know you disagree with them, they will be moved by your behavior to reflect upon their own actions and (hopefully) change them.

Discussion Questions

  • Could Confucius’s method ever work? Could it work in other social situations (with friends or co-workers?)
  • Does Confucius’s method rely on the person initially doing wrong to be socially aware and / or to care about the people who are modeling good behavior?
  • Are some crimes more or less acceptable to cover up? Are they all wrong to cover up?


Ask students to think of a time they have covered up for someone (a friend, a younger sibling). Have them discuss in groups why the did so, whether they think it was right or wrong, whether they regret it.


  • virtue ethics
  • ancient Greek philosophy
  • Plato

Author Information

Seth Robertson (University of Oklahoma)