There is an idiom in my language that translates to something like:

If you don't do anything about the robber when he's robbing your neighbor's house, then next house he will rob is yours.

Essentially, standing for other's rights is equivalent to standing for your own.

Is there any idiom or phrase in English that conveys this point?

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    "Treat others the way you want to be treated", from religious books.
    – NVZ
    Commented Jul 29, 2016 at 3:04
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    In the same ballpark: 'Appeasement means hoping the crocodile eats you last' – Winston Churchill Commented Aug 2, 2016 at 22:04
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    Even closer: ‘All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing’ (owtte) - Edmund Burke. Commented Aug 2, 2016 at 22:07
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    The Indifference Of Good Men
    – Mazura
    Commented Aug 4, 2016 at 0:16
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    This reminds me of the Broken Windows Theory. Proponents of this theory believe that "maintaining and monitoring urban environments to prevent small crimes such as vandalism, public drinking, and toll-jumping helps to create an atmosphere of order and lawfulness, thereby preventing more serious crimes from happening".
    – MetaEd
    Commented Aug 5, 2016 at 17:42

12 Answers 12


I have done some research and here is what I have found.

The most popular similar phrase from a meaning point of view that used to be common in English usage (but is not any more) is a Latin phrase: -

"Proximus ardet Ucalegon"

It was popular in the English language from about 1643 (earliest reference I could find in popular usage) and was still popular in 1849. The notion that if you do not help a neighbour who has a house on fire, yours may well be next was also a popular notion as these excerpts from early American sources testify (reference: Early American Proverbs and Proverbial Phrases - here): -

"He that will not help to quench the Fire in his Neighbours House, may justly fear to lose his own." - Hubbard Indian, 1677.

"It is an old & wise caution that when our Neighbours house is on fire we ought to take care of our own." - Colden Letters, 1737.

"...a prudent man should lend his assitance to extinguish the flames which had invaded the house of his next door neighbour, and not coldly wait until the flame had reached his own." - Lee Letters, 1768.

"Yet when neighbors' houses are afire, our own is always in danger" - Jefferson Papers, 1791.

In fact the idea became so popular that it is referred to as a "common observation" in the (Lee Letters of 1768) already quoted.

The latin phrase I have mentioned above: -

"proximus ardet Ucalegon" I've managed to track down to Virgil's Aeneid, and the phrase translates literally to "Ucalegon burns next" (according to Virgil's account the house of Ucalegon, burned down when the city was sacked). The word Ucalegon is not in any modern dictionaries, but according to this source is listed in Webster's New International Dictionary (2nd ed., 1954) as follows: -

"Ucalegon … In Trojan legend, one of the ancient counselors who sat with Priam on the wall. Aeneas speaks of the flames reaching Ucalegon’s house, next to that of Anchises, before he fled from the city. Hence, a next-door neighbor, or a neighbor whose house is on fire..."

The same source I quoted above references an Essay by Thomas de Quincey which I've located here, and this attests to what is quoted in the reference above: that Quincey does actually refer to the phrase as "rather too trite," indicating it must have been very popular at the time.

So this was certainly a very popular phrase in 1849 when this essay was penned. You might note in the Winthrop Papers of 1643, (already referenced indirectly above) an extension of the phrase, "...proximus ardet" is used to describe the very idea you have related.


If you are looking for a modern day phrase here are a couple I have come up with...

"Preclude your demise, support your neighbour".

"Help your neighbour or suffer the consequences".

"To turn your back on your neighbour is to turn your back on good fortune".

"Woe betide he who fails to help his neighbour".

"Help your neighbour, help yourself".

These are my own inventions so hardly in popular usage but in the absence of any more popular 'modern' phrases that come close to conveying this meaning, I thought they might give you some ideas!

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    Thanks. Your answer is really useful. I really liked the phrase you came up with. My ultimate reason behind asking this question is to convey a point. I was just looking for least words needed to do that. Phrases are often the best way as they are so well known. The last part of your answer, where you came up with phrases, helps. Commented Aug 1, 2016 at 3:59
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    Great thanks for the feedback, and pleased the answer helped.
    – Gary
    Commented Aug 1, 2016 at 4:03
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    By the way I've just edited the first phrase I came up with, as I realised 'own' was superfluous on rereading it "preclude your own demise"... can be improved to simply "preclude your demise,..." if we are looking for a shorter phrase.
    – Gary
    Commented Aug 1, 2016 at 4:08
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    Thanks. Please address the response to me when you edit the answer. That will send me a notification that someone tagged me. Otherwise I may miss your edits. Commented Aug 1, 2016 at 4:12
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    I haven't donwvoted yours for the same reason, but suggesting an unusual saying nobody would understand or use is not really helpful. As for the "modern" versions, they are just as good as any others. –
    – user66974
    Commented Aug 1, 2016 at 5:30

"United we stand, divided we fall," so common it has its own Wikipedia entry.

Another flavor begins, "First they came...," attributed to Pastor Martin Niemöller (1892–1984) from his poem:

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out— Because I was not a Socialist.

Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out— Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out— Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.

Another famous quote on a similar vein from Benjamin Franklin is "We must, indeed, all hang together or, most assuredly, we shall all hang separately."

There are also expressions like "Stick together for safety," "there's safety in numbers," and others to convey the idea that we are stronger together (actually a current political campaign theme).

Another very succinct term for the example provided is neighborhood watch, "A program of systematic local vigilance by residents of a neighborhood to discourage crime, especially burglary." It has become a large program in the U.S., Neighborhood Watch.

  • This is a good answer but it is slightly away from what I am looking for. To explain - "United we stand.." is for encouraging people to come together before anything has happened. The robbery example implies that the disaster has already happened and even if now people don't come together, it will be too late. Please let me know if I did not do a good job explaining. Commented Jul 29, 2016 at 2:30
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    Got you. I will edit and add another, closer to what you seek.
    – KWinker
    Commented Jul 29, 2016 at 2:32
  • Your updated answer conveys the idea, but it is too verbose. Even more verbose than how I explained in my question. Looking for a shorter and sweeter answer. Commented Jul 29, 2016 at 3:10
  • Two words is about as short as it gets to convey the sentiment (neighborhood watch, added above), but it may not be recognizable outside the U.S. and may be too narrow for what you are seeking.
    – KWinker
    Commented Aug 1, 2016 at 2:06
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    @displayName: I believe Niemöller's poem is well-known enough that you could just say "First they came" (or maybe "First they came for the socialists" to be safe) and people would know exactly what you mean.
    – user1635
    Commented Aug 5, 2016 at 14:23

The following is a quote by JFK from civil rights announcement of 1963 that I find very powerful. I know its not an idiom or a phrase but I hope you find it inspiring for what you need:

The rights of every man are diminished when the rights of one man are threatened


Very useful question here. I think this has a very fatalistic connotation to it, but it does suit the general premise:

Join, or die.


"Join, or Die is a well-known political cartoon, created by Benjamin Franklin and first published in his Pennsylvania Gazette on May 9, 1754. It is a woodcut showing a snake cut into eighths, with each segment labeled with the initials of one of the American colonies or regions. New England was represented as one segment, rather than the four colonies it was at that time. Delaware was not listed separately as it was part of Pennsylvania. Georgia, however, was omitted completely. Thus, it has eight segments of snake rather than the traditional 13 colonies.[3] The two northernmost British American colonies at the time, Nova Scotia and Newfoundland, were not represented, nor were any British Caribbean possessions. The cartoon appeared along with Franklin's editorial about the "disunited state" of the colonies, and helped make his point about the importance of colonial unity."

The general idea is that if you don't join together with your community and fellow countrymen, you yourself run the risk of dying separately. Dying here is hyperbolic and metaphorical in nature, i.e. you won't necessarily die if you don't join together, but you will suffer more.

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    I think the problem with this answer is that 'join or die' is not an idiom or an enlglish phrase (to the extent that is popularly known) - as the OP asked, it is a political cartoon, so its meaning is unlikely to be recognised outside of fairly specific circles.
    – Gary
    Commented Aug 1, 2016 at 1:08
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    "Join or Die" continued into the Gadsen flag, which still has currency in US politics today. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gadsden_flag. +1
    – user662852
    Commented Aug 2, 2016 at 20:14
  • Bobby, my apologies for modifying my question so late, but will you please take a look at it again. Commented Aug 3, 2016 at 17:40
  • outside of fairly specific circles? american public education specific enough?
    – albert
    Commented Aug 8, 2016 at 20:09
  • @albert: "American public education" (by which I presume you refer to the U.S., rather than including Canada, Mexico etc) is not only a fairly specific circle, it's quite a small circle within the global English-speaking community. I'd hazard a guess that over 80% of the world's English speakers have never heard of the "Join or Die" cartoon. Commented Aug 11, 2016 at 6:59

A similar term in English is:

All for one, and one for all

This is a motto traditionally associated with the titular heroes of the novel The Three Musketeers written by Alexandre Dumas père, first published in 1844. It has been derived from the Latin phrase unus pro omnibus, omnes pro uno.


...[The phrase] came into widespread use in the 19th century. After autumn storms had caused widespread floods in the Swiss Alps in late September and early October 1868, officials launched an aid campaign under that slogan...

This phrase can be used in different contexts, but essentially means that all that stands up for another person right is equivalent to standing up for your own right and that of others.

  • I'm trying to explain "All for one and one for all" to a group (which is in majority) of people who are currently turning a blind eye to the oppression of a minority. Your answer is helpful but not intended for a group of people who are not ready to look for long term consequences over a short term gain they are enjoying now. I really want to be able to convey that by not standing for others, they are ensuring their own loss in future. Commented Aug 1, 2016 at 4:02
  • @displayName you could argue that the term all could refer to the majority of people which are standing up for the oppression of one - minority. Consequently when the minority get recognised (by the help of the majority) they may indeed start contributing back to majority or all of society. It's still relevant.
    – 3kstc
    Commented Aug 1, 2016 at 4:38
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    The issue is that the majority does not want to stand up for the oppressed. Majority is currently blinded in its comfort of being majority and by being silent its contributing to the oppression. What do one say to wake up this majority that's so misguided/asleep? Commented Aug 1, 2016 at 4:44
  • 3kstc, my apologies for modifying my question so late, but will you please take a look at it again. Commented Aug 3, 2016 at 17:40

If said in an upbeat way, this phrase:

in the same boat
: in the same unpleasant or difficult situation : affected by the same problem "We're all in the same boat".

All in the same boat
facing the same challenges and needing to work together - GoEnglish

  • agc, I have modified my question. Will you please take a look at it again. Commented Aug 3, 2016 at 17:41

Part of the meaning is conveyed by the phrase "You might be next", and with some context it will be understood that in suggesting this, you imply "Do something (while you can)". But of course this is less metaphorical and more of an injunction.


To me, the best answer could be:

"save others to save yourself"


"save others so that they save you".

An idiom has to be worded easily so that it cuts across the masses. The idioms suggested in the answer are just that.

  • This is another answer close to what I was looking for. Commented Aug 11, 2016 at 18:00

You scratch my back and I'll scratch yours suggests the idea of mutual help:

  • Fig. You do a favor for me and I'll do a favor for you.; If you do something for me that I cannot do for myself, I will do something for you that you cannot do for yourself. I'll grab the box on the top shelf if you will creep under the table and pick up my pen. You scratch my back, and I'll scratch yours.

McGraw-Hill Dictionary of American Idioms and Phrasal Verbs

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    I haven't DV, because I don't think OP will find a perfect fit, but this doesn't encapsulate the idea of equivalence I would say that was in the question, "Essentially, standing for other's rights is equivalent to standing for your own." Also "If you don't... the next turn is...your house." is an interesting feature of the question, and has an almost karmic connotation to it. I like the fact you have a causal link in your answer (A-->B) ; but it's different in nature, as in the question, the sense is you are punished for not acting, and in your answer, you receive a reward for acting.
    – Gary
    Commented Aug 1, 2016 at 1:14
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    @Gary - the question is about mutual help and implies the fact that if you don't help help anybody (your neighbour for instance) you can't expected to receive anything in return, (that is you can't expect they will watch your house while you are away ). It is a real and and common expression that people use and understand.
    – user66974
    Commented Aug 1, 2016 at 5:30
  • @Josh61: Just wanted to slightly correct your explanation - The situation is not that - if you don't help anybody you should not expect to receive anything in return. The situation is - By not speaking against the exploitation of your neighbor today, the exploiter has not been checked and tomorrow it may as well your turn to be exploited by the same exploiter in some other form. Commented Aug 2, 2016 at 19:18
  • @displayName - it is the same concept, just the other way round. Anyway no problem. Gook luck.
    – user66974
    Commented Aug 2, 2016 at 19:20
  • Josh61, my apologies for modifying my question so late, but will you please take a look at it again. Commented Aug 3, 2016 at 17:41

I don't know that there's going to be a single word that describes that exactly (although karma still comes strongly to mind). But it essentially sounds like a word that specifically portends bad fortune by way of negligence.

Some might call it:

they got what was coming
turnabout is fair play

Here's some alternates:

united/united front (we are united and fight for a common cause, united we stand, divided we fall)
solidarity (showing solidarity)
common purpose

An actual crime reference (that doesn't fit exactly), but not used so much in speech:

broken window theory

------------------------ Last Post Prior to Edit --------------------------

I like the comment referring to karma. In one word, people will know exactly what you mean.

If, on the off chance that in your language, there is some pleasure derived from your misfortune, then


could be used, which often includes the implied belief that you're not deriving pleasure because you're evil, but because that person 'had it coming', that somehow, maybe the misfortune tilted the world back towards good, etc.

For example, if someone is stealing a woman's purse, and as they are running away, they fall into a hole from which they can't escape and maybe got a little bruised up, you could say you felt a little schadenfreude at the thief's injury and predicament.

For your example, if there's also the implied belief that protecting your neighbor is an expectation, then there could be schadenfreude felt among the other neighbors when your house is not protected and thus robbed, after you have not helped protect theirs.

  • John, the slight case against using 'karma' is that people don't care about it. 'Karma' will be easily written off by the majority as self-righteous on part of the speaker. However, people do care about their own house getting robbed next. Robbing of his own house is likely to invoke more sense in a person than a 'karma' warning. Commented Aug 2, 2016 at 15:33
  • John, my apologies for modifying my question so late, but will you please take a look at it again. Commented Aug 3, 2016 at 17:40
  • @displayName, sure.
    – John
    Commented Aug 3, 2016 at 17:50

A bible quote, Matthew 25:40

And the King will say, 'I tell you the truth, when you did it to one of the least of these my brothers and sisters, you were doing it to me!

This is in the middle of the parable of the sheep and the goats, with Jesus declaring solidarity with the sick, poor, prisoners, etc. and exhorting his followers that if they care for the lowest people in the world, they are judged sheep and go to heaven. If they ignore the problems of the hungry, prisoners, and the like, they mistreated Jesus, are judged goats, and go to hell.

Its not perfect, the solidarity is declared by Jesus, and the listener judged, rather than convinced or shown to have solidarity themselves. But bible parables do permeate western culture and is the echo behind these quotes:

Mahatma Gandhi

A nation's greatness is measured by how it treats its weakest members.

Nelson Mandela

A Nation should not be judged by how it treats its highest citizens, but its lowest ones.

Full parable


Ubi concordia, ibi victoria. Where there is unity, there is strength.

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