Is It OK to Throw Someone Under the Bus?

People differ in their willingness to make sacrifices for the greater good.

Posted Oct 29, 2020

 fotografierende/Pexels
Source: fotografierende/Pexels

Imagine the following moral dilemma: You and a fellow pedestrian are standing on a footbridge that overlooks a narrow, winding road. To your right, five children have run into the road to fetch a ball. To your left, you can see a bus speeding towards them. Given the curve of the street, the bus driver is unlikely to see the kids in time to brake. If unstopped, the bus is bound to collide with them and will most likely kill all five! The terrible accident seems almost unavoidable. You can only see one way out. By pushing the fellow pedestrian—a particularly large and heavy person—off the bridge, you might be able to block the road, slow down the bus and ultimately save the children. The pedestrian is unlikely to survive, but at least the kids would live.

You have a split second to make a choice. What do you do?

The Trolley Problem

The above scenario is a variation of the so-called Trolley Problem, which involves an out-of-control train trolley rather than a bus. It’s a choice dilemma designed to investigate people’s moral decision making and entails a fiendishly tricky trade-off. The decision maker has to choose between (A) doing nothing and letting five people die, and (B) killing an innocent bystander to save the five lives. The dilemma boils down to one key question. May you harm one person in order to save several others? Or: How far are you prepared to go to achieve a greater good?

There is no obviously right solution to what might be considered a “lose-lose situation.” Either choice of action leads to the loss of at least one innocent life, and could even turn you into a murderer! When trying to make a decision, two different ethical approaches may provide guidance.

Deontologicalism: The deontological approach focuses on a person’s conduct while placing less emphasis on the outcome. It takes the view that certain actions are inherently right or wrong independent of their consequences. Examples of this approach may include religious commandments (e.g., “Thou shalt not murder”) and ethical principles such as the yogic concept of “ahimsa” or non-violence. When comparing the two possible actions in our bus dilemma irrespective of their outcomes, non-interference (Choice A) is clearly superior to killing an innocent bystander (Choice B). A supporter of the deontological approach should therefore adopt a passive stance in the dilemma.

Utilitarianism: The utilitarian approach favours the option with the best overall outcome while focusing less on the action necessary to get there. In extreme cases, supporters of this approach may justify any means for achieving a greater good. With Choice A resulting in five deaths and Choice B only resulting in one death, the second option of throwing an innocent person under the bus would therefore be the undebatable winner.

Why Should This Matter To Me?

The classic Trolley Problem is an interesting thought problem and has been the focus of much ethical and psychological research. It has also been featured in popular culture, including in the TV series The Good Place and Orange Is the New Black and the British thriller Eye in the Sky. However, you might—rightly—ask yourself why it should matter to you.

Throwing someone under a bus to save a group of children is an artificial and far-fetched scenario involving extreme cruelty and dire consequences. Luckily, most of us are unlikely to face such decisions on a regular basis! Nevertheless, variations of the basic dilemma underlie a surprising number of common decision situations.

  • Doctors might be forced to decide about the allocation of limited medical resources such as bed space or medication. For example, should they refuse to admit and treat a highly infectious (COVID-19) patient in order to protect the other patients in the ward?
  • Politicians often grapple with moral challenges at an even larger scale. For example, an international conflict might require tough choices about whether to deploy a national army and sacrifice the lives of soldiers and civilians in order to restore peace in a war-torn region abroad. How many soldiers can you send to their deaths in order to stabilise the region?
  • Finally, with self-driving cars soon to be introduced to our motorways, we all have to consider what decisions we want automated driving systems to take in situations of potential accidents. For example, should cars be programmed to run over unexpected pedestrians on the road if swerving had the potential to cause a mass road accident?

Cultural Differences in Moral Decision Making

Returning to the original question about throwing someone under the bus, it might be worth considering your own moral position. Cultural differences in moral reasoning are likely to influence people’s choices in the Trolley Problem. For instance, psychology researchers from the University of Leicester found striking differences between British and Chinese people. In their study, Chinese participants were much less willing to sacrifice one person to save five others compared to British participants. In a subsequent survey, many Chinese participants agreed that it was “best not to try to interfere with the natural course of events.” This attitude is commonly referred to as fatalism and describes a strong belief in destiny. It plays a key role in the tradition of Chinese Taoism, thus suggesting that their cultural background influenced Chinese participants’ choices in the moral dilemma they faced.

It is likely that your own reaction to the Trolley Problem is to some extent dictated by your culture. Different understandings of ethics and morality are a potential source of disagreement and conflict in a global world. What is your cultural upbringing and how might it influence your decisions in moral dilemmas?