The number of elderly people has significantly increased in China, and as a result, more are injured or become ill on the street. In the past, people would usually offer assistance. Nowadays, chances are nobody will offer help.  Even when people do, bystanders warn them to be careful and think twice before getting involved. The reason is that the elderly often accuse the helper for causing the injury in the first place, to get monetary compensation. Nobody wants to do good and then end up in court, so the only natural choice is to protect oneself and offer no help. Is this ethical?

Contributed by Xiaoer.

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About John Hooker

T. Jerome Holleran Professor of Business Ethics and Social Responsibility Tepper School of Business Carnegie Mellon University

5 responses »

  1. Russell says:

    I am having a hard time applying the generalization test on this dilemma. However, it is quite clear that helping troubled elders will maximize utility (albeit a very small number of cases where law suits ensue), and such act is definitely a demonstration of courage and honor.

    I too would like to apply John Rawls’s test of “The Veil of Ignorance”. Imagine if you don’t know whether or not you are an injured elderly person, or an healthy bystander/pedestrian, I believe the choice is very obvious.


  2. Umar says:

    Xiaoer & Russell,

    This is a great question. I read this and pondered it for a bit. Let’s see if we can use the generalization test on this one. So we are trying to decide whether it is unethical to NOT help someone because you are afraid of getting sued, correct? So let’s say that all people stop helping for fear of being sued. What happens?

    People get hurt and they know no one will help them. They lose the idea of wanting to profit off of the situation and decide they just want help. At this point, your original reason for not helping them does not exist anymore. So it does NOT pass the generalization test.

    At least that is my take…this is a very hard question to answer. There are a lot of interesting bits to this question. I would love to hear some other opinions on the matter. Thoughts anyone?


  3. Bret says:

    Wow. What a challenging dilemma, and correspondingly interesting analysis. Sharon, Russell, and Umar – I am really impressed by the different approaches you have taken in your thoughtful responses. I think another underlying issue here is identifying what is “intrinsically good” in this situation. Is it not true that health, or at least the absence of physical pain, is intrinsically good? If so, and indeed I believe it is, don’t we all deserve it (not just the young or the rich)? And taking this analysis to its logical conclusion, therefore mustn’t we all do what we reasonably can to prevent pain, or heal those who are in pain? Indeed, a logical analysis shows that “your” pain is just as undesirable as “my” pain. In this way, by actively not helping an injured person, one fails to pass the utilitarian test; that is, it is unethical to not help an injured person when helping them would create more utility.


  4. MS says:

    I agree with everyone’s responses so far. Personally, I find it hard to justify NOT helping the elderly.

    But if I may, I would like to play devil’s advocate for the purpose of argument. Let’s take a look at the first elderly person who decided to pull this scam and sue whoever came to their aid. Do you believe the elderly person was acting ethically? Do you believe the elderly person’s actions are generalizable? The answer to both questions is obviously not.

    Sure enough, people began to realize the risk if they choose to help a sick elderly person on the street. And now, the elderly are left alone when they experience symptoms of illness or pain. So is it ethical to leave an elderly person who MAY be in pain?

    I think it depends on the individual who has to make the decision to help or not to help. Each individual needs to decide for him/herself whether the elderly person has ulterior motives. If the elderly person has ulterior motives, not helping would pass all tests. However, if the elderly person does not have ulterior motives, then not helping would not pass any of the tests.

    If you believe the elderly person has ulterior motives, that is sufficient grounds upon which to refrain from offering your help (for obvious reasons). If you believe the elderly person is being honest and will NOT slap you with a lawsuit for offering your help, then I believe you should help out (again, for obvious ethical reasons).

    On these grounds, I would argue that the scam would may actually be deterred if no one helped the elderly. This is because the scammers would no longer feel that they can use this dirty trick to make money. Of course, this will result in a loss of utility for the elderly who are honest.

    Given the environment that has been created by dishonest elderly people, I think it would be best if all the elderly stayed home if they were at risk of suddenly falling sick when they are on the street or they ventured out with a trusted friend or family member. I know this doesn’t seem fair, but unfortunately, their dishonest counterparts have left them no choice.

    I am glad I have never had to face such a decision because I know I would find it very difficult to do nothing if I saw someone in pain, elderly or not.


  5. John Hooker says:

    I take the issue to be whether there is an obligation to help. That is, does failure to help violate one of the ethical tests?

    The utilitarian test is key here. It is most interesting when the net expected utility of giving assistance exceeds the expected disutility of being sued. This is the most likely situation if the probability of a lawsuit is rather small. Then if no one else is around to help, there is an obligation to lend a hand — unless helping is ungeneralizable, which seems very unlikely, because I can achieve my purpose of helping a stranger in need if others help strangers in need.

    If there are other people around, I can say, “If I don’t do it, someone else will.” This is usually an excuse for doing something questionable, but here it is an excuse for inaction. It is a good excuse if it’s really true, but only in the sense that it allows me to satisfy the *utilitarian* test by doing nothing. The consequences are basically the same whether I or someone else lends a hand.

    To be consistent, however, I must have some reason for exempting myself when I’m not prepared to exempt everyone else. Perhaps it is because I am less capable of giving help than most people. If I can reasonably believe that some more capable person will help if I don’t, then I pass the utilitarian test.

    To apply the generalization test, we can suppose my reason for inaction is the standard one, to avoid “getting involved.” It seems clear that I can avoid getting involved if no one else helps. So I pass this test.

    I nonetheless have an obligation to help unless I have a rationale for inaction that passes the utilitarian test just described.

    The most infamous case of inaction in the U.S. is the 1964 case of Kitty Genovese, who was brutally murdered in the streets of Queens, NY. Nearby residents allegedly failed to call the police as she screamed for help for several minutes. The Wikipedia article and other sources attempt to debunk this account (we would certainly like to believe it isn’t true). Supposing it’s basically accurate, these bystanders might have reasonably supposed that someone else would call. Yet some, at least, were sitting next to a telephone in their apartments. Their apparent rationale for not picking up the phone (they didn’t want to get involved) applied equally to anyone with a phone. Their inaction was therefore unethical.


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