Utilitarianism and Pushing a Fat Man off a Bridge

Imagine a train travelling towards a bridge, where, underneath there are 5 distracted workers working on the tracks. It is inevitable (for this research experiment’s sake) that the 5 people will get hit by the train and die. You notice a switch that means you can shift the track and get the train to miss the five workers, saving all their lives. However on the other track there is one distracted worker who will inevitably be killed due to your action of changing the switch controlling the path the train will take. Would you pull the switch?

In a similar scenario, there is a large man stood on the bridge above the tracks. It is certain that the train is going to kill the five workers. The only way to save the workers is for you to push the fat man off of the bridge and on to the tracks. The train would hit him and he will die. Would you push the fat man off the bridge to save five lives? Please share your thoughts using the comment option below (The Conversation, n.d.).

Consequentialism is an idea that says that actions can be good or bad depending on their results. The most well known version of consequentialism theory is Utilitarianism. Actions that produce more benefit than harm are considered good actions while actions that cause more harm than benefit are considered unethical (Ethics.org.au, n.d.).

To explain how you decided upon the workers and fat mans demise, you can look at the difference between our logical, rational minds and our emotional reasoning. If you decided to divert the train by using the switch you are using logic and rational to arrive at your conclusion. You intended to save a larger number of lives, creating more utility.

People, in the main, decide not to push the fat man off the bridge. This is due to the emotional reasoning that was present in your decision making process, when thinking about actually killing somebody to save five lives. Wouldn’t it be nice if this ‘emotional reasoning’ could have as significant influence on those who decide to stigmatise people with mental health difficulties.

Jeremy Bentham was born in England on 15th February 1748. When he was 12 he was sent by his father to Queen’s College, Oxford, where he spent three years completing his bachelor degree. Then at the age of 15 he went to law school. He was admitted to the Bar at age 19. Bentham chose, however never to practice law, instead devoting his life to jury proven and moral philosophy. Often considered as a social reformer he is mainly know for being the founder of modern day Utilitarianism (En.wikipedia.org, n.d.). Bentham’s work in utilitarianism suggests he’s a strong advocate for pushing the fat guy and activating the switch. Indeed Benson’s theory of utilitarianism is described as the highest form of morality is derived from:

“maximising the general wealth, or the collective happiness, or the overall balance of pleasure over pain, or in a phrase maximising utility” (YouTube, 2009).

Bentham described the way we are governed as human beings through something he termed as the ‘Line of Reasoning’. He explains the drivers to this government as being pleasure and pain. He argues that these emotions are:

“sovereign masters so our moral system has to take into account of them. How best to take account? By maximising. This leads to the principle of the greatest good for the greatest number.” (YouTube, 2009)

Bentham’s championing of Utilitarianism is not without faults, however. Cost Benefit Analysis (CBA) is used by companies and governments all the time. In a nut shell CBA is a method of placing a value on the costs and benefits of a proposal. There was an interesting Case Study involving Phillip Morris, the tobacco company in the Czech Republic. Their CBA found that the Czech Government benefited from letting citizens smoke. Indeed there are some negative impacts such as increased health care cost due to smoking related diseases. On the other hand however there were positive effects, such as tax revenues the government received from smokers, health care benefits to the government when people die early, pension savings – you don’t have to pay pensions for as long and finally, savings in housing costs for the elderly. When all the costs and benefits were added up the Phillip Morris Study found that there is a net public finance gain for letting people in the Czech Republic to smoke was $147 million. Savings from premature deaths due to smoking per person in the Czech Republic added up to a whopping $1227 per person. Benson’s defence of Utilitarian Philosophy suddenly seems less appealing, as here the utility to the Czech Government and Phillip Morris places no value on life. They fail to consider the utility of the families and friends, let alone the patients who die from smoking related diseases. Some people may view this a floor in capitalism’s catalyst of greed (YouTube, 2009).

You have to look at the work of Immanuel Kant, who heavily criticised Utilitarianism, to get a more balanced view of this important philosophical theory. Kant was born in Germany on 22nd Aplril 1724 (En.wikipedia.org, n.d.). He had a very religious and strict family upbringing. However, he lived his life without any strong religious beliefs of his own. Kant believed we as humans are highly prone to corruption. The Categorical Imperative, defined as ‘act only according to that maxim by which you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law’ suggested like the Bible, ‘Do unto others as you would have them do to you’. Kant advocated liberty in government. 

“His idea of liberty would be, however, no freedom to do whatever you choose, but free to act only when in accordance with our own best natures.” (YouTube, 2015)

Kant said that when we are slaves when we act under the rule of our own passions or those of others. He argued that a free world is one the helps everybody become more reasonable.

In conclusion, I would say that our job as people who wish to put stigma to shame, if we consider ourselves as Utilitarian, is to encourage people to react more from their emotional reasoning brain. Encourage people to not push the fat man off the bridge. The Phillip Morris Study was proof of Kant’s philosophy that humans are highly prone to corruption. If you chose to push the fat man off the bridge then look at the Categorical Imperative and see if you can benefit from the idea of treating people as how you would like to be treated yourself. Some people gain utility/happiness from criticising and stigmatising others. This utility is only temporary, however. The Utility gained from doing good makes far more of a lasting impact. In my view Kant had it spot on. Leave the fat man be.

“Hate, it has caused a lot of problems in the world, but has not solved one yet.” – Maya Angelou


The Conversation. (n.d.). The trolley dilemma: would you kill one person to save five?. [online] Available at: https://theconversation.com/the-trolley-dilemma-would-you-kill-one-person-to-save-five-57111 [Accessed 21 Feb. 2019].

En.wikipedia.org. (n.d.). Jeremy Bentham. [online] Available at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jeremy_Bentham [Accessed 21 Feb. 2019].

En.wikipedia.org. (n.d.). Immanuel Kant. [online] Available at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Immanuel_Kant [Accessed 23 Feb. 2019].

Ethics.org.au. (n.d.). Ethics Explainer – Consequentialism. [online] Available at: http://www.ethics.org.au/on-ethics/blog/february-2016/ethics-explainer-consequentialism [Accessed 21 Feb. 2019].

YouTube. (2009). Justice: What’s The Right Thing To Do? Episode 02: “PUTTING A PRICE TAG ON LIFE”. [online] Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0O2Rq4HJBxw [Accessed 21 Feb. 2019].

YouTube. (2015). PHILOSOPHY: Immanuel Kant. [online] Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nsgAsw4XGvU [Accessed 23 Feb. 2019].

1 thought on “Utilitarianism and Pushing a Fat Man off a Bridge

  1. How interesting. If I am honnest I could not go either. Who am I to decide who lives or dies? And I surely could not push anyone onto the tracks as that would just made me a murderer and I have no wish to be one of these!
    In an ideal world I would like to save them all but this is not an ideal world and maybe these people are meant to die and the single or fat person survive and so let destiny take its course without interfering. But then I would have to live with the fact that I could have saved people and didn’t. I really don’t know but one thing I know it’s that I am a very emotional person and so I struggle with these types of problems and cannot apply logic either. I’d like to be superwoman , trow myself in front of the train and apply my powers to stop it before it reaches anyone!

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