Good samaritan behavior and failure-to-stop laws

You are driving to work when you come upon a two-car motor vehicle accident which has obviously just occurred. It appears that a number of people may be injured.

You have had a significant degree of medical training, but you are on your way to an important meeting and cannot afford to be late — it could cost you your job.

However, you do have time to stop at the next telephone and call for the police and ambulance. Is it your responsibility to risk your personal livelihood for people whom you do not know and to whom you have caused no harm?

Does the fact that you have some medical training place a burden on you over and above that of another person?

Should the fact that your state has a Good Samaritan law influence your decision to stop? Should the fact that your state has a failure-to-stop law (requiring certain persons, usually with medical training, to stop and render aid) influence you?

If the accident occurred in a particularly rough part of town, would you be justified in not intervening?


There are, it seems to me, five options.

Option 1: Stop and render needed assistance. Stop, render whatever assistance you can, and stay until your help is no longer needed.

Perhaps you will be able to leave when the ambulance arrives; perhaps, if there are many people injured and the ambulance crew requires additional assistance, you will need to stay with the injured until they are safely delivered to a hospital emergency room.

Option 2: Stop and render critical assistance. Stop, render whatever critical as­sistance you can safely administer — for example, control bleeding, relieve airway block­age, cover those in shock — and then leave, making sure to phone for help and report the nature of the injuries as soon as possible.

Option 3: Stop and survey. Stop, quickly survey the injuries, and then leave; call in the information at the nearest telephone.

Option 4: Notify police. Do not stop at the scene of the accident but go on to the nearest telephone and notify the police about the accident.

Option 5: Do nothing. Most of us believe that even if our state does not have Good Samaritan or failure-to-stop laws, it would be wrong simply to do nothing. Different people would reject option 5 on different grounds. Some would regard doing nothing as a failure to do what we are morally obliged to do. Others would see it as a different sort of moral failing, perhaps as a defect of character. Still others would see it as a failure to take seriously one’s role as a member of a community or, more generally, a failure to do what any decent person (with the relevant medical training) would do.

We may find it difficult to say just how much responsibility one has to assist the accident victims or just how claims about the responsibility to assist are best justified.

But these theoretical worries do not unseat the conviction that it would be wrong to do nothing. Though it may not be obvious just what a passerby in this case ought to do, it is obvious that you should do something.

What I shall argue is this: If we reject option 5 as unacceptable, we have grounds for rejecting options 3 and 4 as well.

If interest in our own concerns does not justify indifference to the plight of other people, there are circumstances in which the ac­knowledgment of other peoples’ needs requires us to take committed action on their behalf.

If we acknowledge some responsibility to render assistance, we should recognize that — other things being equal — we have a responsibility to render effective assistance. What you should do is stop and assist.


Three sorts of objections might plausibly be raised to the claim that what you should do is stop and assist.

Objection I: Stopping to Help the Accident Victims Is Not Really Beneficial to Them

It might be claimed that stopping to help the accident victims can be prejudicial to their interests: It may not benefit them, and indeed, it may result in more harm to them than in not stopping and, instead, phoning for an ambulance.

Even if you have had significant medical training, you may still lack the expertise that is needed to help victims of a serious accident: Emergency medicine is, after all, a highly sophis­ticated and specialized field.

If you stop to help, the arrival of experts who are presumably more medically skilled than you are may be delayed, and accident victims may thereby effectively be deprived of competent medical assistance.

Moreover, even if your “signif­icant” medical training includes some training in emergency medicine, you are likely to be less effective than a paramedical team would be, for you do not have access to the sophisticated lifesaving devices that are standard equipment on an ambulance.

If so, your stopping does not truly benefit the injured people, and it may even do them more harm than good.

What this suggests is that if we are concerned about the accident victims’ welfare, it would be better to adopt option 3 or 4 than 1 or 2.

This objection certainly has intuitive force. When we insist upon helping people ourselves, we sometimes make things worse rather than better.

A more cautious and seemingly less caring approach may well be better for the accident victims than a zealous one. A well-equipped ambulance crew can do more good than a passerby, even one with significant medical training, can do.

They can do something that makes it possible for a surgeon to reconnect a severed limb, for example, whereas all that you can probably do is prevent death from shock or blood loss.

If so, it is not clear that your help is — all things considered — beneficial to the injured person. Moreover, some people may actually die from their injuries because of the delay in summoning expert help.

Though the considerations raised in this objection do have some force, I do not think that they constitute good grounds for rejecting options 1 and 2. Still less do they provide support for option 4. There are injuries for which scant minutes may be critical that you can effectively treat even if your medical training is quite minimal (for example, serious arterial bleeding or airway blockage).

Indeed, these are injuries that you can treat more effectively than an ambulance team can, if only because it will take the ambulance team time to reach the scene of the accident.

The decision to go to a telephone to contact emergency services (and only then, if at all, return to the scene of the accident) can be one that results in the death of those who have sustained critical injuries.

Unless you at least stop to survey the injuries — adopting option 3 rather than option 4 — you cannot know what sorts of injuries the victims have sustained: whether they are the sort for which the time spent telephoning would be critical or the sort that only a properly equipped and trained paramedical team can deal with successfully.

Since victims of automobile accidents commonly sustain both sorts of injuries, you cannot know in advance which strategy will prove the more successful: whether more lives would be saved if you stop or if, instead, you drive on and telephone for help.

But this is not a reason to take option 4, since you cannot know that phoning for an ambulance will prove an effective strategy either: Problems with dispatch, an emergency elsewhere, or a terrible traffic jam may seriously delay the arrival of the ambulance.

It is surely reasonable to take advantage of the fact that you have greater medical expertise than an ordinary person does and that this expertise is immediately accessible, even if — as it turns out — the help that you can give is not optimal or even sufficient.

Stopping to help the accident victims is always as good a strategy as telephoning for an ambulance; sometimes it is clearly better.

Even if, upon stopping, you were to discover that there were no critical injuries that you could effectively treat and that there were grave injuries that required the attention of a well-equipped emergency medical team, this would not give you reason to suppose that you had made the wrong decision, for you may yet be able to do a great deal of good.

First, you may be able to offer informed advice to less medically sophisticated would-be samaritans at the scene of the accident.

Second, because of your medical training, you may be able to offer effective comfort and reassurance to confused and frightened accident victims.

Third, if the accident has occurred in a rough part of town, you may be able to protect accident victims who would otherwise be vulnerable to assault and robbery.

Finally, you will be in a better position to phone in useful information to the emergency services once you have surveyed the extent of the injuries.

Thus, since you cannot know in advance what the victims’ injuries will be, or what sort of other dangers they face, option 3 is preferable to option 4: It is better to stop and survey the injuries than merely to telephone.

However, if we reflect a bit, we will realize that option 3 is not an option that makes sense to set out to follow.

It is, rather, one that we settle on if we discover that we cannot effectively adopt option 1 or 2.

Only if there are no injuries that you can effectively treat, no toughs that you can effectively ward off, and no other would-be samaritans whom you can gainfully advise, should you leave after merely surveying the extent of the injuries.

Surely it would be wrong for you to survey the situation, discover that there were in fact serious injuries (or other pressing problems) that require im­mediate attention, and then leave.

If the well-being of the accident victims were the only relevant consideration, you would not be justified in not stopping. The first objection does not provide sound reasons for rejecting options 1 and 2 in favor of option 4 or even option 3.

Objection II: Stopping to Help the Accident Victims Would Result in Unnecessary or Excessive Harm to the Samaritan

It might be objected that expecting you to stop and stay to help the injured is expecting you to sacrifice your own interests.

Though it might be reasonable to ask you to endure some inconvenience to help others who badly need help, what is asked of you here is more. You run a serious risk of losing your job if you miss the important meeting; thus the harm to you may be substantial.

So may be the harm that you risk if you stop to help people in a rough neighborhood. (Though as we have seen, this cuts both ways: If the neighborhood toughs can harm you, think of what they can do to injured or helpless accident victims.)

Asking you to stop and help is thus asking you to run a significant risk and to endure serious hardship. It is not reasonable to require a mere passerby to do this.

This objection may seem more compelling than the first, for the accident victims’ welfare is not the only consideration that is morally relevant.

We can concede that you should be concerned about their welfare, and we can admit that you have some re­sponsibility to assist them, without agreeing that this concern is overriding.

Though many people think that we should be willing to forego benefits or to suffer some personal inconvenience to help other people in dire need, most people think that we are not obliged to place our physical or economic welfare in serious jeopardy.

(Not even the Good Samaritan did this when he stopped to aid the man fallen among thieves on the Jericho Road.)

If stopping to help the accident victims is likely to damage your interests significantly, it is reasonable to suppose that you are not required to stop.

The question of how much one person can be obliged to risk for others is one on which there is nothing like a clear consensus.

There is great diversity in normative opinion and great disagreement among moral and legal theorists about what sort of theory can best account for our normative views.

Are You Morally Obligated to Risk Your Life for Others? Three Views.

  1. No, it is above and beyond the call of duty.
  2. Yes, if you have adopted one of the following roles:
  3. You have voluntarily and explicitly undertaken the role of helper (e.g., lifeguards).
  4. You have voluntarily and implicitly undertaken the role of helper (e.g., parents).
  5. You have caused the victim to be in this predicament.
  6. Sometimes, depending on the magnitude of the harm to you relative to the magnitude of the harm prevented to others; for instance, help should be provided if a large number of people will incur serious harm if they are not helped, and the harm to the rescuer is not serious.

Some people believe that we can never be morally required to do something that places our lives in jeopardy.

Such conduct is perhaps heroic or saintly and thus (by definition?) supererogatory: above and beyond the call of duty. Similar things may be said about incurring the risk of serious harm to ourselves or damage to what we care most about.

Other people think that we can be obliged to incur significant risks to our well-being, and perhaps even to our very lives, but that this can only be true in restricted circumstances, for example, when we have voluntarily undertaken the obligation to help (explicitly or implicitly) or when we have played a causal role in the victims’ coming to be in their unfortunate predicament.

What parents owe their children, police officers the citizenry, professionals their clients or patients, and negligent people their victims is different from what we owe mere strangers to whom we do not have contractual, fiduciary, or affectionate ties.

Still other people hold the view that what we are obliged to do is to a significant degree determined by some principle of proportionality: Whether we are obliged to risk harm to ourselves depends to a great degree upon the size of the risk and the nature of the harm to us relative to the size and nature of the benefit (or prevented harm) to others.

If a number of people are likely to incur serious harm if we do not assist them, it is reasonable to expect us to risk or incur some harm to ourselves to assist them; if the harm to others is relatively trivial, it may not be reasonable to expect us to incur or risk any harm at all.

In suggesting that you ought to stop to help the accident victims, I may seem to be appealing to proportionality considerations and, indeed, advancing a particular inter­pretation of proportionality, one that is straightforwardly consequentialist.

On such an interpretation, what one ought to do is act to produce the best overall result, independent of the distribution of harms and benefits, and in particular, independent of the question of how great the harm is to oneself.

It may seem that I am espousing such a view, for I have implied that the accident victims’ serious injury or loss of life is likely to be objectively a greater harm (or a worse state of affairs) than the sort of harm that the passerby stands to incur — the loss of a job — and I have suggested that options 1 and 2 are the ones that are most defensible.

Though one could seek to support the claim that you ought to stop to render aid to the accident victims either by maintaining that you ought to act heroically or, perhaps only slightly less modestly, by holding that the straightforwardly consequentialist per­spective should be adopted, these are not the only available lines of defense.

We may think relevant not only the question of the proportionality between potential harm to the rescuer and potential benefits to the victims but also the question of what sort of harm to the rescuer is at stake, and what it is that would be needed to prevent this harm from coming about.

Some risks of harm derive from unalterable features of the rescuers or of their situations; for example, the would-be rescuer of a drowning child cannot swim, or the heat of a fire drives a would-be rescuer back from the flames.

Others stem from incidental features of the situation that cause problems in coordination; for example, one would-be rescuer’s car collides with another’s because both attempt to pull off the highway at the same time.

Still others come about because of the more remote effects of the rescuer’s actions; for example, someone misses the deadline for filing an important form, and thus incurs a stiff fine, because he or she stops to help.

Finally, other risks to the rescuer stem from the voluntary and intentional conduct of other people; for example, the employer decides to fire the rescuer for missing the important meeting.

Sources of Risk to the Rescuer.

  1. Unalterable feature of the situation (e.g., heat of flames).
  2. Incidental feature of the situation that causes problems in coordination (e.g., one rescuer’s car collides with another’s).
  3. Remote effect of rescuer’s actions (e.g., rescuer misses deadline because he or she stopped to help).
  4. Intentional conduct of others (e.g., rescuer’s employer decides to fire him or her).

What is the source of the harm to you if you stop to help the accident victims? It may well be largely of the last kind.

You run the risk of losing your job because your employer is likely to decide to fire you if you miss the important meeting. The bad consequences you face do not stem directly from features of the rescue situation itself or from the procedures involved in effecting the rescue.

Nor are they directly the result of your actions. Rather, they come about largely as a result of another person’s decisions. The harm to you may thus be largely avoidable, or at least mitigatable, by your employer.

Is it unreasonable for you to ask that your employer not fire you? Would your employer be acting wrongly if he or she fired you for failing to do your job?

Provided that your missing the meeting is not directly prejudicial to overridingly important interests of those affected — for example, you are not an essential member of a surgical team, nor are you scheduled to give testimony that is vital to the community’s interests — I think it plausible to claim that it is unreasonable, and perhaps straightforwardly wrong, for your employer to fire you.

Your missing the meeting does not cost lives. Nor, by hypothesis, does it jeopardize interests that are supposedly comparable to lives, though it is certain to cause inconvenience, and it may even produce harm. On the face of it, missing the meeting is the lesser of the two evils.

It is not just consequentialist reasoning of this sort that may be called upon to support the judgment that it would be wrong for your employer to fire you.

Moral views that focus on the quality of an agent’s acts and those that emphasize the importance of character also support the same judgment. Your choosing to help the accident victims — and thus to miss the meeting — does not show you to be unjust or to have a flawed character.

Moreover, stopping to help the accident victims is not an irresponsible or selfish action, nor does it show a lack of commitment to your job or a lack of respect for your employer.

The choice that you are faced with is not one that commonly arises: We do not often find ourselves confronted with a serious accident in which it is clear that our assistance may be critical; still less often are we likely to find ourselves in such circum­stances when we have an important commitment to be elsewhere.

In asking to be excused (rather than penalized) for missing the meeting, you are not asking for a purely personal privilege that you will request again and again.

Nor is your request a selfish one. If you had been involved in a road accident yourself, or if you simply were very ill, your employer would presumably at least consider excusing your absence.

It is not more selfish or more unreasonable to ask that the same consideration be granted in the current cir­cumstances. Nor could such a request reasonably be regarded as showing a lack of commitment to your job.

For you to admit that you value some things other than your job (and some things more than your job) is not an objectionable failure of commitment.

Your employer would be unlikely to think that your missing the meeting to attend to a serious domestic crisis — for example, a flood or a fire at your house — demonstrated a lack of commitment to your job, so why should he or she fault your conduct in the present circumstances?

If your employer cannot plausibly criticize your missing the meeting as selfish or irresponsible, what grounds could he or she have for firing you?

Perhaps what your employer objects to is your ordering of values, your determination of priorities; perhaps what he or she thinks is that — at least some of the time — the proper conduct of one’s job is more important than the concern to save lives or prevent serious injury.

Many people would find this a doubtful view, but I shall not directly address the question of whether this ordering of values is (ever) defensible.

For even if it is, it is not clear that the imagined difference in views between you and your employer would justify the decision to fire you for missing the meeting.

Even if your employer holds the view that the proper conduct of your job is sometimes morally more important than the concern to save lives or mitigate serious injury, and do so on the basis of what at least appears to be defensible reasoning, there is still reason to maintain that it would be wrong to fire you.

To say this is not to suggest that it is always incumbent on employers to respect employees’ values (in the sense of never firing employees whose reason for neglecting their duties is that their moral views require that).

But the case under consideration is one in which it would be wrong for an employer not to respect the rescuer’s values. There are several reasons why this is so.

First, as we have seen, your missing the meeting to help the accident victims is not a failure to respect your employer; rather, firing you for doing so would show a failure of respect for you.

We do not surrender our autonomy as rational moral agents when we become employees of a corporation or institution.

We cannot defend a decision to do something that we believe to be wrong on the ground that we are employees of Vast Corporate Holdings, Inc., and are thus obligated to adopt the “house” values, whatever they are.

If you believe that it would not be right simply to pass the accident victims by, the fact that your employer would disagree should not in itself cause you to reverse your judgment.

For your employer to insist that his or her values must in every detail and respect be yours (on pain of dismissal) would not only be intolerant but would also be profoundly dis­respectful of you as an autonomous moral agent. Though you are an employee, that is not all that you are.

Second, the value at issue is one that should be respected. Whether it is best characterized as benefiting people, mitigating harm, or relieving suffering, it is not a value that is to be counted as deviant or extreme.

Though different moral perspectives assign this value different weight, any plausible moral view will recognize it as important.

Asking that your employer respect your acting on this value is, at least in this case, making a reasonable request, and one that ought to be granted.

Finally, we may wonder about the sincerity and authenticity of the rescuer’s employer’s claims. Would your employer fault your decision to help the accident victims if he or she or members of his or her family were among the injured?

If, as one expects, the answer would be no, this raises a number of important questions. It is doubtful that the view that the rescuer is at fault for helping the accident victims if they are strangers but not if they are members of the employer’s family can be rendered coherent.

If your employer continues to insist that you would be acting wrongly in stopping to help accident victims who (as it turned out) were members of his or her family, your employer must concede that it is sometimes permissible (or at least excusable) for people to do the wrong thing.

This would undercut the plausibility of the claim that it is defensible to fire you for doing the wrong thing in this case.

Does your employer think that it is all right for someone to do the wrong thing when (as it turns out) it benefits him or her but not when it benefits others?

Such a view seems neither defensible nor coherent. You cannot know who the injured are until you have stopped to survey the extent of the injuries.

And it would hardly be right for you to stop to determine the identity of the victims and leave their injuries unattended simply because they are strangers.

More­over, it would be arbitrary in the worst sense for the moral assessment of someone’s conduct to turn entirely on the question of to whom the victims happened to be related.

If you think that you ought to do something to help the accident victims, you should not be dissuaded from doing more rather than less by the considerations raised in the second objection.

Indeed, I believe that reflection on that objection and the reply to it suggests an argument for the implementation of Good Samaritan laws.

If it would be good, or even right, for the passerby to stop to help the accident victims, and bad, or even wrong, for him or her to suffer preventable harm from loss of employment for doing so, this is a reason to advocate legislation that would make it difficult for an employer to fire people who do such things as miss important meetings when they do so in the course of rendering aid to those who need it.

Whether or not we support legislation that would penalize people for not stopping in such cases (failure-to-stop laws), we ought to support laws that would protect those who want to help from suffering avoidable bad consequences for doing so.

Good Samaritans should not be victims of their own good conduct.

Objection III: Stopping to Help the Accident Victims Benefits Them at the Cost of Compromising the Interests of Other People, at Least Some of Whom Have Strong Claims Not to Have Their Interests so Compromised

It might be claimed that the decision to help the accident victims is one that may benefit them at the cost of harming others and, indeed, do so in a way that is unfair.

It, after all, harms people to whom you have a clear obligation — your employer, your colleagues, and those who stand to be affected by the outcome of the meeting — in favor of benefiting strangers to whom you have a less clear obligation and perhaps none at all.

In addition, if missing the meeting results in your losing your means of livelihood, and you have dependents, the scope of the harm, and of the unfairness, may be wider still.

Thus, since your obligations to employer, colleagues, clients, patients, and de­pendents are stronger than your obligations to strangers (whose unhappy plight you have not caused), it would be wrong for you to jeopardize their interests to help the accident victims.

Again, there seems to be more reason for you to adopt option 3 or 4 than to adopt option 1 or 2.

The precise import of this objection depends to a large extent upon how the unspecified details of the case are filled in.

It will have greater impact if the rescuer’s decision to help the accident victims (rather than attend the meeting) affects many people for the worse, or if the projected bad effects on these others are ones that cannot easily be mitigated by peoples’ decisions (for example, if whether or not you lose your job is not up to your employers or if your prospects of finding a new job cannot easily be improved by the good will or assistance of others.)

Similarly, much may depend on what the scheduled business of the meeting is: It makes a difference whether it is a routine meeting of the board or a matter of national security; a seminar on how to perform thoracic surgery on young children or a scheduled lifesaving operation.

Never­theless, I believe that the sketch of a reply to the third objection can be constructed by drawing upon the replies to the first and second objections.

Reflection on the second objection led to consideration of the source of the bad effects on you of stopping to help the accident victims and whether the bad consequences to you stem mostly from the voluntary and intentional actions of your employer (the decision to fire you for missing the important meeting).

I have argued that it would often be wrong for your employer to make such a decision.

Insofar as your employer is reasonable, it ought to be possible for you to dissuade him or her from firing you (and insofar as they are not, you should be willing to consider seriously whether it is right to remain employed by an institution that requires that you do what you think is wrong).

If you can dissuade your employer from doing the wrong thing — firing you — you can hope to eliminate the bad effects that would accrue to your dependents.

If, after weighing the bad effects on others — clients, colleagues, patients, and constituents — who stand to be affected by your missing the meeting, you are still unsure about whether you ought to stop at the scene of the accident to help the injured, you presumably believe that the bad effects your conduct has on your colleagues and others may be outweighed in some important sense by the saving of lives or the mitigation of serious injury.

If, on consideration, you believe that you ought to stop to help the accident victims, it should be possible for you to explain your choice to those who are affected by your action.

If abstract appeals to the obligation to relieve suffering do not provide them with the needed understanding, perhaps they can be brought to understand why your conduct is right by considering whether they would think you had done the wrong thing if their loved ones had been among the injured whom you stopped to help.


This case requires more discussion than I have undertaken here. A number of issues have not been addressed.

First, it is important to recognize that there may be circumstances in which the three objections taken together (and perhaps supplemented by other considerations) will be very powerful, and yield a conclusion other than the one that I have been urging.

The case under consideration is schematic; a different understanding of the facts of the case might well yield a different understanding of what one should do if confronted with it. Second, it may be clear enough that someone should help but less clear about who it should be.

There may be other, and perhaps better, candidates who can reasonably be expected to take on the burden of samaritanism (if, for example, the accident occurs at high noon on a main road leading to a hospital).

Third, it may be clear enough that the passerby should do something but less clear just what it is that he or she should do. I have not considered whether it is option 1 or option 2 that should be adopted (in the case as it was interpreted).

What I have done is sketch one line of argument in support of the view that people ought to stop and do what they can to help, and consider a first line of objections. On the face of it, at least, the case for good samaritanism is a very strong one.