A Matter of Life and Death

Thinking things through

Philosophy for Juniors

Humfry Hippo
Thoughtful Tales for Little Ones


Selfishness and Guilt




Philosophy for Seniors

A Matter of Life and Death

Human Needs

Brake Failure on a Matatu

Recently a matatu driver was put in an impossible position.

While returning empty, after dropping off passengers, the brakes failed on the vehicle while driving, at high speed, downhill towards a trading centre on Kampala Road.

Being quick thinking, it was obvious there were two choices:

Option 1

Immediately ahead there was a large funeral procession with over 200, mainly elderly, people in the road. By keeping straight, many mourners would be killed, but there was a reasonable chance that the driver would survive with injuries.

Option 2

To the immediate right there was a small rise, with a drive to a house with a young family sitting outside. Steered that way, the family would be killed, and the driver would be injured when the vehicle hit the house.

The Decision

A split-second choice must be made.

What would you do? How would you justify your decision?

Note for Teachers and Group Leaders

The example above is based upon one of the well-known problems in philosophy. How can we make a choice between two unacceptable options? In each of the situations above, people are going to be killed and the driver’s injuries are unknowable.

Most of us have been brought up to believe that “killing is wrong”.
But, in this case, the driver cannot avoid somebody dying.

Possible lines of reasoning:

  1. Is it better to kill fewer people than more? One line of discussion would be to consider whether, in a case like this, you should go for the option that kills fewer people. This would mean choosing Option 2, where the driver avoids the large funeral procession, which would have killed many, and kills the family, who are fewer in number.

  2. Is it better to save the young rather than the old? Some might argue that the old people at the funeral have already lived their lives, whereas the young family have many years of life in front of them. They could make a big contribution to the community. In this case, the driver would choose option 1 and hit the funeral procession.

  3. Should more important people be saved? If the funeral taking place was that of an important person in the community, then the mourners might have included important elders, community leaders and local politicians. Should these important people be saved rather than an ordinary family? 

Kinship Ties

To complicate matters further, do you think the driver might make a different decision if the young family were his own relatives?

Would you make more effort to save people closely related to you than strangers?

Once these options have been discussed, you might want to consider a third option:

Option 3

On the left of the road, there is a steep embankment, with a deep river below it. If the driver turned sharply left, the vehicle would roll down the embankment and the vehicle would end up at the bottom of the deep river. It would lead to the certain death of the driver but nobody else would be killed. Those at the funeral and the young family would be saved.

Should the driver’s life be sacrificed for the sake of others?

In what circumstances might you sacrifice your own life for others?

  • Would you risk it fighting an intruder who was attacking your home and family?
  • If you were a soldier in war, would you risk your life to save your comrades.
  • Would you ever risk your life to save an animal, other than a human one?

Note: Rangers in the National Parks sometimes put their lives at risk to protect animals from poachers. Each year, Rangers in Virunga National Park in the Congo are killed by poachers trying to capture or kill gorillas.

Being prepared…

It is very difficult to know how we would react in situations like these above. We don’t have long to decide what to do. It does help, however, if we have spent time beforehand thinking about how we might react in such circumstances – and about what personal feelings and values will guide us.

Supplementary Question for the group:

Was the driver of the matatu a man or a woman?

Then ask them: How do you know?

In the passage above it does not tell us whether the driver was a man or a woman. However, it is likely that the group will assume it is a man, because most drivers are.

This would be an opportunity to talk about gender stereotyping. While most drivers are men, it is clear that a matatu could be driven just as well by a woman as a man.

In this modern world, it is surely important not to unfairly discriminate when jobs are being offered. They should be open to all, irrespective of their sex, age, nationality or race. The test should be whether the particular individual is capable of doing the job.

We must all take care not to make unwarranted assumptions.

We should not read more into a story than is there!

A Morality Tale

In a country a long way from here, an aeroplane was suffering from engine trouble. There were 4 people on the plane and only 3 parachutes to save them when they jumped from the plane.

The pilot had his own parachute and immediately jumped out of the plane to save himself.

The second person was The President of the country, who said, “I am such an important and intelligent person, and my people need me, so I must have one of the two parachutes.”

Without any discussion: The President grabbed the first parachute and jumped out of the plane to save himself.

He left behind on the plane a schoolchild and the schoolchild’s teacherA close up of a logo

Description automatically generated, with just one parachute between them.

The teacher, who was very kind, said to the schoolchild; “You have the rest of your life in front of you; I would like you to take the last parachute and I will stay behind on the plane.” (and risk almost certain death!)

At this point, the schoolchild says: “But teacher, when the very important and intelligent President jumped out of the plane, he took my school bag, instead of a parachute.”

“He has left us the last two parachutes, so we can both jump from the plane and be saved.”

The Moral of this Story: Selfishness does not always pay!

The hard thing is not making a decision, it is thinking about the results of what you have decided.


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