Disability and Minimally Decent Samaritanism

This week, The Court of Appeal in the UK ruled that bus companies are not legally required to force parents with buggies to make way for wheelchair users in designated bays on vehicles. 

This ruling overturned a 2013 County Court judgement in favour of a Mr. Doug Paulley. Mr Paulley was awarded £5’500 damages after he was prevented from boarding a bus because a woman with a buggie had refused to move from the bay designated for wheelchairs and buggies on the bus, claiming that doing so would wake her sleeping baby. Since the bus company had a policy of requesting but not requiring that people vacate the disabled bay, the bus company was originally found to have been in breach of the Equality Act 2010. The BBC report suggests that Paulley’s lawyers are already planning to appeal to the Supreme Court in response to the overturning of this ruling.

I presume that most readers will believe that the mother in this case did not act in a morally admirable way. One way to frame our moral understanding of the case is in terms of the claim rights of disabled persons. On this framing, Mr Paulley’s case might be taken to suggest that a disabled person’s claim to using the space on the bus should be legally recognised as having greater weight than a parent’s claim to the use the same space. One might seek to justify this view by pointing out the importance of public transport for disabled members of society. As a disability rights activist claimed in response to the 2013 ruling in Paulley’s favour:

 For millions of disabled people looking to travel to work, the shops or hospital visits, public transport is our lifeline

However, it is not clear that the fact that Mr Paulley might plausibly be said to have a greater claim to using this space is really what is doing the work behind our moral intuitions. To see why, suppose that a bus only passes through an isolated village once a day. The inhabitants of the village are unable to afford their own vehicle and rely on the bus to get to work, work that enables them to feed their families. Now, suppose that a non-disabled passenger could board the bus if a woman folded up her pushchair and carried her baby, allowing the non-disabled traveller to stand next to her in the space designated for wheelchairs and buggies – it seems plausible to claim that again the mother would have a moral reason to vacate the space, even though the passenger is not disabled and thus does not have a claim to use the space. So, I suggest that what is doing the moral work here is the fact that the woman could enable the traveller to board the bus at very little cost to herself.

My own response to these cases is that the woman has an equally strong moral reason to vacate the space in both examples; what matters is that the passengers asking the woman to vacate the space in each case both have an equally strong interest in using it. On this interpretation, the fact that this interest is understood to ground a recognised claim right to the space on the bus in one case (but not the other) is not morally salient. Rather, on this interpretation, we can understand the morally relevant issue in Paulley’s case to be not so much an issue of disability rights per se, but rather a question of whether there should be laws requiring what, following Judith Jarvis Thomson,[1] we might term Minimally Decent Samaritanism.

To be a Minimally Decent Samaritan is to go out of one’s way to help another when one can do so at very little cost to oneself. A salient example of Minimally Decent Samaritanism in the practical ethics literature is Peter Singer’s famous example of a child drowning in a shallow pond – it seems that we have a moral obligation to save the child in this case if we can do so at very small cost to ourselves. There are also a number of real life cases that suggest that laws requiring Minimally Decent Samaritanism would be desirable, because people often fail to be minimally decent. On my interpretation, Mr Paulley’s case is one example; however, consider also the case of Grant Jesser. Grant Jesser had been badly beaten and was left to die on a street in an alleyway in Kalgoorlie, Australia. Two passers by stumbled across him; however, instead of calling the police or an ambulance, the passers-by stole Jesser’s phone and used to film themselves stealing Jesser’s wallet. The passers-by were later caught and charged only with theft, since they only broke the law in stealing from Jesser, and not in failing to call an ambulance.

Should Minimally Decent Samaritanism be legally enforceable? The above examples suggest that there is certainly a case to be made in its favour. However, there is also something morally lamentable about such laws. It hardly seems appropriate to term something an act of samaritanism if it is motivated only by a desire to avoid punishment; there is little virtue in doing what you must. Accordingly, whilst such laws might succeed in attaining certain morally desirable goals, it is not clear that they will go any way towards securing the morally desirable goal of promoting common decency to one’s fellow human beings.


[1] Judith Jarvis Thomson, “A Defense of Abortion,” Philosophy & Public Affairs 1, no. 1 (1971): 47–66.

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2 Responses to Disability and Minimally Decent Samaritanism

  • Owen Schaefer says:

    Hi Jonny,

    I’m not sure I agree with the Samaritan/rule-of-rescue interpretation of the right of those in wheelchairs to use the space. My understanding is that the justification for the right goes deeper than mere special need – it’s about equal access, especially access to public spaces/services (bus companies are quasi-public, I suppose). We have space for wheelchairs on busses so that one subgroup is not invidiously deprived of access to public transport in virtue of our social/physical arrangements. In your analogy, it could be argued that the needy families – in virtue of exclusivity of space – also have such a right of access, posing an interesting question when those rights conflict. But the actual case is not one of such a conflict. The woman with a baby would not, having given up her space, have lost access to the bus; rather, it would have upset her baby. By refusing to give up her seat, she denied Paulley access to the bus, a valuable social service; whereas Paulley, in requesting the woman give up the seat, would not have deprived the woman of such access. In such a case, it’s quite reasonable that Paulley’s right to access should trump the woman’s/baby’s interests in a more pleasant journey (though it would not be acceptable to kick the woman and baby off the bus to make room for Paulley, as such would deprive her of access to the bus in virtue of her parental status). And we should legally protect that right, just as other rules of access like wheelchair ramp requirements are legally enforceable (indeed, on an Aristotelian model, requiring the action may be a form of habituation that has good knock-on effects on ‘decency’ over time).

    That’s not to say I disagree with Lord Justice Lewison, who doubts the right to access always trumps *all* competing interests. Suppose one is using the bus in an emergency situation to evacuate someone who is severely injured. The injured person is being cared for in the wheelchair bay, and moving him would cause severe pain, and possibly worsen the injury. In such a case, it would be absurd to fine the bus company for refusing to force the injured party to move to make way for someone in a wheelchair. But regular cases are not so extreme, and when the stakes are much lower we should err on the side of the rights of those with disabilities.

  • Kerry Smallman says:

    I have always felt that people should close their pushchairs and put their belongings in the bag rack. That is how it used to be until they introduced disabled zones. It’s no big deal to collapse a buggy and carry a child.

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