The train morality problem

Exploring Theravāda's connections to other paths - what can we learn from other traditions, religions and philosophies?
Pārasamgate
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Re: The train morality problem

Post by Pārasamgate » Sun May 29, 2011 2:44 pm

This topic reminded me of an essay I recently read by Thanissaro Bhikkhu entitled, "Getting the Message": http://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/auth ... ssage.html

It is an essay on killing and whether it can ever be justified. I don't know what Venerable Thanissaro would say about this train morality problem, but he does emphatically say that killing can *never* be justified and backs it up with quotations from the canon.
"Even if bandits were to carve you up savagely, limb by limb, with a two-handled saw, he among you who let his heart get angered even at that would not be doing my bidding. Even then you should train yourselves: 'Our minds will be unaffected and we will say no evil words. We will remain sympathetic, with a mind of good will, and with no inner hate. We will keep pervading these people with an awareness imbued with good will and, beginning with them, we will keep pervading the all-encompassing world with an awareness imbued with good will — abundant, expansive, immeasurable, free from hostility, free from ill will.' That's how you should train yourselves."

— MN 21
In the essay he also relates a story that might be illuminating of what the Buddha would say about this train morality problem:
When one of his monks went to an executioner and told the man to kill his victims compassionately, with one blow, rather than torturing them, the Buddha expelled the monk from the Sangha, on the grounds that even the recommendation to kill compassionately is still a recommendation to kill — something he would never condone.
The essay does not reference the sutta of the story above. I wonder if anyone recognizes it and can reference the sutta? I'd like to read it.

Cheers!

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octathlon
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Re: The train morality problem

Post by octathlon » Sun May 29, 2011 3:42 pm

I think Buddhist philosophy allows a simple answer to this question. It's all about Intention. In ignorance and delusion we constantly cause suffering to ourselves and others. Not being omniscient, there's no way we can know exactly what effects any given action will have--that's why we follow the N8P to develop our morality, concentration and wisdom, and reduce the amount of suffering we cause.

The scenarios of the train and the killer are contrived and don't allow for tricks like pulling a lever halfway, or talking the killer out of out of it or just shooting him in the kneecap. It comes down to a math problem since the only variable is the number of people killed as a result of our choice. Basically what the scenarios are designed to do is show the difference in our emotional response to causing death directly (the killer) or indirectly (the train).

When we can look at it from a Buddhist perspective, it still works as a math problem, considering our best intention is to reduce suffering. With the train I would pull the lever to kill the least number of people and would be acting out of my best intention. Standing by and doing nothing out of fear of doing the wrong thing would be a less skillful action.

With the killer, again it would be a better intention to save the victims from death and their families from suffering pain and possibly developing hate and desiring revenge, as well as stopping the killer from suffering the kamma of killing them. Of course you would still cause suffering to the killer and those who care about him/her, but it would be less, like the one versus five in the train example.

Usually killing comes out of hate and anger, but in these scenarios you wouldn't be killing out of hate but of out of the intention to reduce the amount of suffering.

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reflection
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Re: The train morality problem

Post by reflection » Sun May 29, 2011 7:25 pm

I would argue and think about it until it was too late to flick the switch. :tongue:

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DNS
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Re: The train morality problem

Post by DNS » Sun May 29, 2011 7:29 pm

retrofuturist wrote: It starts to get more interesting when you move onto the gun-man who is about to kill 5 people.

You have the means to kill him, and by doing so, save the five.

Or do you not kill him, and let him kill the five.

Arguably, that's a much more difficult choice.
In one way, it may be an "easier" choice: the gun man is not an "innocent" therefore, killing him might be easier. Whereas in the above train problem with the switch, they are all "innocent".

Here is another variation, also difficult to answer:

As before, a trolley is hurtling down a track towards five people. You are on a bridge under which it will pass, and you can stop it by dropping a heavy weight in front of it. As it happens, there is a very fat man next to you - your only way to stop the trolley is to push him over the bridge and onto the track, killing him to save five. Should you proceed?

Image

According to some surveys (found by googling) most people will say flip the switch, but slightly fewer (but still a majority) will say to push the fat man. Interesting, when it is a "switch" most will say flip it, but when it involves "physically" pushing some guy onto the track, it is much harder to do.

Other arguments for pushing the fat man include "he might have had a short life anyway due to poor health"

David2
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Re: The train morality problem

Post by David2 » Sun May 29, 2011 7:47 pm

What we should remember is that situations where we have such choices are really rare.

I think most of us will never be in a situation like this where he could kill someone to save others (and at the same time be 100-% sure that he can save them by killing someone.)

So, one of those questions that should be put aside?

Maybe we should just focus on questions that are more relevant for our day-to-day or year-to-year life?

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daverupa
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Re: The train morality problem

Post by daverupa » Sun May 29, 2011 7:59 pm

Thanissaro mentions in Buddhist Monastic Code I that a bhikkhu does not incur a penalty if he makes no effort to save a drowning person, even if that person dies as a result. What does this tell us about the Vinaya's response to these dilemmas?

Reference - Page 80:
Inaction. Given the Vibhaṅga's definition of taking life, we can infer that inaction
does not fulfill the factor of effort here, for it does not cut off the life faculty. Thus if
a bhikkhu sits idly when seeing a flood sweep a person downstream, he commits no
offense — regardless of his feelings about the person's death — even if the person
then drowns. Recommending that another person sit idly as well would also not
fulfill the factor of effort here, because the category of command covers only the
act of inciting the listener to do any of the four actions that would fulfill the factor of
effort under this rule.
  • "And how is it, bhikkhus, that by protecting oneself one protects others? By the pursuit, development, and cultivation of the four establishments of mindfulness. It is in such a way that by protecting oneself one protects others.

    "And how is it, bhikkhus, that by protecting others one protects oneself? By patience, harmlessness, goodwill, and sympathy. It is in such a way that by protecting others one protects oneself.

- Sedaka Sutta [SN 47.19]

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mikenz66
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Re: The train morality problem

Post by mikenz66 » Sun May 29, 2011 8:47 pm

Interesting quote Dave,

The discussion of what "taking life" means is helpful.

However, the problem I see with using the monastic code (or lay precepts) as a basis for thinking about complex situations is that they are more about whether or not an offence has been incurred than "which option is better (in a kammic sense)".

Mike

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Alex123
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Re: The train morality problem

Post by Alex123 » Sun May 29, 2011 9:40 pm

Regarding OP,


If you are forced into this miserable situation and none of this is your own making, then if you flip the switch, you will be accomplice to that one person's death. If you do not flip the switch then the 5 people that die, died not because of something that you set up and did but what that magician did.

Either you do the bad kamma of choosing one person to die, or you don't make any bad kamma by not making anyone die.
"Life is a struggle. Life will throw curveballs at you, it will humble you, it will attempt to break you down. And just when you think things are starting to look up, life will smack you back down with ruthless indifference..."

Kenshou
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Re: The train morality problem

Post by Kenshou » Sun May 29, 2011 9:55 pm

In my mind, inaction is a choice too, so I wouldn't be able to feel blameless in doing nothing, even if it's ok by the monastic code. Luckily these kinds of situations pretty much never happen in real life, so I don't have to decide.

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Alex123
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Re: The train morality problem

Post by Alex123 » Sun May 29, 2011 11:06 pm

Kenshou wrote:In my mind, inaction is a choice too, so I wouldn't be able to feel blameless in doing nothing.
Inaction is inaction in making that one person die through pulling the switch and thus being involved and taking part in murder. Somewhere (in VsM ?) it talks about how breaking the barriers means that a person will not be able to make a choice which person would be killed by the robber.
"Life is a struggle. Life will throw curveballs at you, it will humble you, it will attempt to break you down. And just when you think things are starting to look up, life will smack you back down with ruthless indifference..."

lojong1
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Re: The train morality problem

Post by lojong1 » Mon May 30, 2011 3:19 am

An option I haven't seen yet:
Hey people on the track, here's the deal [...]. Any preferences real quick? Oh, you five want to live and single guy wants to save you five, thanks oodles.

alan
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Re: The train morality problem

Post by alan » Mon May 30, 2011 4:20 am

The OP is not a dilemma, because the answer is obvious.
A real dilemma involves making a choice between two unacceptable outcomes. For instance, what if that one person was your sister? Would you save her, and kill five other people you do not know?
There is no perfect answer, of course.
The point of asking a question that puts the listener into a dilemma is to force them to question their intentions. It's a useful device. It gets people thinking.

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pilgrim
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Re: The train morality problem

Post by pilgrim » Mon May 30, 2011 7:30 am

Form a Committee to debate the situation and then make a joint decision by secret voting.

By the way, is it true that in a firing squad, some participants would be given blanks so that they cannot be definitely certain of killing the target?

chownah
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Re: The train morality problem

Post by chownah » Mon May 30, 2011 2:30 pm

Flip a coin......blame the coin.....
chownah

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octathlon
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Re: The train morality problem

Post by octathlon » Mon May 30, 2011 4:31 pm

daverupa wrote:Thanissaro mentions in Buddhist Monastic Code I that a bhikkhu does not incur a penalty if he makes no effort to save a drowning person, even if that person dies as a result. What does this tell us about the Vinaya's response to these dilemmas?

Reference - Page 80:
Inaction. Given the Vibhaṅga's definition of taking life, we can infer that inaction
does not fulfill the factor of effort here, for it does not cut off the life faculty. Thus if
a bhikkhu sits idly when seeing a flood sweep a person downstream, he commits no
offense — regardless of his feelings about the person's death — even if the person
then drowns. Recommending that another person sit idly as well would also not
fulfill the factor of effort here, because the category of command covers only the
act of inciting the listener to do any of the four actions that would fulfill the factor of
effort under this rule.
That's very interesting. Maybe they don't wish to participate in the world at all. In that case, I guess their answer would be that no action would be required in any of the scenarios.

If I felt I was physically capable of rescuing the person, I wouldn't be able to sit idly by and watch them drown. At the least I would call for help. That's my view based on imagining myself in the other person's position and knowing I would wish to be helped.

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