The train morality problem

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

Post by Modus.Ponens » Fri Oct 07, 2011 5:44 pm

"He turns his mind away from those phenomena and, having done so, inclines his mind to the property of deathlessness: 'This is peace, this is exquisite — the resolution of all fabrications; the relinquishment of all acquisitions; the ending of craving; dispassion; cessation; Unbinding.' " - Jhana Sutta

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Re: The train morality problem

Post by daverupa » Fri Oct 07, 2011 6:27 pm

We report a study in which participants responded to a battery of personality assessments and a set of dilemmas that pit utilitarian and non-utilitarian options against each other. Participants who indicated greater endorsement of utilitarian solutions had higher scores on measures of Psychopathy, machiavellianism, and life meaninglessness. These results question the widely-used methods by which lay moral judgments are evaluated, as these approaches lead to the counterintuitive conclusion that those individuals who are least prone to moral errors also possess a set of psychological characteristics that many would consider prototypically immoral.
Our study illustrates that the widely adopted use of sacrificial dilemmas in the study of moral judgment fails to distinguish between people who are motivated to endorse utilitarian moral choices because of underlying emotional deficits (such as those captured by our measures of psychopathy
and Machiavellianism) and those who endorse it out of genuine concern for the welfare of others and a considered belief that utilitarianism is the optimal way of achieving the goals of morality.

A fascinating line of inquiry into ethical reasoning, for those so inclined; the dilemmas used in the study involved variants of the train morality problem.
  • "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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Re: The train morality problem

Post by namaste » Sat Oct 08, 2011 6:45 am

Joining this discussion a little late. Back to the killer issue, presented near the beginning. This is a question that would likely bring a different response, depending on who the respondent is: Theravadan or Mahayana. In Mahayana, one can break a precept if doing so would result in a higher good. Someone presented the boatman story, in which the Buddha kills a murderous captain in order to save the passengers. He willingly took on the karmic consequences of taking a life in favor of saving many lives. There are, in fact, secondary bodhisattva vows that require the bodhisattva to break a precept, even to kill, if such an act would benefit a greater number of beings than would be harmed by the act. Even the Dalai Lama has said that if he encountered Hitler, he would have killed him.

Now, making the precepts relative like that can be a slippery slope. It assumes that conscientious Buddhists would carefully consider their motivation for making the choice to break the precept. This may be optimistic, that's open for debate.

On a more realistic level, one could debate whether killing Hitler would have changed anything. There was certainly no shortage of racist fanatics to take his place. This makes a good argument in favor of doing nothing, and sticking with the precepts. Whenever we're faced with a moral dilemma, there's always the possibility that the situation is not as simple as we perceive it to be, and that there could be unforeseen consequences to our decision, if breaking a precept is involved.

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Re: The train morality problem

Post by befriend » Sat Oct 08, 2011 11:09 am

NEGLIGENCE. NEGLIGENCE also creates bad karma. if i see a woman choking on a chicken bone and i walk right by her without calling out for a doctor or giving her asstistance, that would be bad karma and also creepy. how is it possible to know the virtue of the strangers who are about to die, thats not part of the question. obviously if the one person was a buddha and the other were criminals we would run over the 5 people. but this is not the case, there are 5 strangers, on one side, and one stranger on the other. the concept of its your fault because you flipped the switch should not even be on the table, the real question is, what is wholesome. having 5 people die or having one person die. obviously its better if one person dies instead of 5.
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Re: The train morality problem

Post by befriend » Sat Oct 08, 2011 11:15 am

the whole point of the precepts are to protect your mind from evil. its not the precepts per say that are followed but the SPIRIT of harmlessness which is the essence of the precepts that is followed. buddha lied to a hunter who said which way did the rabbit go, buddha saw which way the rabbit went, but said, i dont know, then he offered the hunter take his arm, and have it for supper, to make sure the hunter would have zero change of catching the rabbit. buddha killed himself as a bodhisattva in a past life by feeding himself to a starving tiger. did he break the precept for killing then? its this otherworldly heart that buddha had that MADE him a buddha, buddha doesnt care about himself or what other people think or about ettiquite he does what is harmless he doesnt follow rules because just because they say so.
Take care of mindfulness and mindfulness will take care of you.

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Re: The train morality problem

Post by chownah » Sat Oct 08, 2011 1:14 pm

An evil person has a two barreled gun with one barrel aimed to kill you and one barrel aimed to kill that evil person....the gun has a switch....if the switch is not activated you will die, if you activate it the evil person will die....while he is explaining how this works and laughing like a mad man (hahahhahahhahaaaahahahha) he tells you that he is a genius and has a nack for finding devout buddhists on the internet and kidnapping them and putting them into the situation that you are in now....he says that he is truely enlightened and so he can always pick buddhists who will choose inaction and thus they die while he lives on to perform the deed over and over are the tenth person to die this year.....and he is looking forward to doing more....
So, what do you do...or should I say don't do?

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Re: The train morality problem

Post by Brivat » Sat Oct 08, 2011 7:19 pm

Last edited by Brivat on Sat Apr 14, 2012 2:21 pm, edited 1 time in total.

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Re: The train morality problem

Post by cooran » Sat Oct 08, 2011 7:57 pm

Hello all,
Brivat said: as far as I can see the dilemma arises with the assumption that something has to be done, i.e. that activity (of this or that kind) is required in order to be a "virtuous person". I regard this as wrong. There is no obligation to do anything at all in order to be moral - or there would be no way out of samsara/dukkha. It's all about abstention, restraint and letting go. The first precept is not about saving life, it's about being harmless. To save lives is certainly a very meritorious thing, but not saving lives (even if one could) is not killing nor does it have any consequences apart from "having missed a chance" (which, in some cases, might be a "grave consequence" in itself). Whenever saving lives and harmlessness come into conflict (like in the above "dilemma"), one should stick to harmlessness if one wants to stay on the Buddha's path. That's how I see it.

So what would I do? I would not flipping the switch. Perhaps I would somehow try to stop the trolley or to free as much persons as I could - but these options are not part of the dilemma. What would the Buddha do? I'm sure he would not flip the switch. But I also think that he would save the persons lives if he could.
I agree.

with metta
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---Worry is the Interest, paid in advance, on a debt you may never owe---
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Re: The train morality problem

Post by chownah » Sun Oct 09, 2011 2:07 am

Brivat wrote: Hello chownah,

I think it doesn't matter how complicated such a dilemma is designed. The bad kamma is only on the side of the designer - and those people who act accordingly (thinking they have to). I don't deny that it is understandable to activate the switch when one is overwhelmed by feelings, but this is the very problem and not the solution.

That's how I see it. And I have nothing further to add.

All the best!

I think I disagree with your assessment. I do agree that the designer has certainly some really serious problems with kamma (intention).....but I disagree with the idea that the only kamma which can arise from this situation is in the designer. In my view The "victim" very likely would create kamma depending on the action or inaction which results from their intention as well. I think that when you say 'when one is overwhelmed by feelings,' what it means is "when one feels the force of intention and clinging"....and I do agree that it is "understandable" that people act or fail to act through intention and clinging since this seems to be the default mode for most of us most of the time. The Buddha teaches that we are the inheritors of our own kamma and I think that by saying that the designer bears all the khamma is just an attempt to push the results of ones own intentions onto someone else...or perhaps I am misunderstanding what you are saying.
I think that if there is any value to these kinds of dilemma it is that it can help us to focus on what kinds of intentions we do have (although in less extreme situations) and how our "value systems" are involved in forming and being formed by our intentions....I deny that the victim has intention and resultant kamma from the dilemma is to eliminate any value that this exercise could possible have I guess....but maybe I'm wrong....

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Re: The train morality problem

Post by Jay1 » Thu Jan 31, 2013 7:22 pm

I wonder if the choice became between 1 and 500 000 people, would it become easier to choose?

Anyhow, I hope no one will have to make this choice :)

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Re: The train morality problem

Post by waterchan » Sun Feb 03, 2013 4:07 pm

David N. Snyder wrote: What would Buddha do?
I don't think this should be a problem for the Buddha of the pali tipitaka. He can see the kamma of others, so he would act accordingly based on the ripening of kamma involved.

It's only a dilemma for the rest of us.

A virtue ethicist would not flip the switch.

A utilitarian or a lay Buddhist would just flip the switch. Having right intention, there is no killing intent present and therefore no unwholesome kamma accumulated. Unless the guy on the other track is an arahant, in which case the lay Buddhist is kammically screwed for a minimum of 1.62×10^12 years.
quidquid Latine dictum sit altum videtur
(Anything in Latin sounds profound.)

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Re: The train morality problem

Post by Sokehi » Sun Feb 03, 2013 11:19 pm

retrofuturist wrote:Greetings,

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.

Retro. :)
But do you really know that he is going to shoot them? Maybe he stops or not even start doing so at all... :tongue:
Get the wanting out of waiting

What does womanhood matter at all, when the mind is concentrated well, when knowledge flows on steadily as one sees correctly into Dhamma. One to whom it might occur, ‘I am a woman’ or ‘I am a man’ or ‘I’m anything at all’ is fit for Mara to address. – SN 5.2

If they take what's yours, tell yourself that you're making it a gift.
Otherwise there will be no end to the animosity. - Ajahn Fuang Jotiko

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Re: The train morality problem

Post by vesak2014 » Sun Jul 27, 2014 6:03 pm

David N. Snyder wrote:What would you do?
I'd flip the switch and reach the tied person as soon as possible to set him free. Whichever nearest comes first. If the mad philosopher is around, I'd ask him to help me by doing either one. At least you do something other than just watching someone gets killed.
What would Buddha do?
This question doesn't apply to a Buddha. Because he can stop the train, or set the five people free, or flip the switch and set the one person free, anything you can think possible.


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Re: The train morality problem

Post by chownah » Sat Aug 02, 2014 2:45 pm

Perhaps this type of morality problem has gained relevance.

Should your driverless car kill you to save a child's life? ... -life.html
from the link:
"Consider this thought experiment: you are travelling along a single-lane mountain road in an autonomous car that is fast approaching a narrow tunnel. Just before entering the tunnel a child attempts to run across the road but trips in the centre of the lane, effectively blocking the entrance to the tunnel. The car has but two options: hit and kill the child, or swerve into the wall on either side of the tunnel, thus killing you."


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