David N. Snyder wrote:
I don't think this has been discussed yet here, so thought I would give it a try here:The Train morality problem / philosophical dilemma / (First Precept issues)
A trolley is running out of control down a track. In its path are five people who have been tied to the track by a mad philosopher. Fortunately, you could flip a switch, which will lead the trolley down a different track to safety. Unfortunately, there is a single person tied to that track. Should you flip the switch or do nothing?
(If you flip the switch, you are possibly "responsible" for the death of that person. If you don't flip the switch, five people die)
What would you do?
What would Buddha do?
I'm not really a big fan of hypothetical moral dilemmas, but they do tend to crop up every now and then. One of the most popular is the 'railroad switch dilemma' in which a train is heading for five people who are tied to the track and you can either (1) do nothing and let it kill all five people, or (2) you can throw a switch so the that train will be diverted to a different track where the five people will be safe, but there's someone on the alternate track who's unable to escape the oncoming train and will be killed instead.
As with most other 'moral dilemmas,' it's a no win situation to begin with, so people are going to die regardless; it's just a matter of how many. The question is, How do we determine what's moral? Apparently, studies utilizing brain scans
have shown that decisions like these are more or less mathematical judgment calls that our brains tend to make in favour of the many, unless, of course, the person on the track is someone close to us. Then, another part of our brain may take over.
Looking at this from a Buddhist perspective, though, whether or not an action is considered skillful or morally blameless is determined by the intention behind it. Intentional actions rooted in greed, ill-will or delusion have the potential to produce painful feelings and are considered unskillful (akusala
) and morally blameworthy, while intentional actions rooted in non-greed, non-hatred and non-delusion produce the opposite and are considered skillful (kusala
) and morally blameless.
The basic premise behind kamma
(literally 'action') is that there's a cause and effect relationship between our actions and how they're experienced, and the teachings themselves deal specifically with the intentional action of individuals and how the results of those actions are then experienced by said individuals. As Thanissaro Bhikkhu puts it
, "It's simply the fact of action—you do something unskillful, it's going to come back in an unpleasant way." In the same way, if you do something skillful, it's going to come back and be experienced in a pleasant way. That's why the Buddha advises his followers to frequently contemplate
'I am the owner of my actions, heir to my actions, born of my actions, related through my actions, and have my actions as my arbitrator. Whatever I do, for good or for evil, to that will I fall heir.'
Moreover, a distinction needs to be made regarding the these moral dilemmas, at least from a Buddhist point of view. Take the railroad with dilemma, for example. If a train is heading towards five people tied to the tracks, letting it reach them doesn't require us to actively
kill someone as switching the tracks would. Inaction would lead to more deaths, but our action would lead to killing, which, in Buddhism, requires an act of volition, so it's hard for me to say whether such an action would actually be skillful and morally blameless. I suppose it could provided that the intention was, for example, compassion for the the five people tied onto the tracks, but that in and of itself is a contentious debate within many Buddhist circles.
Additionally, even if killing one person were to save the lives of many, I don't think this necessarily makes it 'right'; although this is more or less the utilitarian position. It can certainly be justified, but I thinks that's another matter entirely. In fact, this reminds me of something I wrote a while ago about moral absolutism:
Personally, I'm not absolutely sure one way or the other, but I think that social consciousness changes and evolves. There was a time not too long ago, for example, when things like genocide and rape were justified (and in some cases, it appears they still are). Just look at the Bible and the accounts of what ancient Israelites did to other tribes in the name of their god, acts which they where able to justify then but aren't so justifiable today (e.g., Deut 20:16-18, where God ordered the death of every man, woman and child in Canaan). And I'm not trying to pick on the Bible; every culture has its own examples.
Just for the sake of argument, if there are some kind of moral absolutes, how is it possible that people were able to justify things like murdering an entire tribe for their land and women at one point in time but not now? Were they simply ignorant of those moral absolutes? If so, why? And what makes them absolute? God? If so, which god? Laws of nature? If so, which laws and where do they come from?
I don't like killing. I don't even like the thought of it. But that doesn't mean there's some cosmic dictate that states it's evil and wrong under any circumstance. And even if there was, what about people like Hitler? If you say that things like murder and genocide are always wrong, but people like Hitler are evil and must be stopped at any cost, does that mean it's OK to murder and entire group of people if they're all like Hitler? If the answer's yes, then it'd appear that such moral 'absolutes' aren't very absolute, and if the answer's no, then evil has a natural advantage over good in that it's protected by these absolutes even as it transgresses them with wild abandon.
Objectively speaking, I can't say that anything is right or wrong, but I have no trouble doing so subjectively. I don't like the thought of killing or being killed. I don't like the thought of raping or being raped. And it's easy for me to see how other people tend to feel the same way, therefore I can at least see how such actions are relatively right or wrong based upon this point of reference. But I don't believe the universe is designed in such a way as to make any specific action done by human beings absolutely right or wrong (remember, we're not the only animals who kill, rape, etc.).
The way I see it, we simply experience the results of our actions in ways that are interpreted to be right or wrong based upon a myriad of factors, some of which may be unique to our species. The main reason I take this relativistic position is the fact that I've yet to discover an immutable source or basis for such absolutes besides the fact that I find them repugnant. If I knew without a doubt that there was such a basis, then my position would certainly change, but I'm currently unconvinced of its existence. I can see how these actions are morally right and wrong from a human-centric point of view, but I fail to see an objective seat from which they can be judged one or the other in any absolute sense.
That said, the commentarial tradition of Theravada posits that the intention to kill itself is inherently unskillful as it's always rooted in an unskillful state of mind such as ill-will or delusion, and ultimately leads to unpleasant results in the form of mental suffering (e.g., as a result of remorse, legal punishment, a bad destination after death for those who believe in such things, etc.). The Abhidhammattha-Sangaha
, for example, states that:
According to Abhidhamma killing is invariably done with ill-will or aversion. Prompted by whatever motive, one, as a rule, kills with a thought of ill-will. Where there is ill-will (patigha) there is displeasure (domanassa). Where there is displeasure there is ill-will in a subtle or gross way.
I don't necessarily agree with this point of view, but it's something to think about. Personally, I've come to the conclusion that killing rarely benefits anyone, if ever. I think it's better to look for an alternative whenever possible, but nobody is perfect and sometimes we're forced to make difficult decisions, such as being in a position of deciding who lives and who dies or whether to go to war. Nevertheless, I do accept that, in certain situations, it's possible a person can kill out of compassion or other 'skillful' mental states (e.g., think of a sick and dying pet or possible even a loved one). That doesn't mean it's right
(or even wrong for that matter) in any objective sense, but then, I'm not much of a moral absolutist. What I do think, however, is that the intentions behind our actions can influence how we experience the results of those actions.
Pragmatically speaking, actions are deemed 'unskillful' if they lead to to self-affliction, to the affliction of others or to both. Actions that don't lead to self-affliction, to the affliction of others or to both are deemed 'skillful' (MN 61
). Therefore, the distinction between skillful and unskillful actions is based upon how their results are experienced—not only by ourselves, but by others as well. This emphasis on the consequential aspect of actions is similar to Jeremy Bentham's teleological utilitarianism, with John Stuart Mill's idea of higher and lower happiness being similar to the Buddha's distinction between long-term and short-term welfare and happiness.
Psychologically speaking, however, the quality of the intentions behind the actions is what ultimately determines whether they're unskillful or skillful. This aspect is closer to Kant's deontological categorical imperative when combined with the Buddhist principle of ahimsa
or harmlessness. Intentional actions rooted in greed, hatred or delusion are said to produce painful mental feelings "like those of the beings in hell," while intentional actions rooted in non-greed, non-hatred and non-delusion are said to produce the opposite ("like those of the Beautiful Black Devas"). Then there are acts rooted in both that bring mixed results "like those of human beings, some devas, and some beings in the lower realms" (AN 4.235
So from the Buddhist point of view, it's not simply the utility of an action that must be taken into consideration, but the motives behind the action as well. And just for reference, here's an interesting talk I watched recently dealing with the biological basis for morality: 'Morality: From the Heavens or From Nature?'
I agree Dr. Thomas that morality is natural in the sense that it comes from the "evolved architecture" of our minds, which is why I believe that, psychologically speaking, the quality of the intentions behind our actions can determine how the results, whether positive or negative, are experienced.
That said, I don't know what the Buddha would do, but I'd probably be so caught up in trying to decide what I should
do that I'd be paralyzed by indecision an wouldn't be capable of doing anything at all, and I'd watch in horror as five people were ran over by a train and I felt powerless to stop it because I was too busy looking for the perfect solution.