Buddhist Books Blog

Readings and writings on Buddhism, yoga, and contemplative science

Concerning “extreme ethics”

This is the second post courtesy of my hostile interlocutor, Sophia.  In fact, she started our conversation by asking what I was going to write about bodhisattvas killing people, and she provided some excellent fodder for the conversation in the form text from a site, here.  I suggest you read this before continuing.

Mostly these are examples of what I call “extreme ethics,” ethical conundrums where someone has to die or suffer horribly or violate serious taboos.  (The significant exception is the sexual one.  This is just a case where a marriage has outlived its usefulness and the two people should go their separate ways.)  In cases of extreme ethics there is no escape for the would-be virtuous person, no dodging the bullet.  Either they sin by commission or by omission—sinning is not optional.  These situations exist and they have to be considered if we are going to create—and practice—a mature ethic of living.

The issue I’m most interested in here is where somebody killing or dying appears unavoidable, and this is clearly what interested Sophia.  She seemed of the opinion that Mahayanists were lax in this regard, less strict about the precept on not killing than Theravadans are.  She may have a point.  That is, I think there have been more instances of excuse-making within the Mahayana tradition as regards this precept than within the Theravada.  Note, however, that I’m not going to try documenting this suspicion with textual evidence because I really don’t care which tradition is “better” or more “pure.”  What interests me is the question of whether or not, in certain circumstances, it might be the “right” thing or at least the “better” thing to kill than not to kill.

This is how I addressed the issue with Sophia.  I wrote:

Let’s say you are a good German during World War II and you’re hiding a family of Jews in your house.  An SS commander comes to inspect your premises for whatever reason and discovers the family.  You have it in your power to kill the man on the spot, thereby saving the family (for now, at least).  Do you do it?

I think any sane person capable of thinking quickly enough and keeping his/her wits about him would kill the SS officer.  It is a “simple” calculation of life against lives, where you are in the unfortunate position of being the decider of fates.  Oddly, while it is a good thing to save a family, at the same time it is a bad thing to kill a man, regardless of his intentions.  The former, in my opinion, does not obviate the latter.  Moreover, to say that there will not be negative repercussions for killing a man “in cold blood” would be silly.  The “good German” in this situation will almost assuredly feel distress, possibly for the rest of his life, for killing the SS officer.  He might “justify” it (i.e. attempt to relieve his guilt) by thinking of the people he saved, but he is still guilty of killing and only psychopaths feel no remorse.

I actually have had a less extreme personal experience of this kind of thing, this moral “residue” of a choice I made.  Back when I was in college I was on break and at my parents’ home.  My father found a baby possum in broad daylight.  (Possums, of course, are nocturnal animals, so this one was obviously lost.)  It had probably fallen out of a tree or somehow gotten separated from its mother.  Anyway, the poor creature was defenseless, but what were we to do?  So, we put it in some bushes and wished it good luck.  An hour or two later I went in to my father’s workshop.  The door was open and since the light was not on I walked in out of sunlight into relative darkness.  I couldn’t see much and as I stepped in, reaching for the light switch, I kicked something.  I flicked on the light and there was the baby possum, contorted in pain.  Obviously I had broken its back or crushed some organs.  Clearly it was going to die.  I felt horrible, but worse was the prospect of letting the little creature die a slow, agonizing death over who knows how long a time.  So, desperate to end the thing’s suffering, I cut off its head with a hatchet.  Now, needless to say, its death was not my intention.  I would not harm such a creature for anything, but I was in a no-win scenario that happened by accident.  Did I do the right thing or not?  I think yes, but to this day remembering the event makes me queasy.  Now, how much worse would it be for that good German in our earlier example?

This is all to illustrate that living ethically, “being a bodhisattva,” is not some special designation we get and then go through life with, wearing it on our lapel.  Every day we are called upon to make ethical choices, and most of them, thankfully, are not extreme.  But every choice leaves its mark, and even the most compassionate and courageous among us make mistakes.  We may not make the right choice every time, and even if we do we will possibly have second thoughts.  Even if we know what we did was right (as the good German ought to know) that does not mean the decision is “clean” or easy, that it does not injure us psychologically in some way or another.  This is simply to say that the ethical laws governing a bodhisattva’s actions are not in any way different from the ethical laws anyone else must answer to.  A bodhisattva is simply someone who has chosen to practice ethical living in a more conscious and energetic fashion.  This choice, of course, is itself an ethical decision, and sometimes it may place them in extreme circumstances where no good, ethically “clean” outcome is possible.

So, to get back to what I originally said: killing is always unethical and any “justification” for it is always contrived.  But sometimes, when compared to other decisions, it may be the best decision to make.  The notion that by that fact killing somehow becomes heroic and “propels us on our bodhisattva career” is, I think, silly and immature, not to mention dangerous and delusional.  This is to pretend that one person has a special status that other people do not have.  Nobody has a special status, not even the psychopath, who simply becomes more psychopathic the more frequently he kills and does not care.  I would therefore argue that the extent to which you really do care about your actions and their effects is the extent to which you are ethical.

Her response was to say scenarios such as my “good German” found himself in are “contrived.”  My response to this would be to say Please, get out of your velveteen palace and live a little!  If you don’t believe ethical choices in extremis actually occur, talk to people who have been in combat, who have lived or worked in war zones.  Visit a war zone.  Talk to rescuers in disasters or the victims of extreme crime or terrorism.  Many of these people have had to make split second, life-and-death decisions, where they were literally deciding the fates of others.  I was once the victim of a home invasion, and I can tell you that considerations of appropriate force, weapons for self-defense, and expedient measures are all very applicable in such cases, even if you have only minutes or seconds to decide.

If you feel, like Sophia, that our ethics do not have to account for such situations, I suggest you make a day-trip to a maximum security prison with people facing life sentences or capital punishment for unspeakable crimes.  You should talk to the wardens and guards and inmates, asking them about the extreme choices that led them to such extreme fates.  Or, you could take a sabbatical to a place of soul-wrenching poverty, where you might actually see people dying on the roadside, neglected and alone.  If this doesn’t incite your moral imagination, I don’t know what will.

You don’t have to travel far to see the face of misfortune, though.  I work in a hospital where I cross paths with chemo-bald, dying children every day.  Imagine the choices their parents and caregivers have to make as regards the allocation of limited resources and medicines for life extension: how much, for how long, at what cost, and to what end?  You should visit a cancer ward and consider these issues, keenly aware as you breathe easily, free of disease.

Another simple suggestion would be to talk to emergency room staff.  For almost two decades my sister has been a nurse.  She’s seen it all: triages where she decided who lived and who died, dealing with relatives wanting to help sick loved ones die by over-dosing them with pain relievers, not to mention the necessity of having to repeatedly save people who seemed hell-bent on killing themselves by their destructive habits.  When it came time for our father to pass away (he was pronounced terminal on account of multiple tumors growing around vital organs), he asked my sister to help him end his life.  If you don’t think this is a moral conundrum comparable to my “good German” scenario you should get your head examined.  I can tell you, though in the end our father died as painlessly and gracefully as could be hoped, the ethical quality of our choices regarding parental euthanasia did not admit of a “happy” ending, just an ending.  As I said, sometimes the sin is unavoidable: you’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t.

The point of all this is to say that one day you, too, may find you have to make a decision, either at a moment’s notice, or over the course of hours and days, where you determine the life or death of a person or persons.  They could be anyone, strangers or lovers.  If you hold high political office it could be the fate of a nation.  If you’re a CEO you may have to decide who loses their job and their livelihood.  In every one of these situations there is no course of action that does not hurt someone (yourself included), and no matter how well you choose you will not experience a sense of comforting clarity or the thought that everything is okay now since you made the right choice—assuming you made the right choice.  While we may like our ethical problems to be neat and clean and to resolve with the moral certainty of a John Wayne movie, sometimes we are mere instruments of fate, weighing the feelings and existences of others like lumps of meat on a scale.

If you think I am in any way validating murder, giving it a thumbs up whenever the shit hits the fan, that would be a very mistaken interpretation of my meaning here.  I want to state emphatically that I believe killing is morally wrong for the simple reason that it numbs and destroys us inside, not to mention what it does to the victim.  At the same time I say beware of people who hold to absolute and inflexible standards of ethical value and conduct.  Such beliefs do not acknowledge the bleak uncertainty and instability of our lives.  This often manifests in gross hypocrisy, as when a politician claims he’s “pro-life” and “pro-gun” in one sentence.  (I’ve actually seen this and it is breathtaking.)  It is easy to give a pretense to morality and honor if all you do is mouth chapter and verse, and this is why the commandments of sky gods and prophets can never substitute for deliberate and conscientious consideration of the reality of the situations we find ourselves in.

One final point.  In defense of her “moral clarity” Sophia offered this famous verse from the Kakacupama Sutta (M.21):

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.

Many people use this and similar quotes as a defense of the notion that the Buddha’s teaching is one of total passivity in the face of injustice or violence being inflicted upon individuals or whole communities.  But notice that what the Buddha addressed here was the mental state of the person being attacked.  He’s saying, in effect, that regardless of what happens to you do not allow anger and resentment to take over your mind.  He did not say you should let them saw you up and run you over.  I hardly think he would be averse to an attempt to escape from or disarm the bandits.  In fact, nowhere in the suttas have I ever seen an example of someone rightly practicing allow or encourage someone to allow the rape or slaughter of others because that was the “peaceful” thing to do.  Obviously, in the case of bandits, the best way would be simply to avoid or escape them.  If that’s not possible, then resist them to the extent necessary to make a getaway.  If that’s not possible, you may have to fight for your life while hopefully exercising the presence of mind necessary to use only the minimal and necessary force to avoid gross injury to either party.  You see how quickly such a scenario, in the moment, becomes dicey and uncertain?  How comforting it must be to sit back in your easy chair, pondering your scriptures and philosophy books, and say that if ever you are attacked you will calmly let yourself be robbed and slaughtered.  My question to such a person would be Why do you value your own life so little?  

My challenge to the Sophias of the world is this: Show me one instance in the Suttas or Vinaya where the Buddha or a rightly practicing disciple allowed him or herself or anyone else in immediate proximity to be murdered, beaten or raped while offering no resistance, even if it was just the exercise of psychic powers to effect escape or change the circumstances.  If you can show me one unambiguous example I will reevaluate and, possibly, recant the position I have elaborated here.

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