How Would a Buddhist Monk Solve the Classic "Trolley Problem"
A trolley is coming down the tracks. It’s going to hit five people. You’re standing on a bridge over the tracks next to a large person, whose heft could stop the trolley. Do you push the large person off the bridge to save the five people on the tracks?
Those questions are versions of a classic and infamous moral dilemma called the “trolley problem,” which is the center of Harvard professor Joshua Greene’s research. In a presentation at the Aspen Ideas Festival last week, Greene reported on his research findings, as reported by The Atlantic‘s Alexis Madrigal.
Greene has found that a large proportion of people would flip the switch in the first scenario, while most people would not push a person off the bridge in the second scenario — even though the outcomes are the same. The implications of having to push someone are just too sticky. Two groups, however, are perfectly comfortable pushing the bystander in front of the trolley: those are economists and psychopaths. For them, the trolley problem is purely a question of numbers: logically, it makes sense to sacrifice one life and save five.
Greene had a thesis student, Xin Xiang, who posed the question to Buddhist monks in Northern India. How did they respond? The majority of monks said they would push the person off the bridge.
“Their results were similar to psychopaths—clinically defined— and people with damage to a specific part of the brain called the ventral medial prefrontal cortex,” wrote Madrigal in his report.
That conclusion might seem shocking if you have an image of Buddhism as a spirituality of pacifism. In fact, in the Anguttara Nikaya, the Buddha reportedly said that it is impossible for an enlightened being to take a life.
However, Greene notes an interesting difference between the logic of the monks and the economist-psychopaths. In contrast to the latter’s purely utilitarian view, the monks saw the trolley problem as a matter of compassion:
“I think the Buddhist monks were doing something very different,” Greene said, as reported in The Atlantic. “When they gave that response, they said, ‘Of course, killing somebody is a terrible thing to do, but if your intention is pure and you are really doing it for the greater good, and you’re not doing it for yourself or your family, then that could be justified.’”
In Buddhist Ethics the intention to do good and avoid harm, via action or inaction, is an act of karma. Minimizing harm via action or inaction would be good karma. Failing to minimize harm via action or inaction would be bad karma. Both intentions and outcomes are relevant in law and Buddhist concept of karma.
In law I think there are jurisdictions wherein it is murder to kill a person in defense of others rather than in self defense!
The Animals - Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood
I'm just a soul whose intentions are good! Oh Lord please don't let me be misunderstood!