Difficult ethical question regarding killing

A Hindu friend of mine asked me to talk to his friend who is an active practitioner of the Ananda Marga teachings. At first, when we chatted a little bit about this and that, and it seemed like Ananda Marga is a regular-type Hindu organisation that is all about uniting with our paramatman and practicing loving kindness without restraint. Then, he suddenly mentioned a couple of beliefs that immediately alarmed me, especially in the light of my Hindu friend telling me Ananda Marga was involved in some ethically doubtful things earlier. First, this Ananda Marga guy told me that we should actively fight oppression in our world, which is always an alarming thing to say. Who defines what is and what is not oppression? Even the ISIS are fighting against oppression as they see it. Second, he mentioned the famous talk between Krishna and Arjuna on the Kuru field, when Krishna told Arjuna it is okay to kill people on a battlefield and not feel remorse for it, because they are bad people and he was merely fulfilling his duty. It does not take a large leap of imagination to think how this thining can be exploited in some gruesome ways as we witnessed in the 20th century.

So I tried to counter his arguments with saying that consciously killing a living being is always unethical, something that he said is ‘impractical to take as your ethical imperative.’ He provided me with lots of examples, some of which I was able to exlain within the ethical Buddhist framework (like whether a judge should regard his condemning other people for jail sentences as unethical). As for some other things he said I felt I was not able to provide a satisfactory explanation for them:

  1. Is taking antibiotics unethical? Bacteria are obviously living being and by taking antiobiotics we consciously kill them. On the other hand, refusing to take antibiotics for ethical reasons sounds like a pretty stupid thing to do. If we say it is okay to kill bacteria, where should we put the line between those beings who are relatively okay to kill and those who are not. On a side note (something you shouldn’t answer), can an arahant give his or her consent to taking antioiotics knowing about their effects?

  2. What should I do as a lay person do when some thugs are trying to rape a lady or attacking a child? Should I fight them back phisically, knowing full well it can lead to much phisical harm to these people, while my refusal to stop fighting will most likely result in harm to me and the attacked person? I always wondered how come it is not a Vinaya offence (admittedly, as of the Vibhaṅga’s definition of taking life as cutting off the life faculty) if a bhikkhu does not help a drowning person. Still, in order to avoid a difficult discussion about Vinaya perspective on this problem (any Vinaya discussion is difficult, isn’t it?), I focused in my question on the person involved being a lay person.

  3. Should I kill a tiger attacking another person if I happen to be having a loaded gun within my grasp? In a situation like the one described, it seemed to make no sense to try to negotiate with the tiger, the only way to end the violence being the violence. If it turns out it is okay to kill this tiger, should I kill it if I see it attack another animal? If not, why is a human life more valuable as an animal life?

  4. Could someone give me additional advice about how I should confront these ideas from Bhagavad-Gita that killing someone can be an okay thing to do?

I would like to emphasize that answering these questions using as little Buddhist jargon as possible is essential as the person I talk to is not a Buddhist. Even more importantly, I would like to point out how vital it is to give this person a nice rational interpretation of these ethical problems. It is not even that Ananda Marga is a dangerous organisation, which is debatable. It is that these ethical ideas as presented in the Bhagavad-Gita are in my opinion rather dangerous. Presenting a logically cogent argument for the Buddhist position we may not convince this guy about his religious views being false, but we can at least provide him with an alternative interpretation, thus allowing him to be more skeptical about his own position.


i have read Bhagavad Gita and don’t find anything said in it to be dangerous
it is a case where a teaching isn’t to be blamed for people’s interpretation of it

killing other creatures is normal in nature and has been a practice of human kind throughout its entire history therefore it’s not teachings which promote it (except those which do so explicitly and incite to it), but people who read their everyday experience, awareness or agendas into those teachings and use them for advocacy thereof

for anybody who is interested in acquaintance with the relevant portion of the Bhagavad Gita it’s chapters 1 & 2

the import of the philosophy must be appreciated within the context of specific circumstances it’s presented in, but really i think the authors of the poem just used a Bollywood type narrative, which Mahabharata in my opinion is, as a vehicle for teaching the audience certain philosophical ideas of Vedanta (although it’s named Sankhya in the poem) without the aim of condonation of killing, massacre and murder

1 Like

Ethics are grounded in reason. This means that we should be able to think up a general theory of ethics, and test that theory by feeding it a bunch of different scenarios, like the tiger and the loaded gun.

If the theory gives satisfying answers to all the scenarios we feed it, we’ve stumbled upon some underlying principle of ethics.

In the early Buddhist texts (EBTs) - as far as my understanding goes - actions are skillful or unskillful depending on their karmic results.

"And what is kamma that is dark with dark result? There is the case where a certain person fabricates an injurious bodily fabrication… an injurious verbal fabrication… an injurious mental fabrication… He rearises in an injurious world where he is touched by injurious contacts… He experiences feelings that are exclusively painful, like those of the beings in hell. This is called kamma that is dark with dark result. (AN 4.232)

So bad acts are bad not because they violate the will of a creator god or a rational ethical principle, but because you personally reap a bad result from doing that bad act.

Virtue also has an important purpose, to give rise to non-regret:

“Skillful virtues have freedom from remorse as their purpose, Ananda, and freedom from remorse as their reward.”

“Freedom from remorse has joy as its purpose, joy as its reward.”

[causal sequence leading to awakening] (AN 11.1)

The Buddha doesn’t provide us with the means to think out the best solution to a given ethical dilemma beforehand. That’s not the purpose of virtue in the EBTs.

So regarding 2 and 3, if that actually happened you might not be able to find any optimal outcome there. Maybe no matter what you do it’ll be sort of good and bad.

"And what is kamma that is dark & bright with dark & bright result? There is the case where a certain person fabricates a bodily fabrication that is injurious & uninjurious… a verbal fabrication that is injurious & uninjurious… a mental fabrication that is injurious & uninjurious… He rearises in an injurious & uninjurious world where he is touched by injurious & uninjurious contacts… He experiences injurious & uninjurious feelings, pleasure mingled with pain, like those of human beings, some devas, and some beings in the lower realms. This is called kamma that is dark & bright with dark & bright result. (AN 4.232)

The best we can do it seems it to continuously reflect on our actions:

"Whenever you want to do a bodily action, you should reflect on it: ‘This bodily action I want to do — would it lead to self-affliction, to the affliction of others, or to both? Would it be an unskillful bodily action, with painful consequences, painful results?’ If, on reflection, you know that it would lead to self-affliction, to the affliction of others, or to both; it would be an unskillful bodily action with painful consequences, painful results, then any bodily action of that sort is absolutely unfit for you to do. But if on reflection you know that it would not cause affliction… it would be a skillful bodily action with pleasant consequences, pleasant results, then any bodily action of that sort is fit for you to do. (MN 61)

I guess this is a long winded way to say “you shouldn’t kill because you’ll make bad karma and it will stop you from becoming enlightened” and that “most ethical dilemmas probably don’t have an optimal solution so it’s better to just stay home and meditate” :slight_smile:


Let them perish, Prince! and fight!
He who shall say, "Lo! I have slain a man!"
He who shall think, “Lo! I am slain!” those both
Know naught! Life cannot slay. Life is not slain!
Never the spirit was born; the spirit shall cease to be never;
Never was time it was not; End and Beginning are dreams!
Birthless and deathless and changeless remaineth the spirit for
Death hath not touched it at all, dead though the house of it
Who knoweth it exhaustless, self-sustained,
Immortal, indestructible, — shall such
Say, “I have killed a man, or caused to kill?”

If, knowing thy duty and thy task, thou bidd’st
Duty and task go by — that shall be sin!
And those to come shall speak thee infamy
From age to age; but infamy is worse
For men of noble blood to bear than death!
The chiefs upon their battle-chariots
Will deem 'twas fear that drove thee from the fray.
Of those who held thee mighty-souled the scorn
Thou must abide, while all thine enemies
Will scatter bitter speech of thee, to mock
The valour which thou hadst; what fate could fall
More grievously than this? Either — being killed —
Thou wilt win Swarga’s safety, or — alive
And victor — thou wilt reign an earthly king.
Therefore, arise, thou Son of Kunti! brace
Thine arm for conflict, nerve thy heart to meet —
As things alike to thee — pleasure or pain,

This sounds to me as much condoning killing as it gets, almost like Pakudha Kaccāyana’s teachings from DN 2:

If someone were to cut off (another person’s) head with a sharp sword, he would not be taking (the other’s) life. The sword merely passes through the space between the seven bodies.

Besides, Krishna says that not killing these people on a battlefield will be a sin becuse it is his ‘duty’, and considering it in the light of the Indian understanding of the concept of dharma shows how harmful these ideas are. Fulfilling you dharma, be it driving a bus or killing people as a soldier, is a philosophical idea on its own. Can you imagine the Lord Buddha giving advice like this one under any circumstance? Even the old Christian church didn’t allow a warrior coming back from a war to take part in the Eucharist, no matter whether he protected his country or family or not. It’s not that killing is not natural, it is, just like rape, discrimination, theft or adultery. It is just whether we consider killing as always wrong. If we follow the example of Pakudha Kaccāyana, Krishna (who is very explicit about the murder being not wrong) or some political-cum-religious leaders from a more recent past, there will be no end to it.

1 Like

Thanks for this nice exposition of the Buddhist ethical doctrine :anjal:

This is why I asked these questions. Of course kamma can be both black and white, of course we do not know how to solve ethical dilemmas in the best way possible, but let’s pretend we’re quasi-Christians for a while and ask ourselves ‘What would an arahant without iddhi do?’ If we, as a religious community, fail to address issues like violence in a cogent way, no wonder people will eventually lose interest in us.

That was basically what I told the guy, to which he responded by asking whether it is okay to take antibiotics. Seriously, can taking antibiotics prevent you from becoming enlightened? Can an arahant who is unable to consciously kill, take antibiotics? These are all very specific questions that need specific answers, because staying home and meditating will not help when you encounter violence in real life.

1 Like

[quote=“Vstakan, post:4, topic:2984”]
Can you imagine the Lord Buddha giving advice like this one under any circumstance? [/quote]

no, but Dhamma in my opinion, unlike Hindu religion, wasn’t meant for practice in secular environment to begin with, and secular Buddhism does face these ethical dilemmas (like whether a Buddhist should defend their country on a battlefield) without being really adequate in offering an unequivocal and practical solution

i’m afraid this is perversion of the story, fight on a battlefield is not exactly murder


We have so many talks given to the lay community by the Buddha, many of them concerning ethical questions. While it is fairly reasonable to assume that Dhamma in its fullness can hardly be practiced in a lay environment, we still can try to figure out some workable, albeit imperfect solution for the laity based on these discourses (which is why I asked these questions in the first place :slight_smile:)

Could it be possible that a lay Buddhist may have a justification or valid excuse to kill another person or animal without considering his action as unethical and having exclusively positive results? When does a Buddhist lay person have this justification, considering that one of the Five lay precepts is to abstain from killing? Should I eventually admit this guy is right? I should emphasize I do not mean these questions in a denigrating way, like ‘this opinion is absurd’, I am honestly inquiring whether it is a possible outcome of our dicussion.

1 Like

The ideal is “abandoning the killing of living beings, he abstains from killing living beings; with rod and weapon laid aside, conscientious, merciful, he abides compassionate to all living beings.”

Which addresses the issue of violence in a cogent way. I don’t think it’s necessary for a system of virtue to address hypothetical ethical situations, which is more an exercise for intellectuals and not something you actually use in day to day life.

About antibiotics, bacteria aren’t (as far as I know) sentient. They are like plants in that sense; alive (not a well-defined term btw) but not sentient.

If you present “all killing is bad” as a rational principle, then a refutation of that principle would be an act of killing that is seen as good, like antibiotics.

But in EBTs it’s actually “all killing leads to bad results in the future”. The confirmation of this [i.e. of karma in general] is one of the three higher knowledges that lead to awakening.

Unless you are awakened, you have to take it on faith in the mean time. It’s really a case of “The Buddha said so and also I will see it too eventually” :slight_smile:

I mean, you can’t prove that Buddhist virtues are true through reason. It’s more like a natural law that can be verified after deep samadhi. My understanding so far anyway :relaxed:


I live in Germany, so for me protecting my girlfriend from being raped can any moment cease being a merely hypothetical ethical situation :anguished: The student village I live in is regularly visited by wild boars who are very aggressive and can attack people on sight, my neighbour got very nearly attacked last year, so it is pretty real for me as well. Being completely honest, I do not know whether I could ‘lay rod and weapon aside’ in these situations, but knowing what would be the best course of action could be actually helpful. We know the ideal and I agree with you 100 % on it :anjal:, the question is now how we should apply this ideal to very real situations in a very real world. Rape or attacks by animals are not some hypothetical things, they happen literally every day all over the world, and I think that refusing to face this harsh reality would do us more harm than good. That said, your overall attitude is still great and I think it will help you stay a great person :slight_smile:

Now, that is interesting, sentience as a criterium could be something. Do you happen to know any research about it (for the Hindu guy) or Buddha’s quotes on the matter? I recall reading something about it but having some tangible data would be better. Besides, there are some pretty primitive animals who are hardly more sentient than bacteria. E.g., are sponges or amoebiae sentient? The problem is how we can define whether a living being is sentient, although this question really does sound a bit like mind gymnastics despite its possible practical worth.


i like Eric’s response, it’s difficult while living in the dirt to be snow white so it comes down to the measure of evil a person allows themself to commit and of adverse consequences whos onset to desire, considering kammic retribution

1 Like

i know some good one from the Buddha himself

What taints, bhikkhus, should be abandoned by avoiding? Here a bhikkhu, reflecting wisely, avoids a wild elephant, a wild horse, a wild bull, a wild dog, a snake, a stump, a bramble patch, a chasm, a cliff, a cesspit, a sewer. Reflecting wisely, he avoids sitting on unsuitable seats, wandering to unsuitable resorts, and associating with bad friends, since if he were to do so wise companions in the holy life might suspect him of evil conduct. While taints, vexation, and fever might arise in one who does not avoid these things, there are no taints, vexation, and fever in one who avoids them. These are called the taints that should be abandoned by avoiding.

MN 2


My vocational training is in law. There is an old saying: “the law is an ass.” This sentiment is taken from Charles Dickens: " If the law supposes that," said Mr. Bumble, squeezing his hat emphatically in both hands, "the law is a ass — a idiot. If that’s the eye of the law, the law is a bachelor; and the worst I wish the law is, that his eye may be opened by experience — by experience.”

If the Dhamma and Vinaya are taken as doctrine that bar harmless or beneficial acts, then it seems to me that the great wisdom and insight of the Buddha is being neglected. His doctrine of kamma stands as a refutation of the ritualistic Brahmanic system, as he introduced ethics and intention as the foundation for kamma. So, it seems to me we need we need examine each circumstance to determine what is the most reasoned and ethical (and brightest of kammas) action to take in a given situation. I’d argue that a good monk always leaps into the water to save the drowning girl. I’d also argue that if one had to cause some harm in order to prevent a far greater harm, that decision ( for example to disable or kill a suicide bomber walking into a school full of children) might be the brighter and more noble kamma that counterbalances the dark kamma of harming the bomber.

We are not the owners and heirs of rigid dogmas; thankfully, we are taught the brilliant Dhamma of being owners and heirs of our kamma, and admonished to practice in order to calmly see clearly what is skillful and beneficial. The Buddha’s perfectly reasoned and balanced and highly ethical system, that holds each of us to account for our mindful, intentional acts. Mr. Bumble might agree.


This is a very wonderful answer, but it still doesn’t answer the very specific questions I asked. If you could take the point of view you expressed in here and apply to my questions, I would be very obliged. Again, this is not to say your comment was bad, this is to say we should now figure it out what it means for the specific questions asked :slight_smile:


Vstakan, when I have some more time, I’ll try to do that. Perhaps my comment does answer some of these questions, albeit not directly. Metta to you, and have a good day, and thanks for a good question.

1 Like

This is a good one, I agree. Still, it all boils down to the audience the discourse was given to, namely a monastic audience practicing in a monastic living. In some respects, you can say that the monks have it easier, they have very specific Vinaya rules, they have their Simile of the Saw, and can use them as unambiguous moral guides. However, I am not a monk. I cannot move to another dormitory because I do not have enough money and I cannot possibly know whether there are any wild boars hanging around tonight. I cannot guarantee my girlfirend and I are not attacked like these unfortunate girls on the New Year’s Eve at the railway station in Cologne. I mean, even a monk can theoretically visit a railway station on the New Year’s Eve. These considerations make the questions asked by this Hindu guy so important.

1 Like

Thanks a lot! I also feel that your comment addresses these questions in a proper manner, but I fail to formulate the answer in a clear way, so your help would be much appreciated :slight_smile:

1 Like

a truly Dhammic behavior might well be at odds with mundane behavioral norm and thus not fully compatible with secular lifestyle, like in a situation of a girlfriend protection from assault a Dhammic way in my view would be without harming the attacker to shield your girlfriend with your own body creating an obstacle for them, the likely consequence of such a response however is a breakup with a girlfriend, because the mode of protection has been so passive and not ‘manly’ enough

so at the end of the day the course of action is a matter of judgement in selecting the least kammically taxable and finding balance between pros and cons related to one’s secular lifestyle


That was actually the answer I gave the guy :slight_smile: His reasonable objection was that the most likely consequence would be that you get beaten up really badly and the girlfriend gets raped anyway. While for the monk protecting the girl with his body would be the most extreme measure taken full stop, if I as a lay person know it is possible for me to protect her from awful unjustice and immense harm and still let it happen, would it be not worse than harming the attackers instead, even though creating bad kamma in the process? For them, it would be a form of ‘instant kamma’, if you will, for the girl the harm she may sustain may well be accidental and unearned.

On a side note, should we perhaps move the topics into Discussions?


For the bacteria question, I think presence of any of the sense faculties endowed with consciousness could be a qualifier for sentience. Other beings capacity for pain through the senses/consciousness being similar to your capacity for pain seems to me the empathy at the base of moral consideration in Buddhism.

If we take the scope of non-harming too far though, we could come up with even more absurd scenarios. For instance, the human organism is actually host to a number of bacteria in the gut and on the skin, along with fungi and other micro-organisms. The food you eat can affect the balance of life for these organisms, various immune responses in the body will also kill off organisms (fevers kill living viruses), using soap will kill off some of the microbes that live on the skin. Should we not shower or eat or let the body fight infection for fear of killing these unicellular organisms? The Buddha allowed for the eating of meat, that’s a heck of a lot more sentient (animals endowed with sense faculties and consciousness) than single-celled organisms. If I had to guess I would say this allowance was based on a sort of practicality.

Comparing to some of the Jain practices, Buddhism seems a bit more grounded. Jains apparently avoided cold water since they thought there were small creatures living in (specifically cold) water. Some Jains wear masks to prevent from accidentally inhaling/killing bugs, Jain monks/nuns sweep the ground before them wherever they go for similar reasons. Sallekhanā in Jainism is the last vow taken by some practitioners in which they suicide by gradually cutting off food, water, and limiting movement. This is an extreme expression of ahimsā. The Buddha on the other hand, made food and medicine a requisite (along with clothing and shelter, other “attachments” some Jains go without), more Middle-Way than extreme asceticism.

I’m reminded of the story of Cakkhupala in the Dhammapada commentary, a late work and probably a mythology but perhaps consistent with BuddhaDhamma. He was a monk who attained arahantship and lost his eyesight. Some other monks had observed that there were dead insects in the wake of his walking path. When they questioned the Buddha he answered along the lines of — because he did not see them and had no intention of killing there was no fault. We can only assume that Cakkhupala continued walking and unintentionally killing insects.

In philosophy there are three major categories of moral philosophy: virtue, deontological, and consequentialist. Virtue ethics is basically about virtue/character, deontological about obligations/duties (universalized in Kantianism), and consequentialism is about consequences (utilitarianism probably the most popular form). I think Buddhism contains elements of all three, but the focus really is on virtue imo. It is mainly from the other two moral philosophies that we get the absurd scenarios and thought experiments. Right effort for instance, isn’t about forming moral arguments, it’s about working on cultivating virtues and diminishing vices. The rules and obligations are meant to train the virtue, the universalization is based on empathy trained by virtuous practice, and the consequences are said to be good if the intention is good (which is trained again by pure virtue). This is a more realistic and practical approach imo, real life scenarios would almost never exactly correspond to a rehearsed thought experiment. Instead, a reaction would be based on the character of the mind, at a more emotional level than an intellectual/cognitive one.


Well, because oneself or another experiences suffering as a result; it’s not only about personal consequences, as MN 61 mentions.


At Savatthī. “Bhikkhus, just as whatever strenuous deeds are done, are all done based upon the earth, established upon the earth, so too, based upon virtue, established upon virtue, a bhikkhu develops and cultivates the Noble Eightfold Path.

Those virtues spoken of by the Blessed One were spoken of by him for the sake of developing these four establishments of mindfulness.”

Since wholesome virtues are wholesome because they support dispassion & cessation, it seems to me to be a flavor of consequentialism, one with an understanding of the Good centered on the Four Truths, not traditional approaches to kamma (more on this below).

So, trying to always come at these issues from that point of view:

No. The assertion that it is unethical requires the claim that suffering occurs for bacteria, which has not been demonstrated. More information is needed…

…but note that someone who angrily applies an antibiotic with the thought “screw those little buggers, i hate them” - well, that’s got some ethical weight that the act simpliciter did not.

Immediate action motivated by protection is called for; does this protective motive require intervention? Maybe, maybe not… notice that most of these questions involve a false dichotomy instead of a nuanced approach.

Again, each case requires the larger context for a wise assessment; I don’t think the Dhamma generates a deontological ethics, which these questions are trying to assume.

Well… it can be. There are some extreme cases that can be imagined; again, the deontology of the ongoing Vinaya Doctors & the Precepts is the sort of Sila that’s coming from Iron Age India, and as such it’s centered on heaven and hell and the deontological virtues & vices that this cosmology calls for.

This is dark, bright, and mixed kamma - the traditional approaches to kamma which pre-exist the Buddha. But there’s a fourth sort that seems to me to sit above these deontological issues. It’s a different approach altogether, this ‘liberative kamma’, and I think a lot of trouble is avoided by this maneuver.