In this very difficult situation, which is the most reasonable?


Imagine you’re a Buddhist father/mother with children and a wife.

A mafia kidnaps you and locks you up with your family and 5 murderers in chains.

The mafia gives you a gun and tells you that if you kill one of the 5 murderers, then you and your family will be freed. But if you don’t kill one of the murderers after 10 minutes, then you’ll have to kill all 5 murderers, and if you refuse to kill those 5 murderers either, then they’ll go and kill your family.

The mafia does this for fun.

What can you do?
Apparently from a Buddhist point of view, the wisest thing to do is not to kill anyone, any of the murderers, even if they are going to kill our wife and children. We mustn’t kill anyone, whatever the consequences.

But the problem is, you know your mind is MUCH TOO full of impurities (like attachment, passions, etc.) to “successfully refuse to kill any of the criminals to protect your family”. You know it’s too hard for you. In other words, even if you resist your impulse to protect your family by refusing to kill one of the murderers, you won’t be able to resist the impulse to kill all 5 murderers to protect your family: your mind is too corrupted by desire and passions.

Which action would be the least karmicallly risky? Would it really be wise to refuse to kill one of the criminals, when we know that afterwards we won’t succeed in not killing all 5?

The underlying reason for creating this topic is that I find it very sad that sometimes respecting the first precept (in this case, not to kill one murderer out of 5) can lead to a situation where we end up seriously breaking the first precept (in this case, to kill 5 murderers, because of our passions for our familly).

Thanks in advance

May all beings be satisfied.


This sounds like the ‘Trolley problem’ which has been discussed before:


I’m reminded of @Jasudho’s response to a similar question recently:

But yes, the trolly problem is well hashed.

Bhante Sujato wrote this nice essay on “Just War” a bit ago which is also worth a read:




I also recommend Ven. Sujato’s essay, posted by @Khemarato.bhikkhu .

In line with this, you may wish to read AN4.237 which deals with four kinds of kamma, one of which is particularly applicable to the situation described in your OP.

Also, War and Kamma: Ven. Thanissaro and Ven. Bodhi’s essays


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OK, lets take this further …

Lets say that, swayed by love for family, you pick up the gun and kill one of the murderers.
Now you sit back, expecting your wife and children to be freed.

The Mafia boss comes in grinning widely and clasps you in his embrace. “Welcome to the Family!” he says.

You look at him confused.

“The person you killed was not a murderer. How could you be foolish enough to believe that the Mafia would tell the truth? He was just an ordinary innocent person. Unlike you, he was a true Buddhist who refused to do our bidding. But now, you my friend… yes you are indeed a murderer. Because you murdered that ordinary innocent person. And we have it all on camera!”

“So now, take your choice… join us and maybe we will let your family go free once you complete the next assignment we give you. Otherwise, you will end up in chains - replacing the innocent person you killed. The difference will be that you my friend will indeed be a murderer.”

“Don’t look so shocked - if you didn’t want this result, why did you murder that person?”


Karma is a bitch. But Karma is always fair.

Samsara is a game of loaded dice … the only way to win is not to play the game.


It’s conceivable that the mafia boss derives pleasure from playing with humans only when the game is actually established, so the boss refuses to break the rules and is very loyal to them. He’s not lying when he says the murdered man is a murderer, and he’s not lying when he says he’s going to set the family free. We can also imagine that this chief is well known in the world for his atrocious games with humans, and well known for being honest in these games.

Will it be acceptable for you if your problem is stated in another way like: “Is there a so-called karmically risk difference between killing 1 being and killing a different-number-than-1 being?”

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A Buddhist monk, a mob boss, and a trolley walk into a bar…


Yes, of course… that too is entirely plausible. However, such a personality is the embodiment of Mara / the Devil and can never be trusted to reveal the entire truth or not to add new twists in the future.

If we ‘freeze frame’ the flow of Samsara into the actual moment that X, gun in hand is making the decision to kill/ not to kill the person in chains what do we find?

In the immediate moment, there are two possibilities - either X kills or X does not kill.

Branching out from these two main courses of action there arise infinite numbers of possible outcome paths, each dependent on a different set of underlying conditions. In this moment, no one can be aware of all the underlying conditions and plot all future outcomes, hence it is not possible with any certainty to predict the sequence of events as they will play out ( MN90 - “There is no ascetic or brahmin who knows all and sees all simultaneously: that is not possible”).

It is entirely possible to be rewarded in the immediate future even for wrong action. Having one’s family freed in exchange for killing someone is such a reward.

However, there is one thing that can be predicted, and that is the future destination at which X will arrive, having started out with either course of action. Breaking the precepts leads to eventual rebirth in a bad destination, which cannot be avoided on the excuse that ‘I did it for the sake of my family’ (MN97).

Why do we keep the precepts? We do not keep them because we are enlightened - but because we are unenlightened. Our minds are corrupted by the defilements, swayed by which we tend to make wrong decisions. The precepts act like roadblocks - they prevent us from choosing the wrong path.

In our present case, if X chooses to follow the precepts and not to kill, he chooses the upward path. The purpose of making an ethically correct choice is to have no regrets (AN10.1). If X were to come out of the situation alive, no one would find fault with him. Even if the Mafia were to kill him and his family in the immediate future, having kept the precepts, X is assured rebirth in a good destination (MN60).

If X chooses not to follow the precepts and kills the person, he chooses the downward path. Sure, the Mafia may spare X and his family and might even reward him … but that will not change the fact that having chosen to kill, X is now a Murderer. Possibly, a court of law would convict X - his action is blameworthy even though there are extenuating circumstances. Even if he goes unpunished by society, the effects of his wrong action will inevitably play out within him either in this life, or in the next. (For a commonplace illustration of this see the inordinately high rates of psychological illness, substance abuse and suicide in military veterans and police.)

How does this actually work? For a proper understanding we must examine the working of the Mind. X’s decision to kill / not kill is based on a large number of factors of which he is himself by and large unaware. The decision matrix includes the immediate information with which he is presented plus various other intangible factors based on previous social and cultural conditioning and the results he has previously obtained from similar actions. When X makes a decision to kill, his Mind’s decision matrix is immediately skewed in that direction. If he gets rewarded for that decision, he becomes even more likely to choose that course of action in future. Having chosen the wrong path once, he is more likely to go the wrong way again… and again… his Mind changes, acquiring unwholesome characteristics which inevitably result in his rebirth in a lower plane.

The precepts act as a large counterweight in the Mind’s decision matrix. This is why we strengthen them by reaffirming them at regular intervals. When sufficiently established in our Mind, the precepts prevent us from making wrong choices. This is why the Stream enterer - who always keeps the precepts unblemished and unbroken - is exempt from the bad destinations.


Nicely said there @faujidoc1 and I agree with you too.

Maybe could we hear you say something on the other question I put in my post above?:

The OP @DeadBuddha didn’t reply so I don’t know what his intention truly is. To me, it seems that the OP doesn’t particularly focusing to choose between “not-kill” and “kill”. Instead, he seems to care to weigh decision between “kill 1” or “kill 5”. Of course, he needs to reply to clarify this.

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Sadhu! :pray: :sunflower: :rosette: :lotus:


IMHO, bad kamma grows exponentially as a being indulges in wrong action. This is because beings tend to become more and more shameless as they indulge further (MN61).

It would therefore stand to reason that the bad kamma from killing 5 versus killing 1 (of the same kind of being in the same moment by the same act) would also be that much higher. I cannot provide any specific sutta reference for this though.

Bad kamma also depends on the kind of being that is killed - killing beings to whom one owes a kammic debt (such as mother or father) or enlightened beings incurs greater bad kamma (AN6.87).

All said though, the Buddha does not approve of the killing of any Being whatsoever - he recommends instead the killing of Anger (SN11.21).


Yes that’s exactly right. In addition to the number and types of beings killed, there are many other factors that go into determining its karmic consequences, including: the set of motivations and views behind the act(s), how impulsive vs premeditated the act was, what alternative courses of action you considered and either tried or rejected, whether you regret or rejoice in the act later, etc, etc, etc. All is taken into consideration, so the calculation isn’t as simple as a numerical tally.


Wow sir @faujidoc1 your answer is so enlightening…as usual though! :grin:
Sadhu Sadhu Sadhu!:pray::pray::pray:


I agree with both @faujidoc1 and @Khemarato.bhikkhu have said.

So, in this very difficult situation, unless you are at least a sotāpanna (or irreversible bodhisattva) then you can choose “no kill”. Otherwise, there seems to be no such thing as “most reasonable” action to choose when you step on the killing path, no matter “kill 1” or “kill 5”.


I’d shoot my self in the head and let everyone else decide for themselves. I’ve had a good run :joy:

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I think that hypothetical situations like these are perfect proof for the Buddha’s teaching that life is suffering.

Coming from a philosophical and judeo-christian background, it is one of the things that I find most difficult to grasp that possibly, whatever you decide to do in the trolley problem or similar situations like that (shoot down the hijacked plane or not?), it may just not matter. Every cause leads to uncountable good and bad effects. The guy you heroically save from a train wreck today could later in his life radicalize himself and turn to be a terrorist and kill innocent people.

And this extends to a smaller scale - should I block the door for somebody who comes running on public transport? Or will this cause worse things to happen than a druggie missing a train?

Figuratively speaking, the creation of a universe in which things are allowed to work that way is what im(h)o ultimately needs to be blamed most for human tragedy.

Having said that, I am still endlessly grateful if the fire crew do pick up the phone when my house is on fire and my physician does decide to show up for work this morning.

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But why constrain yourself like this? Why not let philosophers loose sleep over such hypotheticals?

What if you radiate such compassion that the mafia members bow down at your feet?

What if your mind samadhifies and it becomes clear to you how to perform supernormal feats?

Chandavato kiṃnāma na sijjhati

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