A recent post raised the so-called “trolley problem”. If you’re not familiar, check out Wikipedia.
And gave a link to a test where apparently Buddhist monks responded like psychopaths!
So I thought I’d make a few remarks about this.
First up, a shout out to the psychopath community! Formally, these are people diagnosed with what is known today as “anti-social personality disorder”, which is characterized by a lack of empathy and morality. It’s a mental illness, and it doesn’t mean you’re evil. It means that one of the key guardrails that stands between us and evil—our conscience—is missing. So it’s a lot harder to do good. That means that they need our support and empathy, even if they can’t return it.
Not all psychopaths are serial killers. Many, in fact, lead a perfectly moral life. It’s just that they don’t do so out of an inner sense of morality, but because they calculate that it is better for them if they are moral. People like them, they do well at work, and they don’t go to jail. This is not to say that all psychopaths are like this, but it is possible.
This way of looking at morality is a part of the Buddha’s analysis of morality, too. That is, he argued that sheer self-interest was enough to lead a moral life. Which, rather surprisingly, makes Buddhism a perfect moral system for psychopaths. Yay us!
Of course, the Buddha didn’t reduce morality to self-interest; he merely pointed out that the two do not conflict.
So this gives us a starting point for understanding how a monk’s response may be similar to a psychopath’s. As part of our Buddhist education, we learn reflect rationally on our moral choices, to step back a little from an immediate, emotional judgment, and to try to look at it from different perspectives. Obviously this is (as the article notes) not exactly the same as what a psychopath does, as it is informed by compassion and a solid moral compass. Still, it’s not entirely different, either.
The monks tested were from Mahayana traditions, where there is a long background of posing such moral dilemmas. Such dilemmas are much less common in Theravada, and I wonder if that would make a difference in the responses.
I’ve long felt uncomfortable with the trolley problem, and I’m not entirely sure why. I think it’s because it creates a rather unrecognized split in how moral intuitions are applied.
On the one hand, it forces an immediate and narrowly utilitarian response. You have to decide either A or B, in a context where there are clear stakes. Moreover, it’s philosophically designed to test the relevance of the idea of “moral intuitions”, especially as they apply to a supposed moral “absolute” like the taking of life.
On the other hand, we’re applying this extremely emotional level of moral judgment while comfortably ensconced in our philosophy tutorial or our bedroom. Our physical and emotional distance from the choice makes it very different from cases where such choices must actually be made. Of course, that’s the point: to train and test moral reasoning before we need it. Still, it bothers me.
Looking from a less immediate point of view, the trolley problem overlooks many dimensions of moral life. The question of kamma and result is ignored. But what if we were to do that calculus? If you refrain from doing anything, are you making any bad kamma? Is it making worse kamma to choose to kill? And if so, is that more important long term that the lives of those killed? They’ll get reborn, which sucks, but they don’t make any bad kamma simply by being killed. But if the one who does the choosing makes bad kamma (I’m not saying they do, but I’m not sure that they don’t), then their experience of the results of that may well be greater suffering over a longer time than the supposed victims. Hence a purely rational utilitarian approach might say to not pull the lever.
Besides this, there is also the issue of context and character. Moral acts don’t exist in a vacuum; they are part of what makes us who we are, conditioned by and conditioning our self, and also those around us. Morality is a social as much as a personal reality. What of the whole problem of setting examples? Might it be better, empirically speaking, to simply adhere to the dictum “take no life”? Even if it works out poorly in this specific case, might it still have a better outcome in the long term? Once we start making exceptions, where does it lead?
To be clear, I’m not arguing for such a position, merely making the point that there is a lot about our moral life that the trolley problem leaves out. I suspect that its value lies not so much in clarifying moral intuitions, but that it provides a clear and dramatic context within which morality can be discussed.
Perhaps one drawback of such approaches is that, by narrowing the context, they make the idea of rational morality more plausible than it really is. In the real world, things are too complicated, and we go with our gut. There’s no reason that an (informed) gut should contain less wisdom than a highly artificial rationality.