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What choice does Buddhist ethics recommend when faced with the moral dilemmas present in the trolley problem? The problem has quite a few variants, here are the most important ones:

  1. you are the driver of a runaway trolley barreling down the railway tracks toward five workmen who cannot get out of the way. To prevent their deaths, your only option is to divert the trolley onto a side track, but diverting would kill one worker on the side track.

Do you divert the trolley or not?

  1. you are a surgeon, and five of your patients will soon die unless they receive organ transplants. The only way to save the five is to fatally harvest the organs from a sixth, healthy patient, who is unwilling to donate any organs

Do you kill the sixth patient or not?

  1. As before, a trolley is hurtling down a track towards five people. You are on a bridge under which it will pass, and you can stop it by putting something very heavy in front of it. As it happens, a very fat man is right next to you. The only way to stop the trolley is to push him over the bridge and onto the track, killing him to save five. Should you proceed?

  2. The further development of this example involves the case, where the fat man is, in fact, the villain who put these five people in peril.

Do you kill the villain to save five lives or not?

  1. The trolley is running down the tracks towards five workmen, as in the first scenario. You can divert the trolley to a side track, but diverting would kill your mother, who is on the track. Do you divert the trolley or not?
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    The trolley question in particular gets criticized because it is so contrived and remote from ordinary application. Amazingly, it now has an application with self driving cars, who may need to be programmed to decide what to do in a difficult situation where a collision with pedestrians is unavoidable. – MatthewMartin Oct 30 '15 at 3:21
  • Bonus points will go to those who can provide the Buddhist stance on the extended version of the trolley problem :) existentialcomics.com/comic/106 – michau Nov 11 '15 at 16:41
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    same answer, part of samsara is choices are hard, maybe you can't easily choose your way out of samsara, you have to reevaluate your relationship with samsara (i.e. cultivate some equanimity about outcomes) – MatthewMartin Nov 11 '15 at 18:14

11 Answers 11

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Traditionally, worrying about this kind of speculative problems is classified as a form of delusion. Consider the following Zen story:

Huineng's Flag

Two Zen monks saw a flag wavering in the wind, and could not help having a philosophical debate:
-- "It is the flag that is wavering," argued one monk.
-- "No, it's the wind that is wavering!" insisted the other monk.

Huineng, who happened to pass by, overheard the two monks and remarked, "It's not the flag nor the wind that is wavering. Your minds are wavering!"

In this vein, the most enlightened way to solve the trolley problem would be to stop worrying about it.

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    People come across ethical dilemmas all the time, and are forced to choose the "lesser evil". If Buddhist ethics has a principled way of solving the trolley problems, the same principles can be used for solving actual ethical problems that happen in the real life. So my question isn't only motivated by theoretical or philosophical interest. Of course, your answer may be valid if what you are saying is "Buddhist ethics isn't based on any general principles and therefore gives no guidance about ethical dilemmas that aren't explicitly mentioned in the suttas". – michau Oct 30 '15 at 12:10
  • I think Both Andrei volkov and @michau are right about this. Some questions are paradoxes even the answers only feed its complexity. – Theravada Oct 30 '15 at 20:34
  • This comment on /r/Buddhism is a similar response to the same question. "Trolley problem would never exist, because nothing spontaneously forms into being. There is always causes and conditions that create existence..." – user10959 Jun 18 '17 at 19:16
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Well, to act or not to act, I usually go by with what Buddha told his son regarding wholesome or unwholesome actions. 1) first, determine intention, 2) evaluate results, and 3) compare it with the wise (is action blameless or blame worthy). Number 3 really demonstrates Buddha's wisdom; since we don't live alone our actions should fit with others (the wise).

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In the Jataka tales, a common answer to moral decisions was to commit suicide in a self sacrificing way, say by flinging yourself in front of the trolley or donating all your own organs. That wasn't a choice, so this is a sort of a dodge.

Next, Karma is the usual engine for explaining what ever is put forward. So if someone is faced with an impossible decision, it was their karma that got them to this position. Karma as a system of explaining right and wrong is pretty malleable, with enough rhetorical skill, you probably could justify any alternative.

The system of Karma is based on the idea that the universe is fair & rewards the right and wrong that you intuitively feel, that built in instinctive reaction. On that standard, the right answer is what ever your emotions or intuition urged you to do, so I guess mum would get preference over the strangers in a Karma system.

And finally, an enlightened Bodhisattva sometimes is described as acting automatically, without thought-- reflexively. So again, the right action is to do what you reflexively would do in such a situation. For me, I can't imagine what my reflexes would do.

Either way, after you make a hard decision that results in harm, the next step in the Buddhist system is to repent-- to feel bad about it and resolve to not do it again. If we don't make a decision and don't repent the "bad karma" we create for ourselves, then we are on a slippery slope of not taking responsibility for our actions.

And finally, Buddhist moral thinking does have some math or pseudomath with respect to how much merit/bad karma you can get from doing this or that act. For the Buddhist writers that assigned numbers and ratios and ranks to the merit earned by this or that act (or bad karma earned), they were on the road to utilitarianism, i.e. the greatest good to the greatest number. I don't know if it was ever stated so clearly though-- the math of merit and karma also has the feel of rhetorical flourish.

  • +1 Even though you don't give clear answers on what to do in each situation (which is understandable, as it is unlikely that all Buddhists would agree on what to do), you give information about underlying principles of Buddhist ethics, which say how a Buddhist should make a decision in those cases. – michau Nov 1 '15 at 11:59
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I will answer your questions in the order you have mentioned

1 :- Conditions

  • you are sure that all will die if you do nothing
  • you are also aware that changing tracks would kill one person

    "So the paradox is if you do nothing you will gain bad karma for not stopping a death but if you do change the tracks you might gain bad karma"

Here is the solution

As Lord Buddha has clearly stated Karma is a product of conscious thought making choices.

Example :- You are walking on a pavement in the night and it's dark.Suddenly you feel that you stepped on something.You look closely and see that it's a frog and it has died on the spot.

Here you had no choice it was there and it was crushed by your foot.You were not having any thoughts about killing a frog, it just happened.This will not generate any karma because it wasn't an action you choose to do.

  • Finalization

In your scenario you must act quickly and change the tracks. But here is the catch,as you are doing it there should be this thought in your head.Saving the lives of those people.From there you hope for the best.But if you choose not to act at all you will gain bad karma for that.And here is a story given in Buddhism (I am sorry i cant point you a book of reference to this now because i cant remember.)

There was a man who made some sort of a nectar like honey out of a certain liquid extracted from a certain tree.One day he was doing his work normally and a fly came to his workplace.It started being a real pain to him so he tried to chase it away.He wasn't successful in his effort but unfortunately the fly ended up in the nectar that was boiling on the oven.He thought to save it but he stopped thinking "Fry now,this is your punishment for the trouble you caused me." So the fly died.This man after his death had similar fates for many lives.

About the expansion of the original question.

Even if the fat guy is a villain in this scenario it doesn't change a thing. Because Buddhism do not accept avenging,vendetta or eye for an eye justice. If he put those people in peril it is his karma to take with him.

There is an very special story that i would like to point out from Buddhism, this is a past story about Shyakyamuni Buddha (Gothama/current Lord Budhha mentioned in theravada).

When Buddha was a Bodhisattva one day he and his friend came across a similar situation.A tigress trapped in a deep hole has had cubs while being in it.It was clear that she was hungry and most likely cubs will be her food soon.So the friend went away to find a rope to get these creatures out (He is Maithree Bodhisattva {the next Lord Buddha}).But our Bodhisattva saw that there is no time left so he jumped into the pit. our Bodhisattva did this to save the lives of the cubs. He could have easily waited or let his friend jump instead of him. This was the incident that defined the order of the Buddhas of this era.

So the solution is clear.The Fat man has no value in this situation only you have.If there is a genuine concern to save the five people.The person himself must jump and save the people (Only if his body is capable,But if he take this on a positive note and just jump anyway even if he save these people or not he will gain a "Paramitha" [a very strong practice that is essential for nirvana]) so his effort will not be fruitless.

About the last

Same above applies here but this is very dangerous because this is your mother and it anything goes wrong you become "Hell bound".(Personally i would not take the risk)

This should not go without saying the last riddle you have given is too complex for a normal person no matter how smart he thinks he is.this is a one better left for an Arahant.

2 :- Conditions

  • The sixth person will not agree
  • The five will obviously die

"So the paradox is if the doctor take organs by force it would be bad karma, if he do nothing five people will die"

Here is the solution

You are not allowed to take anything from anyone by force as to Buddhism, so your options are to either convince the sixth to donate / Find an alternative supply / Use some of your own organs.

  • Finalization

You can't take organs by force so you should either give your own or find the organs from someone else.And if you can't save all even after giving up your own you will gain no bad karma from the people that you couldn't save. Because you have done the best and there are no more other solutions for this.

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    I like your answer best, because it doesn't just provide answers, but also the reasoning behind them and refers to relevant Buddhist stories. The only problem is that it is a bit unstructured, and I had to read through it several times. Perhaps it would be easier to read if it was split into 5 numbered points, with a separate answer to each of the problems? – michau Nov 1 '15 at 11:49
  • I am the author if this answer as you can see User : michau asked me for a better formatting of this answer.I agree but i have no idea how to do it. I appreciate if an elite user can do it without changing the information. – Theravada Nov 1 '15 at 18:55
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Options for scenario 1 & 5: Practice Vipassana/Karuna/Upekka/Marananussati meditations; contemplate the danger of Samsara etc.

Options for scenario 2: Give your own organs and save some or/and whichever person dies first, take his organs to help others or/and do as in scenario 1

Options for scenario 3 & 4: Jump yourself or do as in scenario 1

  • Secnario 1 & 5: Is your point that there is no clear answer whether to divert the trolley or not, and every person needs to evaluate the situation himself with a clear and equanimous mind? Scenario 3 & 4: The assumption is that you are not fat enough to stop the trolley, so it doesn't seem like a good solution. Scenario 2: If you are the surgeon and give your own organs, you won't be able to do the operation and you and all the ill patients will die. – michau Oct 28 '15 at 16:20
  • No! You can pick any one of the options given for 1 & 5 as the solution. You don't get involved with the trolley. 3 & 4: If you are not heavy enough, do as in 1 & 5. 1: As surgeon, you might be able to remove some organs without killing yourself. If not, try the other options given – Sankha Kulathantille Oct 28 '15 at 16:47
  • I still don't understand your answer to 1 & 5. I'm a trolley driver. You say I should start meditating. So I close my eyes, start meditating and contemplating the danger of Samsara, and it obviously doesn't lead to diverting the trolley, so the 5 people get killed. Is that your answer? – michau Oct 28 '15 at 17:00
  • Yes, they get killed. Eyes opened or closed, you can do Karuna meditation and wish for those people to suffer less. Or you can simply do Vipassana like "seeing... seeing.. seeing.." or any of the other options mentioned. – Sankha Kulathantille Oct 28 '15 at 17:23
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Just came to me, all of these questions are about escaping death as premise (the ultimate dukka). Buddha searched for 6 years for a way to escape from it. What he found and told us that because of birth, death come to be. The only way to truly escape death is when there is no birth. Dependent origination is not a common knowledge (Asādhāraṇa Yanna). Those who have not heard dharma would not know a way to escape death. Trolley questions above ask us to apply our morality to escape death (of others) but the given choices are not ultimate solutions to ultimate dukka.

  • I think the point is that those people are going to suffer before they die, and the question is if we should let those 5 people suffer, or make another 1 person suffer instead. – michau Oct 29 '15 at 20:45
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Any answers to such questions would not reflect the truth.

Why is that so?

In every action there are more consequences as there are grains of sand in a desert.

There is no known beginning nor end. Uncountable are these consequences.

Deeply rooted are these consequences.

They spiral like a spider's web, interconnecting each with the other.

In the same way a single piece of sand at the top of a desert dune applies pressure to the entire dune, in the same way intentions create consequences.

Now, friend, by knowing all this, do you still think there is an answer to your questions?

Impossible is to give a correct answer.

If I were to give an answer, there would be no truth in it.

That's why I answer with this:

You should choose the action that creates less suffering.

But, friend, don't think too fast!

Remember, deeply rooted is each action. Huge can be its consequences. Enormous can be the suffering.

So, friend, choose wisely.

Only by wise decisions, suffering is extinguished.

Only by wisdom suffering is known. Its cause is known. Its consequences are known. Everything is known.

So, friend, study diligently and know things. Know the earth. Know the universe. Know yourself ...

As only by knowing, the path is known.

Only by knowing, the right action is known. Only by knowing, perfection is obtained.

By a perfected mind actions are known. Actions are understood. All consequences seen.

By a perfected mind and nothing else but a perfected mind everything is known.

So, friend, study diligently. Therein lies your answer.

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I can answer one of these questions:

  1. you are a surgeon, and five of your patients will soon die unless they receive organ transplants. The only way to save the five is to fatally harvest the organs from a sixth, healthy patient, who is unwilling to donate any organs.

I read some Buddhist doctrines about organ donation before I wrote this answer to 'Buddhism and organ donation' -- and I think it's safe to say that voluntary organ donation is permitted, but I do not expect that a Buddhist doctor would kill an unwilling human in order to harvest their organs.

I suspect that the ethics of the situation include:

  • If you kill a person then you're acting wrongly
  • If you're unable to save a person (for example if you see someone being carried away by a flood) then that's not a moral fault of the same type as if you had killed them

In the case of the people who die without organ transplants, you might see that as them working out their own karma (not a reason to kill the sixth, unwilling person).

Buddhism might help people to live and die, but it doesn't do that by killing people to steal their organs.

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The 1st thing ins Buddhism is to look after one's well being. To protect to protect one's well being is to protect others. But in this problem you are protecting people at the expense of the other. Hence you will be breaking Sila, for which he conditions are:

i) The being must be alive.

ii) There must be knowledge that it is a living being.

iii) There must be intention to cause its death.

iv) Action must be taken to cause its death

v) Death must result from such action.

If all these conditions are fulfilled, then the precept has been broken.

Source: FIVE PRECEPTS (PACASILA)

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According to this article, this is how Tibetan Buddhist monks tend to solve the problem:

Xiang administered the footbridge variation to practicing Buddhist monks near the city of Lhasa and compared their answers to Han Chinese and American populations. “The [monks] were overwhelmingly more likely to say it was okay to push the guy off the footbridge,” Greene said.

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michau, and those interested (in possible release),

The training precepts - as ones protection to possible not listen to all kinds of defilements and do wrong in regard of the benefit of liberation - are by their purpose, not open for speculation so that they would serve their purpose and benefit.

It may lighten or make certain speculations irrelevant to be clear that one does not have any inherent obligation to "help" or "save", but this it self, the notion, is in fact an "obligation" out of unskillful gained debt, independency.

For a certain break of "contract", not fullfilling a certain "promise" for a more skillful purpose, see: [Q&A] Is changing your mind same as lying? Breaking promises

For precept of killing and generall, see answer in: Euthanasia and Buddhism

[Note: This is a gift of Dhamma, not meant for commercial purpose or other low wordily gains by means of trade and exchange.]

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