Journal of Buddhist Ethics

An online journal of Buddhist scholarship related to ethics.


Is Compassionate Killing Psychologically Impossible?

ISSN 1076-9005
Volume 23, 2016

On Compassionate Killing and the Abhidhamma’s “Psychological Ethics”

Damien Keown
University of London Goldsmiths

Is compassionate killing really psychologically impossible, as the Abhidhamma claims? Previously I discussed a Vinaya case that seemed to show the contrary. Reviewing my conclusions in the light of commentarial literature, Rupert Gethin disagreed and restated the Abhidhamma position that killing can never be motivated by compassion. This paper supports my original conclusions and argues further that the Vinaya case reveals underlying problems with the Abhidhamma’s “psychological ethics.”

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Can Killing Ever Be an Act of Compassion?

ISSN 1076-9005
Volume 11, 2004

Can Killing a Living Being Ever Be an Act of Compassion? The Analysis of the Act of Killing in the Abhidhamma and Pāli Commentaries

Rupert Gethin
University of Bristol

In the Theravādin exegetical tradition, the notion that intentionally killing a living being is wrong involves a claim that when certain mental states (such as compassion) are present in the mind, it is simply impossible that one could act in certain ways (such as to intentionally kill). Contrary to what Keown has claimed, the only criterion for judging whether an act is “moral” (kusala) or “immoral” (akusala) in Indian systematic Buddhist thought is the quality of the intention that motivates it. The idea that killing a living being might be a solution to the problem of suffering runs counter to the Buddhist emphasis on dukkha as a reality that must be understood. The cultivation of friendliness in the face of suffering is seen as something that can bring beneficial effects for self and others in a situation where it might seem that compassion should lead one to kill.

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