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.”

Read article

One thought on “Is Compassionate Killing Psychologically Impossible?”

  1. Aside from his debate with Rupert Gethin and issues with Abhidhamma psychology, Damien Keown’s paper raises complex and important questions. If you allow, I would like to offer a few suggestions.

    1) It is difficult, if not impossible, for a spiritual and quite variegated movement like Buddhadharma to advocate or take clear positions in favor of mercy killing or euthanasia, human or animal. The responsibility to incite people, in general, to end their own life (or to end other’s lives) is too great. So what could be perhaps allowed in a particular situation for a particular person cannot be generalized. Actually, this reflects the Aristotle quote, note 43, on practical wisdom. Human life and ethics cannot be encompassed by fixed rules and laws. Otherwise, humanity would have made some progress in this respect, as it did with hard sciences. It did not and the more we come to know from Anthropology and History, the more ethical issues appear complex and fuzzy. (Vexed by this observation, Pope Francis very recently criticized post-modern relativism.)

    I would add that the idea to use a moral code and fixed set of rules (Patimokkha), even backed up as they are by some very general principles such as “non-harming”, dedicated to strict ascetics 2500 years ago in India, to “fix” universal ethical quandaries in the 21st century for lay people is questionable, to say the least. There is a clarification at the beginning of the paper, so I am not saying this is the intent of the author, although it is not clear by its more general conclusion.

    2) I was also told by Buddhist friends of a possible unwanted and dreadful consequence. If euthanasia becomes banal eventually, aged people who cost a lot to health system and to nations’ budgets will be incited, even if indirectly, to hasten a bit their agony, or perhaps simply to shorten their progressive physical and mental decline. Apparently, this may already be the case in England, or so I was told. This reminds me of a story I heard. When asked contemptuously why Hindus do not eat their cows, even in starvation periods, an Indian man said that perhaps when Westerners will start eating their old ones, they may start eating their cows!

    3) That said, the distinction between a motive and an intent (or, adding some complexity, motivations and intentions) in Dharma is very much worth digging. One quality of Maria Heim’s book (that received a rather harsh review on this website) is to show how Buddhaghosa was subtle enough a hermeneutist to distinguish those issues according to different set of scriptures, which address different life contexts.

    The precise use of words in different languages (embedded in so many philosophical and religious views) is, of course, fundamental. I have been using regularly for my personal work the Abhidamma‘s, the Abhidharmasamuccaya and the Kosha, but found eventually that some definitions offered are way to short and obscure when trying to identify (and translate in French and English from Sanskrit or Pāli) precisely psychological–or even phenomenological–equivalents in Western languages (or more simply according to my own observations). So, relating to cetana, if we were to find some close associations with the Husserlian concept of intentionality (for example), in the sense of the mind being by its very nature propelled towards an object, we could even come to say that we have (morally) non-intentional intents !

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *