Sunday, September 26, 2010

The moral dilemma

Before I start my main topic, I must mention that Andrew, my ninth-grader, should be in Drama Club! He just needs some encouragement from someone besides Mother Dearest. I was barred from photographing him in his latest getup, though he did go strut his stuff at our local convenience store (to the gaping amazement of several onlookers). Perhaps his big bro got some photographic evidence to use in future blackmail schemes, but not I ... because he knew I would immediately come here, to the big wide world of cyberspace, and post them!

Here is the origin of today's discussion that follows:

The Mind & Life Institute was formed to organize a series of in-depth discussions between scientists and the Dalai Lama to inform and enlighten practitioners of both approaches to reality. I have been listening to a lengthy podcast of this particular conference linked above, called "Attention, Memory and the Mind: A Synergy of Psychological, Neuroscientific, and Contemplative Perspectives." Wordy, but don't be intimidated. It's fascinating stuff about how little we actually know about what we thought we knew! And how we could possibly find out more.

It seems that most, if not all cultures, when framing a moral reference, create the classic "moral dilemma" tale that goes something like this: You are on a platform, above an approaching train. Someone is standing beside you. You see that five people are unsuspectingly in the path of the oncoming train below. You don't have time to warn them or do anything but decide: Do you push this other person, who is much larger than you and would stop the train, to his/her death to save the five people below? Do you do nothing?  (When during the Mind-Life seminar, the teller had to explain that the bystander was much larger, so that you couldn't simply sacrifice yourself, it was met with uproarious laughter.)

Let's see if I can recall the Dalai Lama's version. One thousand people are on a ship in the middle of the ocean. One is a (vicious and apparently, very efficient) murderer who has decided to slaughter every other person on the ship. (Parenthetical addition mine) There is nowhere for anyone to escape. Do you, having knowledge of the planned massacre, kill the murderer to save the other 999 people? Or not?

The Dalai Lama explained it like this: If you kill the one, to save the many, you create a much smaller negative karma than the one killing the 999. But, he stressed, you must have a pure heart and compassionate intentions, and then nearly anything is permissable. (This is reminiscent to me of Paul's teaching that what is sin to one is not to another.)

Of course, logic begs to differ with this conclusion. Think about the premises of each tale more thoroughly. How does the person who must make a choice possess omniscience with regard to future events? Life is uncertain. It's impossible to predict with certainty what will happen in the next moment, much less a series of events that will lead to a particular outcome. That's the main reason I believe we are barred from "playing God."

Only the most wise and knowledgeable person should dare to harm another in the name of the greater good. Not me! Additionally, I don't believe there are any examples of a holy person doing something wicked for the purpose of helping many more others. So, I believe this fable, though compelling, relies on a false premise (perfect foreknowledge) that could not occur in real life.

1 comment:

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