On Killing People

Graham Lock

Watching scenes of barbarity on the news or reading about them in the newspaper, I have sometimes wondered whether there are any circumstances in which I would be willing to kill someone, or more realistically in my case (if I had a gun in my hand I would probably shoot myself in the foot, or if I had a sword I would undoubtedly manage to cut off my own fingers), whether I would support a government’s military or law enforcement agency killing people in my name or on my behalf.

A friend recently drew my attention to an exchange of views on this topic between Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi and Ven. Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Bhikkhu Bodhi had written a piece called ‘War and Peace: A Buddhist Perspective’ (Inquiring Mind 2014). He argued that although the suttas consistently endorse nonviolence in the face of evil, ‘the moral tensions we encounter in real life should caution us against interpreting Buddhist ethical prescriptions as unqualified absolutes’. He suggests a ‘pragmatic karmic framework’ – at least for those not trying to advance as quickly as possible to liberation. He argues that such a framework can justify serving as a combatant (and therefore possibly being involved in killing) ‘if one sincerely believes the reason for fighting is to disable a dangerous aggressor and protect one’s country and its citizens’. ‘ Can we say fidelity to Dharma obliges us to remain passive in the face of brute aggression, or to pursue negotiations when it is plain these will not work?’, he asks rhetorically.

Ajahn Thanissaro. From alchetron.com
Ven. Thanissaro. From alchetron.com

Ven. Thanissaro Bhikkhu wrote a letter in response to this article to which Bhikkhu Bodhi in turn responded. Unfortunately, the exchange of letters is no longer available online, so I have to rely on memory. As far as I remember, Thanissaro Bhikkhu’s basic points were that nonviolence is fundamental to Buddhist ethics and that once we admit it can be compromised in specific situations, we are on a slippery slope that will eventually lead to an escalation in the use of violence, and that if we are ingenious enough there is always a way to deal with a problem which avoids the use of violence. Apologies to Thanissaro Bhikkhu if I have remembered his views incorrectly.

I tend towards Bhikkhu Bodhi’s view. I have always understood the precepts not as absolute commandments but as training guidelines one commits to following to the best of one’s ability and with regard to the realities of specific situations. The bottom line, I have always thought, is ‘do no harm’, or at least try to minimize the amount of suffering you cause or fail to prevent. It is easy to imagine situations in which killing could be justified in terms of preventing more suffering than it causes, for example, if a jihadist is about to detonate a bomb in a crowded market or if a deranged gunman has started randomly shooting students in a primary school. The problem is that few situations are that clear cut. More often one has to balance various factors and try to predict the likely outcome of different actions. For example, is bombing a terrorist group in an urban area with all the ‘collateral damage’ (a horrible euphemism) that will ensue really going to put an end to terrorist attacks by the group, or will it serve to scatter their ideology further afield and help to recruit more members to their cause? It’s here that I have some sympathy for Thanissaro Bikkhu’s ‘slippery slope’ argument. It is not hard to think of cases in which the readiness to resort to extreme violence by governments or by law enforcement agencies has undoubtedly caused more suffering than it has prevented.

The Dalai Lama addresses this in a recent article called The Reality of War. In this article, he expresses his deep opposition to war and the tragedies and suffering that it causes. Yet he also makes it clear that he does not advocate appeasement. I was initially quite surprised to read that he considers both the Second World War and the Korean War to be just wars (perhaps I had naively assumed that he would espouse a radically pacifist viewpoint), but then he makes the very important point that ‘we can only judge whether or not a conflict was vindicated on moral grounds with hindsight’, therefore we should avoid war if at all possible. This is of course the nub of the problem.

In the same article the Dalai Lama talks of how ‘most of us have been conditioned to regard military combat as exciting and glamorous – an opportunity for men to prove their competence and courage’. Interestingly, that has not been my experience. I grew up in the UK in the 1950’s and 60’s. My father’s experiences in the Second World War certainly did not lead him to glamorize war, and I was part of the ‘make love not war’ generation. The key event of the era for us was America’s war in Vietnam. I can hardly think of anyone, either among my friends or among my school and university teachers who was not strongly, even passionately, opposed to that war (maybe those who supported US policy just kept quiet). This led, at least in my case, to a general opposition to all war and a great distrust of the military – especially the US military! As far as I can reconstruct my beliefs at that time, I think I was conditioned into a rather unreflecting pacifism. I no longer find this tenable.

So how do I now answer the question I started with? I don’t think simple-mindedly following commandments like ‘thou shalt not kill’ or slogans like ‘make love not war’ is a sufficient basis for ethics in the real world. Opposing the use of violence in all cases against people intent on rape and mass murder is not an option, unless we can put forward practical non-violent alternatives – alternatives that we ourselves would be willing to help implement. I think we have a duty to find out as much as we possibly can about any situation and then take a stand based on what seems to us likely to lead to the least suffering, even if this means supporting violence. Of course, given the complexity of the causes and conditions for the arising of any situation, there is a good chance that future outcomes will prove us to be completely wrong. We have to live with that. All we can do is to try to make sure that whatever action we decide to take or to support is based upon the best available information and that our decision is not clouded by anger or hatred.

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