Mar 4, 2008

Compassionate Homicide?

Recently the Robert Latimer case has gotten back in the news. Canadian readers will be well aware of the basic fact, but for others here is the bare-bones; On 24th Oct. of 1993 Saskatchewan farmer Robert Latimer killed his severely handicapped daughter Tracy, 12, by carbon-monoxide, running the exhaust of his truck into the cab. Tracy had cerebral palsy, was mentally retarded and paralyzed. She was also in a great deal of pain, although how severe and how constant it was seems to be in some dispute. Mr. Latimer was sentenced to life imprisonment for second-degree murder. In Dec. 2007, a parole board denied him early release because he "had failed to show proper remorse." Indeed, he has always held that he did the right thing, acting out of compassion for Tracy's suffering. Shortly after this, a review board over-turned the decision and Mr. Latimer is now on day-release parole in Ottawa.

(If you want more back-ground to the story;
A good neutral summary from the CBC web-site
A review of the court evidence with a pro-life slant
The official Robert Latimer support site.)

This case raises a number of important ethical and legal issues. On the legal side, it brings into question the wisdom of the policy of "mandatory minimum" sentencing, the rights of the disabled, euthanasia and probably several more.

On the ethical side, this case raises once again the whole problem of beginning and end of life problems that seem to be at the crux of what is called bio-ethics. Many people support Mr. Latimer's decision; they cite what they call "quality of life" as a criterion. Tracy could never have expected anything close to a normal life, and probably would have endured a lot of physical pain before dying naturally at a relatively young age. They argue that the motive of this killing was "compassion" and it should have been treated differently.

But is it really ever possible to kill with compassion? As a monk friend of mine pointed out, when someone "puts down" a sick dog, they say "I just couldn't stand to see that poor dog suffer." According to Buddhist abhidhamma, an act of destruction of life must involve a mind of hate, and is incompatible with compassion. This is not to say that Mr. Latimer hated his daughter, I am sure he loved her in his own way, but the suffering he was trying to end in that pick-up truck was really his own.

And that is worth thinking about too. The suffering endured by parents of a child like Tracy is no small thing. Another issue raised here is how the broader society could and should take up more of the care of the severely disabled and not leave the whole burden on the unfortunate parents. But this said, it doesn't make what Latimer did in any way acceptable.

The idea of giving anyone, doctors, bureaucrats or parents included, the right to make life-and-death decisions for someone else based on perceived "quality of life" is a scary one. The slippery slope could go down a long way.

These right-to-life versus right-to-choice (although in this case, not Tracy's) bring out a fundamental ethical divide between those who have some kind of religious or spiritual perspective and those who base their ethical thinking on purely secular or humanist grounds. I know some will call me a crank, but I am more and more convince that so-called secular humanism is fundamentally inhuman. The basis of the materialist view is that we are just meat-machines and the implication is that when the machine malfunctions to the point where it no longer provides pleasure (the only possible good in the materialist view) then it can, indeed, ought to be destroyed. A spiritual perspective that recognizes, in some way or other, that this life here and now is not all there is, is capable of accepting a higher dimension and granting an intrinsic dignity and worth to human beings far beyond anything the materialist can imagine.

All this said, and my bias is clear, I am not upset that Mr. Latimer is more or less free. I am no fan of the penal system (maybe a post for another day) and I have no desire to see him punished. My concern is only for the precedent set, and I would think it appalling if the legal system and society at large started to view parental or medical termination of the mentally and physically disabled as somehow acceptable.


Robert Stone said...

Check out Getting the Message by Ajahn Geoffrey. He says (among other things):

"In no recorded instance did [the Buddha] approve of killing any living being at all. When one of his monks went to an executioner and told the man to kill his victims compassionately, with one blow, rather than torturing them, the Buddha expelled the monk from the Sangha, on the grounds that even the recommendation to kill compassionately is still a recommendation to kill — something he would never condone."

I believe he is correct. I think that any act of killing where one feels that it's justified somehow is going to involve a sort of "kammic sacrifice." For example, I feel that I have a social responsibility to defend my wife from harm, and I might kill to defend her if I had to. If I ever did though, I'd simply have to be willing to acknowledge that I'm going to suffer consequences. Killing is never good. If one accepts the view that killing is good in some situation, then one in those situations is no longer under any sort of motivation to try to find some alternative to killing.

I don't know if compassion is some sort of kammic "mitigating factor" or not, but I do not believe that killing is ever skillful.

Philip Kienholz said...

right into the thick of it again!

Angulimalo said...

I think that offering simplistic solutions to complex problems is a trap. To me the killing of a daughter/loved one who continually experiences the level of pain and lack of quality of life that this mans daughter did, in the nonviolent way that he did IS an act of Compassion. He simply wanted his daughters suffering to end. There is no point in discussing "quality of life" issues, because the daughter clearly HAD no quality of life. We do not know the anguish and suffering this man experienced before and after the killing.
It is too easy to judge this man. I think there is an Amerindian saying "If you want to understand me, walk a mile in my moccassins". None of us have walked in this mans moccassins.

Dhamma81 said...

The Buddha wouldn't have said no to killing if it wasn't serious. I don't think Mr. Latimer ought to spend life in jail because clearly his actions differ from that of the average killer, however, I don't excuse his actions.

One thing I always liked about the Theravada teachings is they are so clear cut. I wholeheartedly disagree with angulimalos statement regarding the "trap of offering simplilistic solutions to complex problems." I think certain things are pretty cut and dry, and making things too complex leaves a lot of unskillful "wiggle room" for unwholesome actions. I think complexity is an excuse not to take a stand, but that is just my opinion.

I do agree with angulimalo's statement about "walking a mile in someones moccasins", as one really doesn't know what one would do in any situation. I would hope that my sila would be secure enough to never even consider killing as a "compassionate" action.

I came across the whole euthanasia thing a few years agao with my cat. As a child my mother would make the choice with the family pet, but when I had to make it I just couldn't do it. I knew that killing was wrong and I thought that no matter what I couldn't ever ask my cat what he would want, and even if I could i wouldn't be able to bring myself to kill him. I thought that I would actually be paying someone to kill my cat if I made that decision. I chose palliative care with a natural death instead. I don't regret my choice.

Ajahn Punnadhamo is correct in that issues like this can be a slippery slope that could lead to a dangerous place. Materialism and Humanism have already led us to a pretty dangerous place as it is. Glad to know there are others out there that feel the same way and try to live in acoordance with Dhamma.

Joe said...

I appreciate Ajahn Punnadhamo's point, which I think is for the most part a substantive response to the issue he raises, but I can't help but think that this encourages us to take up a side (do not kill) where this no side. Where and on what ground would we draw such a line The last I knew anything about the Five Precepts, they weren't fundamental structures of reality.

Not being indisputable, of course, does not mean they are not without reason. It does mean that we are making the same mistake in saying that killing is not acceptable/allowable that we are in saying that it is acceptable/allowable.

Ajahn Punnadhamo points out how the father's desire to end his suffering is at least as much at play in how he comes to his decision, how it even occurs to him as an option, as does the stated concern for the suffering of his daughter. I think there is something to this, but not something that on its own really tell us how he should have acted.

It reminds me of an exchange I think I've heard the Dali Lama have more than once, where someone gives him a tough time about how the dhamma informs hypothetical decisions about conventionally significant events, such as (classically) torturing a terrorist in order to get the location of a known bomb ready to blow. I can't recount it in all its sublime detail, but basically the Dali Lama says, "when it happens, I'll let you know." The point being that what the Buddha taught was not an instruction booklet for life, with formulae that apply before hand to how we actually live our lives, but a prescription for how we can begin to really live it. Once we start to live our lives, then we can have something to say about what is to be done, but it still won't come to stand in for the decision itself.

Joe said...

"I wholeheartedly disagree with angulimalos statement regarding the "trap of offering simplilistic solutions to complex problems." I think certain things are pretty cut and dry, and making things too complex leaves a lot of unskillful "wiggle room" for unwholesome actions. I think complexity is an excuse not to take a stand, but that is just my opinion."

I can appreciate taking a stand, but I think what's at least as important is understanding from where that stand is being taken: here in the moment or from the ground of a theory.

The moment we are in is neither just straight-forward nor just complex. It is happening in between these extremes. If we can see mere straight-forwardness, that's because we're seeing it just from our side, which wants to say that this is how it is or ought to be. If we can see mere complexity, that's because we're seeing it from the side that is not us. Both are there, but they aren't taking sides in this way. To take sides in this way is to take a theoretical position to what is a real situation, to what is this moment.

In this sense, there is a complexity to this moment that we must always interpret and put into action straight-forwardly. To opt for one side or the other out of hand is to think/behave unwholesomely.

This is what the Buddha presses in a dialogue with Vacchagota, in which Vacchagota tries to get the Buddha to expound a theoy about this or that. Here, too, in the "Vajjiya Sutta" the point is that it isn't that anything goes nor that there is a correct course of action to be known before hand.

"If, when an observance is observed, unskillful qualities grow and skillful qualities wane, then I tell you that that sort of observance is not to be observed. But if, when an observance is observed, unskillful qualities wane and skillful qualities grow, then I tell you that that sort of observance is to be observed."

The point being that, yes, the Buddha did say that taking life is unskillful, though I'm having a hard time finding those exact words, but that taking the Buddha's pronouncement to definitively or categorically mean this or that is already itself unskillful.

Rhapsodysinger said...

One would want to believe that keeping terminally ill people alive falls into the plan of the All Knowing. And for me, it does: but this whole issue and your dividing of people into spiritual and material, jars me. Is it not possible that it is the sign of being spiritual is to be uncertain about everything, including the value of being spiritual? Since, till date I have not faced such a situation, I can only remember the Buddha's Karuna or compassions. Everything burns and suffers...the sorrow of it all and our decisions and hundred revisions are just that --- in flux.

Angulimalo said...

To me, the point of my posting was that we shouldn't judge/condemn this guy for killing his daughter. I also made the point that this man must have experienced and most likely continues to experience terrible anguish both in making his decision and carrying it out.
To say: "We shouldn't kill because the Buddha condemned killing" is exactly the simplistic approach I think is too easy to have. The series of events that lead to this man making the decision to kill his daughter as a response to an absence of quality of life ARE complex.
I also offer that until WE are in the position of having to turn off life support on a loved one or allow medical staff to withdraw treatment, then it is too easy by far to judge this man.
Where is the Compassion in simply saying "The Buddha didn't allow killing in any form, therefore what this man did is wrong"?
I hope if and when the day comes and you are in this mans position that people are more Compassionate than the way you are posting.
This man killed someone who he loved because she had almost no quality of life and was never likely to have any. He isn't some nut with an AK47 & a grudge against society walking into a classroom. He knew that he would get caught, knew he would get a serious sentence for what he did. This man needs and deserves our love and compassion not our judgement.
I know what it's like to have an unrepentant, unsympathetic criminal in the brother is a paedophile....and this man isn't at all like my brother.

Joe said...

"I hope if and when the day comes and you are in this mans position that people are more Compassionate than the way you are posting."

Could you clarify this, please? I wasn't attacking or critiquing you, or even really disagreeing with you, in the first place. Second of all, you don't really address anything I actually write, so I can't tell where your complaint is directed, much less how to respond. Before I go on with the rest of my response though, I want to remind you that I think everyone was doing there best to not judge this man, and by my estimation were spot on with that aim. The real issue here was the legal and ethical ramifications of saying what this many did was acceptable. I'll refer you to Ajahn Punnadhammo's last paragraph in his post for his own take on the difference.

If anything, my point supported yours, though I thought the potential to simplification lie on both sides of this conversation, but mostly because we're having it in the first place. This is why I pointed out the difference between taking a stand in this moment and taking a stand from the place of some theory. The fact is, this moment is not a moment in which we are deciding on the things we're talking about, so any decisions or stands we take here are ultimately and necessarily revisable in the face of new conditions. I want to go further and even say this is how we should read the Buddha's very pronouncements on killing.

I hope Ajahn Punnandhammo can help me with this, because I cannot find the Buddha flat-out saying "do not kill" or "never kill."

If we just look at the five precepts, we do not find the Buddha commanding us to never kill. We find ourselves pledging to refrain or abstain from killing, which I see as a very different. Making that kind of commitment does not absolutely bar or uphold any sort of action. It just is us saying, "I'm not in a position to make a wholesome decision about doing such things, so I'm going to refrain from it." As far as I see it, being an unenlightened being, that's a good way to go, but it isn't a rule, something we follow because its true.

Of course, saying all of this is not a matter of giving us a license to do whatever we want, but I'm also not commenting on one of those moments in the first place. Like I said, this moment is not one where we are making the decision to take a life or not, but it is a moment where are making a decision on how to take the Buddha's pronouncements on killing. The difference being "do" and "do not" are only applicable to the moment where we're making one of these kinds of decisions, but not from the perspective of the Buddha's words themselves or our discussion of them. Again, this is the difference between taking a stand in the moment and from a theory.

So, angulimalo, I think in the end I'm actually with you when you say the complexity of a situation must be considered. Where I may seem like I was taking issue with you was really taking issue with how dhamma81 took you. Of course, appealing to complexity gives us wiggle-room to make unwholesome decisions, it is also the only way we can choose not to make unwholesome decisions, which is the freedom the Buddha offers us. I guess, if I were you, I wouldn't have made it an appeal to "complexity" so much as to the moment.

If those who still say "do not kill" are to have a point, it is simply that we can't be sure out of hand what to do, so we should refrain, but I take issue with when people cling to it and assert it as unwholesomely as "do kill."

Dhamma81 said...


I respect your opinion but do not agree with you. I think I trust Ajahn Thanissaro and the Buddha in that killing is never skillful. I don't see following the precepts as literally and strictly as possible as being an unwholesome form of clinging. The buddha made it clear that killing, stealing, illict sex, lying and intoxicants were never skillful. Ajahn Thanissaro's essay "Getting the Message" points this out well. With that said I wish you well in your practice.

E said...

"an act of destruction of life must involve a mind of hate"
An example
Our neighbors had a dog that had developed several bad habits. Rather than putting it in a shelter and having it killed, they asked my partner to shoot it.

The dog died instantly at home, with its nose in the food bowl. It never realized what was about to happen.
Would it have been more compassionate to put it though the stressful situation of leaving home, being caged and finally dying at the hands of a stranger?

There was no hate involved, rather people taking responsibility for a situation that hadn't worked out.

Joe said...

I don't know, Dhamma81. My issue is with saying that the Buddha would put a principle before all else. From the bit that Robert Stone quotes of Ajahn Geoffrey's essay, and then going to look at where in the essay it occurs, I see no reason to believe that the Buddha intended what Ajahn Geoffrey argues. It's the difference between "never" doing something and "abstaining" from it that I think is important to note, that clinging to the precepts is, in the end, a fetter.

Of course, this does not change the fact that we should abstain from killing. The difference is, as it were, on our side and not the side of the precept. I understand how useful the precepts are, but I don't think the Buddha teaches us to put them or anything else on unquestionable ground. That said, when we take up the precepts, it is important to be clear why we do this: not because there is something intrinsic to them, but because of their usefulness. Their usefulness is all they offer to us otherwise unenlightened beings.

Zack said...

I believe that it should be neither acceptable nor unacceptable. It's not up to anyone to decide when someone should die, but it's not up to anyone to punish someone who does choose to end another's life. Certainly, something must be said about it, but 'punishment' is not the right way to go. Either way, though, I suppose there's no easy answer for such events.

Chris Bogart said...

I wonder what it's like to be a kid with all those handicaps. Do you come to terms the helplessness and pain on some level, especially if it's all you've ever known? Does mental retardation interfere (or help?) with "coming to terms"? I can't believe the pettiness of the things I whine about sometimes.

Feral said...

For Angulimalo's take on "compassionate" Buddhism, go here: Be sure to read through.