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Buddhism for Space Colonists

(Spoilers for Time to Orbit: Unknown.)

In Chapter 24 of Time to Orbit: Unknown, there's a discussion between the protagonist (the impromptu captain Dr. Aspen Greaves) and his crew doctor, a Public Universal Friend. The captain has just ejected a crew ring with about nine hundred people in cryostasis in order to save Denish, their engineer:

“Do you want to be the captain? Do you want to make the decision next time? We can go to a computer right now and see if there’s a way to promote – ”

“Ideally, there won’t be a next time. And you know that would be highly inappropriate.”

“Oh, would it? Because you’re a Friend? Well, if the propriety of Public Friendship is more important to you than relying on someone who makes such bad leadership decisions, then I guess you’re saying you’d sacrifice those lives for propriety. And you’re telling me that Denish is worth less than that, huh?”

“It’s just that as the person responsible for making such decisions, you have a responsibility to – ”

“Be someone you can sit back and judge, safe in the knowledge that you don’t have to do such things? I know, you have a really stressful job, and you’ll probably have to make a lot of really hard decisions that I won’t even notice. But there’s not much in the way of dilemmas in your line of work, is there? Just accurate judgements, or mistakes. You can be incorrect, anyone is fallible, but not much room to need to make moral decisions.”

This reminds me of an essay from Buddhism for Vampires:

Many Tantric Buddhists take a vow to kill people when necessary. This vow is explicitly incompatible with the Precept against killing. If it means going to hell… so be it. If it means being seen as a monster… so be it.

So when is killing “necessary”? The vow does not say. Some traditions may give specific guidelines, but ultimately what matters is compassion: the intention to prevent a greater harm.

This means that what Tantrikas vow, really, is not to wriggle out of hard ethical decisions. It is the vow to be an “ethically normal person,” rather than hiding behind religion. The Precept of never killing is the easy way out. It lets you wash your hands in a crisis and say “I am a Buddhist—so someone else is going to have to deal with the political extremist shooting up the school with a submachine gun. I am too morally pure to take his life.” That is cowardly and unhelpful.

The Friend's situation is different; they don't reject killing. They reject condemning nine hundred to save one. Instead, their escape hatch is impropriety. I can't be a leader, it is improper—so someone else is going to have to decide whether to sacrifice Denish or the cryostasis ring.