In this paper, we will describe the ethical dilemma between concentric line and grid circle thinking, in what I believe the Japanese warrior tradition, bushido, terms as the dilemma between “giri” and “ninjo”, or loosely translated, duty and compassion.
Let us first begin by describing examples of these ethical dilemmas. Let us say that you are a samurai, a Japanese warrior, sworn to give your life for your liege lord, and whose commands you are sworn to obey. Thus, when your liege lord orders you to kill someone who has transgressed on his territory and, for example, injured one of his retainers. You might think that murder is immoral, but in this case, your duty to your liege lord is the primary concern, and you would go out and kill the person he has commanded you to. Thus, a fairly simple case that does not require much moral deliberation, or even any moral deliberation at all for you to arrive at the right answer. Duty comes first, in this case.
Now let us examine the other side of the coin, a situation where compassion obviously comes first. You are making all haste towards the border in a cart, where your liege lord has asked you to meet visitors and escort them to his castle. As you are traveling, you happen across a peasant by the side of the road, dying and helpless, having been knocked down by someone else’s cart. Stopping to help him might make you late for your rendezvous with your liege lord’s visitors, but in this case, with compassion for your fellow human being the paramount concern, you would stop to help him, even if it meant incurring your lord’s ire because you were late to meet his visitors, an insult in Japanese society at the time. This is yet another fairly simple case that requires little to almost no moral deliberation for you to arrive at the right answer.
So after examining two fairly easy cases, let us examine the flip side of that coin, and think of hard cases where giri and ninjo clash, with no obvious easy answer. The first example we can think of is you, as a samurai, have certain class obligations, both to your warrior status and to your feudal lord. Yet, you have the bad taste to fall in love with a girl who is not only a peasant, but also belongs to an enemy clan. Now you are torn between both sides of the coin. Do you renounce your warrior status and your sworn oath to your feudal lord for your love, or do you give up your love for the girl and continue to serve the lord that you swore your oath to? Duty versus compassion, with no self-evident resolution.
Another example of a not so easily resolved clash between these two principles of giri and ninjo would be a samurai who considers the master whom he has sworn his oath to do be dishonorable. For example, your master could send you out to a village to force the disobedient villagers to pay their taxes. However, upon reaching the village, you discover that the villagers are extremely poor, and the taxes imposed on them ruinous. They have not a single cent to their name, and to force them to pay this next round of taxes would drive them all to starvation and death. Even worse, you discover that they have informed your master of their plight, and not only has he ignored their pleas for help, but has even gone to the extent of sending you to extort from them what they cannot give, by using military force. What do you do now? Do you obey your sworn duty to your master and extort the taxes out of the people, or do you disobey your duty and side with your feelings for the humanity of the people? Yet another ethical dilemma between duty and compassion.
To understand why these dilemmas even arise, we must examine the Japanese culture itself. The Japanese culture has always placed an utmost importance on the fulfillment of duty, of social obligation, and the Japanese samurai brought this to fanatical levels. They would choose to die rather then to be found disloyal or in dereliction of duty,...