Karma, Rebirth, and the Problem of Evil: A Reply to Critics
1 October 2007
Philosophy East & West
Volume 57; Issue 4; ISSN: 00318221
© 2007 Philosophy East & West. Provided by ProQuest Information and Learning. All Rights Reserved.
My goal in "Karma, Rebirth, and the Problem of Evil" was to stimulate discussion about karma and rebirth as a solution to the problem of innocent suffering in the world. As such, I welcome the chance to hear from critics such as Chadha and Trakakis and am happy to attempt a response.1 In their critique, they attempt to portray me as ignorant of the many precise subtleties and refinements of the karmic philosophy, and thus incapable of judging it. However, as I stated in my original article, my purpose is not to present a historically based synthesis of the karma-rebirth doctrine, but rather to attempt, using the most charitable interpretation possible and not being rigidly bound to doctrinal traditions or texts, an active reconstruction of the best case for a systematic theodicy based on karma, in order to see whether it can successfully explain the origin of evil.
But I would also suggest that there is often a certain advantage in having a detached perspective on a subject, since one who is too closely involved in the subject matter may fail to attain objectivity about it, and be prone to dogmatic acceptance of doctrines even when they defy common sense. But let the reader decide: I will briefly present my reactions to their criticism of my six principal objections to karma and rebirth.
The Memory Problem
It is, I argued, a basic principle of justice that one should in general be apprised of what one is being punished for and why; indeed, this knowledge would seem essential to the process of moral education. But the karmic system does not provide us this knowledge. The critics' responses are disappointing.
First, they distort the objection into an "unreasonable demand for precise correlations between bad acts in the past and consequent sufferings in the future." In fact, the problem is not merely the lack of precise correlations, but of any correlation at all. I am unaware of a single verified historical example of anyone having a memory of one's deeds in a past life presented as explanation for present suffering. Anyway, why is demand for a precise correlation unreasonable? Isn't that exactly what we demand when parents punish children, or when society punishes criminals?
Their second reply is simply the dogmatic insistence that one should simply have faith: karma tells us that our present sufferings are correlated with past deeds, and that's the end of the discussion. It should suffice that one knows one is being punished for an unspecified wrong committed at an unspecified past time and place, because that is what karma says. This, of course, is simply to ignore the objection and to refuse to countenance the possibility that karma might not be an ideal explanation of human suffering.
The Proportionality Problem
The widely-accepted proportionality principle holds that the punishment should be proportional to the crime. But it seems implausible that people have committed such horrendous crimes in past lives to deserve the kinds of horrible suffering that is all too common in human life. Thus, karma seems to violate the proportionality principle.
In response, first, they try to evade the question by a misdirection, quibbling about theism versus an impersonal cosmic mechanism. But justice requires proportionality no matter whether there is a personal God or an impersonal mechanism behind human suffering.
Next, they acknowledge the Proportionality rule, but insist that it follows that it is in fact satisfied by karma. People who suffer terribly really must have been horribly sadistic, brutal, and Nazi-like in past lives. But this is just my point: such a claim is highly dubious. Even a superficial knowledge of history and of human nature makes it simply implausible that so many people could have been so evil.2 Again, it seems a case where an a priori conviction that karma is true can lead one into a distorted conception of reality.
The Infinite Regress Problem
There is no doubt that belief in radical free will would manage to avoid a regress in explaining the origin of evil. However, this is no better an explanation of evil than that of Christianity and the doctrine of the Fall. Thus, the concerns raised about the Fall doctrine apply equally to karma. John Hick, for instance, has questioned the coherence of the idea of humans creating evil ex nihilo. Recall, my goal is not to show that karma is any worse an explanation than Christianity, but only that it is not demonstrably better.
The Death Problem
The critics simply assert that, according to the karma doctrine, death is not an evil, so therefore "we do not need to account for it." I leave it to the reader to decide if this is a satisfying explanation of why living beings have to die, and why death is so often difficult and painful. There is, by the way, another problem raised here: if death is unequivocally not an evil, then why should killing be considered a moral wrong? The Hindu scholar Franklin Edgerton points out a disturbing oddity of the Gita: it is forced to downplay the moral ideal of ahimsa or nonviolence in order to justify killing in war.3
A related claim made by the critics is that I have failed to "appreciate" the Hindu/Buddhist view that life is nothing but "suffering and misery." But I submit that to any reasonable person this claim is patently false. As anyone can attest, life is not merely suffering and pain, but full of happiness and pleasure as well (are they denying that pleasure and joy even exist?). A successful theodicy must account for the world as it is, and not paint a distorted picture of the world in order to make it fit the theory.
The Free Will Problem
The problem here is simple: is one free to perform genuine evil, that is, to harm the innocent, producing undeserved suffering? If one is, then there really is undeserved suffering in the world, in contradiction to the claims of karma philosophy. If one is not, then that would seem to be a severe restriction on free will, indeed a denial of the possibility of any sin at all. The critics attempt to respond with a dubious argument about who has the proper role and responsibility to dole out suffering. They seem to endorse the view that the worst possible sin that one can commit is to improperly take upon oneself the role of administering a justified punishment for a wrongdoer, rather than leaving it to karma to administer. If so, this is a very strange view. It entails that what was wrong about the 9/11 attack-or any crime-was not that innocent people were killed (everyone who died, those in the buildings and in the planes, deserved, according to karma, exactly what they got) but that the wrong people did the dirty work. The only thing wrong about what Al Qaeda did, it follows, was that it was "not [their] role to carry out the punishment." Indeed, they claim that harm is supposed to be administered not by wrongdoers but by an "impersonal process." But what exactly does this mean? That the destruction of the planes and the buildings on 9/11 was supposed to have been accomplished by a lightning strike or some other natural force? Were the six million Jews in Nazi Germany supposed to have been gassed to death by some impersonal, natural process, rather than by the Nazis?
Moreover, this is an oddly constricted view of free will, in which we are prevented from ever harming innocent people and yet not prevented from inappropriately providing justified punishment to guilty people. It also would appear to contradict the stronger claim about free will that they endorse elsewhere in the article. The dilemma stands.
The Verifiability Problem
As I said in my original article, religion ought not to be held to the same level of verifiability as claims of science. Nonetheless, religious claims that are wholly and completely unverifiable in this life, and yet which have serious practical consequences for this life, can be subject to dangerous abuse. Prime evidence of this is the use of karma to justify the oppressive caste system in India. Reportedly, the untouchables in India originally resisted Mother Theresa's attempts to improve their plight, as these might interfere with their karmic progress.
The critics' response is to insist that karma is indeed verifiable and falsifiable, but only after death-not very helpful to us here and now! It is also, they claim, verifiable in principle, since it is logically possible in that any one of us might suddenly be "miraculously transported to a higher level of consciousness" where we see karma verified. True enough, but of course also entirely unhelpful. Moreover, by that standard any theory, no matter of what kind, would be verifiable, making the very idea of verifiability meaningless. Finally, as to the question of predictive power of the theory, their analogy with the relation between smoking and lung cancer is quite ill chosen. The causal connection between the two was merely a hypothesis until it was in fact verified by epidemiological studies. I am unaware, however, of any such similar studies testing the predictive power of karma. Once again, what these critics are saying is simply that, if the karma doctrine claims to have predictive power, that's all the evidence they need. There is, of course, not a single verified example in recorded history of a successful prediction being made on the basis of karmic causation.
Let me summarize my main concern about the karma/rebirth system this way. The great attraction of the karma system is its reassurance that we are completely in control of our own fate, that whatever happens to us is a predictable consequence of our own choices. While it means we are prisoners of our past, it also means that the future is entirely within our control. No doubt, this feature of karma is a source of its great appeal. But this promise comes at a great price. It entails that there is no such thing as innocent suffering, that everyone gets just what he deserves. But then there can be no moral obligation to help others in distress, to protect, to rescue, perform acts of charity, or even to feel compassion for a sufferer. Most other theodicies begin with the acceptance that there is such a thing as innocent suffering, that as humans we do not have godlike control of our destiny, but are fragile, vulnerable beings, often in need of help from others. The implication is a deep moral obligation to help those in need, to feel compassion and pity for those in pain. In contrast, karma elevates the "blame the victim" idea into a systematic principle. The question at stake is which account is more plausible, the idea that everyone is getting just what he deserves, and so we should not interfere with the cosmic punitive scheme, or the idea that there is genuine, undeserved suffering in the world, and that it is thus our duty to help reduce the misery and pain in the world?
Copyright University Press of Hawaii Oct 2007 | Notes | 1 - Let me, however, express a wish that the debate not descend into petty meanspiritedness. These critics correctly point out an error in the original article: at one point within a parenthetical remark I had inadvertently placed the terms "moral evil" and "natural evil" in the wrong order. They declare this an "inexcusable blunder." I hope that the karmic system, if it exists, is not so unforgiving! My apologies for the error. | 2 - Or that particular groups are so much worse than others: were all the Africans who were enslaved really so evil in past lives that they deserved enslavement more than other races? Were the Jews in Nazi Germany so much worse in past lives than everyone else? | 3 - Franklin Edgerton, The Bhagavad Gita (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1972), p. 185. | Whitley Kaufman | Department of Philosophy, University of Massachusetts, Lowell