Note: I try to keep my philosophical musings to a more theoretical/universal level so they don’t fall into the trap of anecdotal irrelevance. However, on this particular topic, my recent experience is too fitting to ignore. Considering the voyeuristic nature of our culture, this is probably the type of thing that I should be writing about regularly if I want more readers.
Oh, karma (karma karma karma karma chameleon).
In my experience, even for people who claim to be agnostic or spiritually skeptical, the idea of karma still holds weight. They will not subscribe to the larger Buddhist philosophy behind the concept, but they’ll freely ascribe events to the rules of moral cause and effect. The idea, stripped of all of its broader implications, can be simplified to this: If you do bad things, bad things will happen back to you (the less often mentioned corollary is that if you do good things, good things will happen to you).
“Karma” is the lazy shorthand for the juvenile but persistent belief that there is universal justice, and even the most hard-nosed rationalists among us (myself included) indulges in the fantasy when we are faced with an unpunished injustice, whether personal or global.
There are two frequent times when I hear people bring up karma. The first is when straight arrows explain that they don’t ever break the rules because they just know the moment they go rogue, the universe will punish them. The second is when friends are trying to comfort a mistreated friend by claiming that the universe will rectify the situation.
The first situation is the kind of self-fulfilling prophecy that offers apparent support for the concept. In my experience, ‘good’ people (to be simplistic about it), are pretty lousy at being ‘bad’. Either their guilty consciences cause them to give themselves away, or their relative inexperience at acting outside the bounds of their normal moral code leads them to screw it up. It’s a classic case of misattributing the cause of the effect. They aren’t being punished for doing bad, they just suck at it. People who are routinely bad are better at it, thus they don’t get punished as much. We know this is true because if ‘bad’ people were consistently punished for their deeds, there wouldn’t be any.
The second situation gets more traction in the popular imagination. We all would like to think that people who hurt us will get their just desserts. Unfortunately, it just isn’t the case. Think about everyone’s favorite example of evil: Hitler. The man who committed the most atrocities of the past century certainly should have been on the receiving end of the mother of all Karmic Retribution. So, what happened to him? He died. By his own hand.
That’s hardly a punishment. We all die. If death is karma at work, then I guess we all lose. (For the purposes of this post, I’m ignoring those people who believe in hell.)
But Hitler is too evil to grasp. A topic of this level needs street level malfeasance. We need personal wrongs.
Let me introduce someone:
My ex is a woman who cheated on a succession of boyfriends with multiple men over the period of years, I being one of the boyfriends. Having opened up my unusual life (and my 10 Cities project) to her, I thought I would be the corrupting force in her life. Certainly, her parents treated me as if that were the case. How naive I was.
In the karmic version of the universe, her actions would warrant retribution. It’s not that her misdeeds are so much more severe than others, or that infidelity is the unforgivable sin (though it is deeply traumatic in its violent abuse of trust). My interest is in the pattern she has established. Quixotically convincing herself of her pure-heart, she acknowledges the hurt she causes while justifying it for the sake of love. It took a dramatic showdown between the two us for her to even grasp, slightly, how much harm her actions produced.
Cheating once is a horrible mistake. Repeated infidelities represents a character trait.
The Karma Police claim that she (and her ilk) will reap what they sow. Certainly in some cases, this is true. But in plenty of other examples (and this one in particular), it is not so. Her actions have led her from one man to the next, each one (including myself) willing to overlook the obvious warning signs, blinded by the overwhelming devotion she pours onto them. She does not suffer for her actions. She finds herself in the welcoming arms of another man, and if anyone will be punished, it is likely to be him.
Now it is possible that Justin Timberlake got it right and what goes around truly does come around, but all evidence suggests that there is no pattern to the splatter paint distribution of good and bad in our universe. There is no cosmic force putting things right that once went wrong (and hoping each time that his next leap will be the leap home).
It is true that her character flaw may lead her to wreck yet another relationship, but if the pattern holds there will be yet another man in the wings (the benefit of cheating, there always is), her every loss countered by a gain. This is the balance of the intrinsically corrupt: The resulting backlash from their selfishness is offset by their gain, and at worse they break even.
Reality doesn’t support the belief in karma. There are undoubtedly counterexamples from your life of wrongdoers who felt the sting for their actions. But if karma is a capital ‘T’ truth (and as a religious doctrine, that is its claim), then even one exception disproves it. The anecdotal histories are littered with bad people getting their comeuppance, but to truly unravel a universal concept, one must open the floodgates to the universe of examples, not just the ones that support your view.
The appeal of karma is obvious. It’s the same as the belief in God, or in heaven and hell. It provides us an ordered version of the universe where decency is rewarded and sins are punished. In reality, the universe is random and if there is any sort of pattern, it’s that “Hurt people hurt people.” Unfortunately, the abused person rarely gets the opportunity to punish the abuser. They lash out at someone else, and that innocent person (at least in this particular matter) is punished for another person’s wrong.
Religious belief (whether it be formalized and organized, or the new agey pick-and-choose type) persuades people that the universe is ordered and logical, and ultimately fair. But when life reveals that this isn’t true, moral foundations rot.
(That ex of mine? She is a Christian. Devoid of any deep theological understanding of the religion, but still nominally so. What does she take from that religion? Comfort from Jesus in her dark hours, but no reason to treat others with respect unless it benefits her.)
Morality based on unseen forces will always prove less resilient than morality based on justifiable respect for human (animal, global) value.
I’m not claiming all atheists have this. Atheism isn’t a moral system. Personally, my moral foundation hasn’t changed much since I was a WWJD-bracelet wearing Christian. I’ve hurt people, of course I have, and I will continue to do so. I am not blameless: I was one of the men my ex cheated with when she was with her previous boyfriend. (I guess Karma got me.)
As with everything I write, there is an ideal and a reality, the latter never living up to the former. I want to be a better person than I so often am, as most of us do. My motivation for improvement, though, isn’t fear-based. My unpunished wrongs don’t teach me, “No one’s watching, it’s a free-for-all!” My desire is always to be a better person, even if my rough edges and crude language sometimes portrays me as a moral relativist.*
My morality is simple: Do the best you can for the most people, regardless of artificial boundaries (class, race, state, country, etc.) It’s the Golden Rule for the Global Age.
For every example of Karmic Payback, there is an example of shitty people getting away scott-free with being shit. I have to accept that the universe may never punish my ex** (and in fact, it likely will reward her duplicitous nature with more willing bedfellows), just as you have to accept that the asshole in your life will likely slide in the cosmic court. If revenge is your bag, I’m not totally opposed to it (I’ve indulged), but it’s the slipperiest of slopes and unless you’re completely in control, you’re playing a dangerous game.
For better or worse, no one is watching your back. The true test of your character is how you act once you accept that.
*Here is where the religious trolls come out and say, “Better is a term of relations. Better than what? If you don’t believe in a central moral truth given by God, then everything must be relative and you can’t have any morality.” There have been a myriad of books written on the biological view of ethics (for instance, this one), and I don’t feel the need to go into it in this post.
**This is not to say that she hasn’t had her fair share of hurt and pain in her life. This speaks to the ‘Hurt people hurt people’ point.