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Logical and Spiritual REFLECTIONS

Book 5. Zen Judaism

Chapter 13. Actions and reactions

The consequences of actions

The concept of karma

The consequences of actions. All human actions have some sort of consequence; that is evident and not open to debate. However, discussions arise as to whether our actions always, necessarily have just consequences (for good or bad, as the case may be), or whether they may have unjust or non-just consequences (i.e. more or less than exactly what is deserved).

According to the “karma” theory of Buddhism (and indeed Hinduism), justice is ensured quite naturally. Actions automatically cause eventual symmetrical reactions, although the agent of the action (i.e. the doer of the deed) may have to reincarnate after death to receive the whiplash (i.e. for the “law of karma” to hold). But Buddhism has not clearly described this reincarnation process, nor provided convincing empirical evidence for it (some sort of demonstration of continuity between purported incarnations). Note that ultimately there is no mercy built into this conception, except perhaps for the mercy that individual humans[1] might choose to exercise.

In Judaism (and similar religions), justice is conditionally ensured by Divine intervention. God sees the misdeed and reacts to it as He wills, in strict justice or with mercy. This conception could either mean that God always takes complete charge of the connection (so that without Him human actions would have no necessary consequences), or more probably that He has instituted a natural action-reaction justice process that He may on occasion override with mercy. Here, then, the reactions to our actions are not (or not entirely) preprogrammed, but depend on ad hoc decision by God case by case. Obviously, such decisions involve some degree of willful choice by Him, else they would never mercifully derogate from justice.

In Judaism, as in Buddhism, the ethical account may be settled within the present life – or it may have to be dealt with in an afterlife. For it seems evident empirically that not all accounts are settled in the present life, else we would not have the impression that some evil people sometimes get away with evil and even enjoy more than they deserve and that some good people suffer unjustly or remain unrewarded for their good deeds. Both lines of thought, therefore, tend to agree on the existence of a ‘heaven’ and a ‘hell’ of some sort after the current life. These might be distinct places, or they might merely characterize specific conditions of rebirth within this same world.

Thirdly, of course, there is the philosophy of Naturalism, based on realistic assessment of empirically evident phenomena without assuming anything beyond them (i.e. a vague and unproved reincarnation, let alone Divine intervention). This hypothesis considers that good or bad deeds do sometimes impact on the universe and are absorbed by it, without respectively benefiting or harming their doer. This view is also logically credible, although least satisfying to our native sense of right and wrong. It is (I presume) the view held by most people in the West today.

I cannot pretend to logically prescribe one of these views to the exclusion of the others. They are all theories, all to some extent based on facts and all involving proposals that inductively go beyond these facts. Who can say for sure which one is objectively correct? I can however, echoing Pascal’s Wager, say that people who ignore the Judaic or Buddhist warning of eventual retribution if we do not do right and avoid wrong may conceivably eventually find themselves in dire straits. Comparatively, nothing much is risked by not opting for the Naturalistic thesis – the only ‘loss’ is not being able to do whatever one likes or not-do whatever one dislikes, i.e. a more limited range of possible action.

Based on this reasoning, it would seem wise to act as if justice exists (i.e. even though one cannot definitely prove it), and do good and avoid doing evil. Moreover, it would seem wise to hope and pray for God’s mercy (again, even if there are no guarantees one will get it). One might otherwise, to repeat, eventually have some unpleasant surprises.

The concept of karma. The Buddhist (and likewise Hindu) concept of karma is inconsistent and imperfect in various respects.

For a start, it presupposes a world that has existed eternally, so that every event in one’s life has a karmic precedent in previous lives in infinite regression. But this is contrary to modern ideas in astronomy and biology, according to which the material world has an undifferentiated beginning (quarks or earlier) and life has a start (on earth at least, some four billion years ago). The Buddhists may of course reply that such apparent beginning is a mere continuation of existences in previous material worlds or of previous purely spiritual existence(s).

Actions do indeed have consequences, but these are perhaps not always very ‘just’ (in all appearance). The hypothesis that actions always ultimately have just consequences involves an act of faith. It is an attempt to make the world more ‘reasonable’, an attempt that sometimes only produces painful disappointments and disillusions. We have to be honest and ready to accept that Nature is apparently sometimes just but not always so. This unpleasant observation might be mitigated through a karmic (or monotheistic) theory, but at the empirical level it is indubitable and best kept in mind.

Next, consider that logically there has to be a first crime (an aggression, or whatever), and an innocent victim of that first crime. For if we believe in free will, the crime is a gratuitous, ex nihilo, choice, and its victim is innocent. If we claim that the victim is on the receiving end because he (or she) did the same or a similar crime before (in this or in a previous lifetime) – we are effectively saying that he is not innocent, but deserves the victimization this time round. We should then congratulate the criminal, for committing an act of justice, punishing an evil person, closing the karmic circle (inevitably, according to the karmic premise). Thus, the karmic theory turns a victim into a criminal and the real criminal into an enforcer of justice!

Moreover, the real criminal cannot then be deserving of bad karma later on for his action (since it was de facto a ‘just’ act), whether he chose his action freely or was deterministically pushed to do it (by the force of universal karmic law). He is largely exculpated. At most, he could be faulted for his inappropriate motive. In that case, the infinite cycle of karma is interrupted; i.e. there is no reason to expect him to be in turn a victim later on. This is the inherent inconsistency in the eternal karma viewpoint – it logically eliminates itself. The concepts of victim/criminal are only relevant in a freewill-doctrine context. The concepts are stolen in other contexts.

In my view, there are truly innocent victims of crime, first-time events of crime, and criminals truly guilty of crime. To explain away crime by karmic/deterministic views is to effectively accuse without any evidence (i.e. ‘on principle’) the victim of being an ex-criminal (and so deprive him of his dignity as a victim) and to praise the criminal for effectively doing justice. The proposed explanation produces confusion: it reverses the roles of the protagonists. It is an ideological viewpoint and a patently unfair one.

We may suppose that the karma theory was introduced as an explanation, to console people shocked by the injustice of physical aggressions, and other such events in the world. It obviously has some ‘grain of truth’ in it: there is indeed some ‘karma’, in the sense that some human actions apparently have consequences that are satisfyingly just (for good or bad) in our eyes. The problem is that not all human acts manifestly have such appropriate consequences; some seemingly have inappropriate consequences, either neutral or contrary to ethical expectations/demands. Thus, the theory cannot be inductively proved by generalization, only at best by adduction.

We may also object to the universality of karmic explanation by pointing out that not all suffering is due to victimization by someone else. This means that we cannot lay the blame on a similar crime by the sufferer, as it suggests. I am referring here to accidents and natural disasters (e.g. earthquakes, epidemics, famine and the like). Since in such cases there is (usually) no human action at root and indeed (again, usually) no human action could have prevented them, we cannot establish a causal connection and claim the untoward event happened because the victim deserved it (and even less that the victim can be inferred to have deserved it because the event happened!)

Karmic theory would have to claim equivalencies, i.e. work out some sort of conversion or exchange rates, between certain human acts and various accidents and natural disasters. Such intractable theoretical complications mean that karmic theory lacks technical precision (that is, it is not sufficiently fleshed-out, as required by epistemology) and is very hard to substantiate. Furthermore, we should not only look at bad natural events, but also at good ones – and how would we establish that someone Nature has well taken care of deserved it?

[1] Or their more enlightened counterparts, i.e. Buddhas, bodhisattvas or devas (“gods”).

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